A Ukulele Opera.
Artini the woodcutter and Tess, the Aboriginal girl.
The tragedy that happened with Artini was in disobeying the request of the young Tess, distressed at the wanton cutting down of so many trees, to leave his mighty axe on the other side and cross the river by himself..but he decided he would need the axe to cut and build a humpy for himself after he crossed..so he secretly strapped it to his back under his coat so as not to offend her and he would reveal it once across when it would be too late for Tess to protest..I first heard his name when my sister, who visited one summer, translated some letters between my father and his relatives back in the Dolomites village where both he and the young man came from. He told of the tragedy of how Artini drowned in the Murray River whilst crossing a ford on instruction of Tess, his accomplice, who whilst on curfew and not permitted to be across that side of the river after dusk, was to help him cross via a secret ford there.
The plan was for Tess to “sing” a song of a cockatoo to direct Artini to a secret ford in the river, unfortunately, on that very night of his crossing, the sluice-gates of Lock 1 just up-river at Blanchetown were opened and a surge of water came down the river to catch him whilst in the middle of the ford..He was swept away as he cried that it was his axe, his mighty axe dragging him down and he could not swim…Tess cried for him to throw the axe away, but it was tied too tight and he could not get it off…and he consequently drowned that night in the river..His body was later found and it was recorded as “death by drowning..an unfortunate accident “…But my father’s letters tell a different story.
But here is the mythological songline that has grown around the story..It goes like this :
Joe, the narrator tells the yarn..
“ Artini was the biggest, best, strongest Italian woodcutter in the Swan Reach district during the war years..The ‘ring’ of his mighty axe could be heard miles away through the mallee! His axe was of the hardest steel special made from his own instructions by the blacksmith in the camp…the handle he cut and shaped himself from the hardest mallee wood..and it was so heavy, it could not be used by any of the other woodcutters in the camp. Artini was an “enemy alien” internee from the Italian Alps; The Dolomites, who used to cut wood for the charcoal burning camps in the mallee.
Artini could often be heard singing an alpine song “Ill tuo fazzolettino”(“Give me your bandana, my darling…”) in his dialect as he swung his mighty axe at the mallee trees ..His voice was so strong it would carry for a great distance through the tops of the mallee trees and it was heard by Tess one day as she fetched water from the river.
Tess was a young aboriginal woman who lived at the mission over the other side of the river near Swan Reach. She would also get some work at Portee Station just up the Murray a bit from the mission. The trees were a part of her life and of important significance to her people and every tree that Artini cut down was as a wound to her heart.
Artini was cutting wood a little way from the river, Gemano was his offsider, but Artini worked so fast and was so good that all Gemano had to do was to keep out of his way and play his ukulele as Artini swung his axe to the tunes…unfortunately, Gemano is still lamenting for his fiancé back home of whom he has yet to hear from because of the war.”
“Gemano!” Artini called “haven’t you a cheerful song with a faster beat..something I can really get stuck into?”
Gemano thought for a minute..then;
“What about Funiculi Funicula?”
“Anything rather than your sad laments…I have work to do..”
Gemano plays a lively version of the song on the ukulele and Artini makes words up as he works along with the rhythm.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XW0W7j04iRQ
“Working, working all the live-long day!,
Working, working, for as long as they make me stay!
In the spring, in the Summer, every blasted day…
Cutting wood, burning wood till Foxxy gets his pay!. . . “
“Rabbit, rabbit..it’s all they got for chow!
Rabbit, rabbit and potatoes stewed so slow…
No garlic,no onions, or polenta, and NO pasto..
Underground mutton is the only food they know.”
Tess creeps up from the river to hide behind a tree and watches and listens to the two Italians at their work. Gemano spots her from his laying against a log. He stops playing..
“Oh..hello….we have an audience”
Artini stops cutting and looks up..He sees Tess and calls to her..
“Hey there..are you one of the river people?”…Tess hesitates to reply, then she gingerly speaks…
“Why do you sing as you cut the trees?”
“I like to sing and it helps me to keep a rhythm as I work”. Artini replies.
“But you are killing the tree.” Tess says, “It can’t be nice for the tree.”
Artini makes a pout and a surprised twist of his face as he considers this different perspective..then he says ;
“Well..I’m afraid out here, I am a prisoner and I am also dying..but slowly, and there is no escaping my situation..so it is either the tree or me…and there is no-one to sing for me.”..he thinks for a moment..”unless YOU want to sing a song for me?” and he smiles to Tess.
“I cannot sing your type of song…and anyway, you sing beautifully…can you sing another?”
Artini smiles again and his vanity is flattered..after all, he IS a good singer with a strong voice..He calls to Gemano..
“Gemano…play us the tune of O’ Sole Mio and I will show this lass how we Italians sing.” Artini leans his axe against the tree and takes off his neckerchief..Gemano sits up and concentrates as he plays the tune of “O Sole Mio” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEqeB2_25Yo
(again, Artini playfully makes up his own words)
“ O’ solo mio,
I am here alone,
In another country,
So far from my home.
Working for the bastardi,
And the rotten food they feed me,
Without love, without hope and without fazooli!
O’ solo mio,
Will I ever be free,
Will there be a lover,
Come and rescue me?
But these bastardi Englandi,
Say I must cut the mallee,
Without love, without hope and I say ; ma fungooli!”
Gemano finishes with a laugh and a flourish on his ukulele.
“Bravo! Artini…never have sweeter words been sung for that song!”
Artini bows to Gemano and then bows to Tess who curtsies in reply.
After this song, Artini says that he must go back to work, and Tess also has to cart water from the river..But before they part, Tess asks Artini..:
“Why are you one of those prisoners?”
“Ah, signorina..because of the war between yours and my countries..and I am considered an enemy.”
“We are not at war with anybody” Tess exclaims….Artini has to think on this for a moment then he laughs as he realises Tess was referring to her aboriginal people.
“Not your people..but the government of your country.”
“This is our country” Tess says as she sweeps her arm out “But those white fellas are not OUR government”…she finishes in anger.
“ Then you and your people are their prisoners also” Artini finishes “And they demand I work for my supper..as bad as it is..C’mon, Gemano play another tune..I have an hour’s work yet to do…Addio signorina!”
Joe the narrator continues..:
“Tess sets about to lure Artini with friendship and to help him to stop cutting the trees, throw away his mighty axe and escape the internment camp to cross the river and be free. Several times when she hears his songs through the trees, she goes to where he works and brings him small parcels of tasty food from the station kitchen…They become friends.
It is indeed a strange irony..that there, across the river near Swan Reach, the aborigines are held in an internment camp also…of course, it is not called “internment”, it is called a mission, although their movements are strictly monitored and there is an after dark curfew in place…so those people, like us Italians are seen as some sort of enemy of the government..and this same government sends soldiers over to Europe to fight what they call “the fascist enemy” and so we Italians. Having been branded by our nationality as potential enemies must be held as an example that the government will keep the citizens safe…yet what is the reason for imprisoning the aborigine people but to prove that the government is as much a fascist regime as those they fight in Europe?…To the fascisti, all who are not fascist are the enemy…but also to the English colonists, it would seem that all who are not English are the enemy…an irony, surely?…because this province..this “South Australia” was started as a corporate state..and is that not the fascist ideal? ”
The light fades from Joe to light up Tess and Artini sitting on a log..
“Would you like to escape the camp?” Tess asks.
“Is the Pope Catholic?” Artini replies..Tess looks at him questionly..’Ah ha!..of course..not your faith…to your question..yes..if there was such a possibility”…and he continues to eat his food.
“I could help you.” Tess says.
“You?…what..you can overpower the guards? You can drive a car to take me out of this…” Artini makes a sweeping gesture with his arm…. “God knows where we are!!”
“I could help you cross the river and then hide you till you can get away.”
“Why?…..Why would you help me?”
Tess is silent for a minute..she looks intently at Artini…she then answers..
“Because as you say…I too am a prisoner here…myself , my family and people are held captive by these white people…I cannot leave..I cannot escape..but if I can help you escape, then just for that little bit, a little piece of me too can escape with you..and wish you luck as you go..”
“Then why don’t you come with me?” Artini asked.
“Can you not see what is so insultingly obvious to so many in this country?…my skin colour…it is black!…YOU, with your fair skin and blue eyes can slip amongst the white fellah unnoticed…but how would you hide me?….No..I am a prisoner in more ways than just a locked gate.”…..Tess then sings a soft lament to Artini..:
“Would that my spirit take,
A long trod path from thy gate,
Would that my dreaming roam,
Far from the white man’s cruel domain.
Far from the gaze of his wanton eyes,
Into the heavens bright sunrise.
O’ could that my dreaming would let me roam,
Into the vast wilds of my traditional home…..
No..we are held in ransom here, but to see you escape their domination would comfort me…”
Tess tells him of a possible escape from the internment camp ..he could be hidden in a secret cave known only to the aborigines of the river, and from there he could make his way when safe to the city. Artini likes the idea, but he cannot swim to cross the river and the ferry is guarded, so Tess says she will “sing” him a song one night to guide him across a secret ford in the river known only to the aboriginal people there, but on one condition…; he must leave his mighty axe behind and cross without it..She told him of the spot on the river bank where he should await for her song to call him to cross safely.
His friends tried to dissuade Artini from following through with his reckless plan and pointed out the difficulty he would meet being in the companionship of a native woman..But the more they tried, the angrier he got and finally he said angrily to them ;
“So what if Tess is of another people..am not I , are not WE despised only for our blood, our nationality?…and if she is “native” of this land, am I not also “native”of my land?..And I am a son of the Dolomites ..I am a man of the mountains of Italy and I..Artini, while I am yet a man, will decide who I will join in with, where I will live..not the guards of this camp nor anyone else.”…and that was the last he would hear of it..he was decided..The young have passionate hearts.
Her “song “ she would disguise as a lyrical call of a cockatoo that live in the trees along the river…and he must wait until she makes that specific call, as there is sometimes a surge of water comes down the river from Lock-1 at Blanchetown and it is dangerous to cross when that is happening..But Artini, coming from another land is not that familiar with the song of the cockatoo and mistakes another real bird calling in the night… the call of the Bush Stone Curlew..a native bird of the area..a call that the indigenous peoples regard as a harbinger of death!( hear it here.. ; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qi1GX_VRaM0 )
It is getting close to Christmas and the camp was making ready for celebration..even if it be a most humble one…A native pine tree of suitable size was cut and placed in the camp shelter and decorations of tinsel made of the silver-foil from packets of cigarettes shimmered upon the branches. On the night of the planned escape, the other men gathered to sing and make distraction to the guards.
The conspiracy was going to plan..Artini had crept away from the makeshift woodcutters camp in the mallee..These camps were temporal things and so isolated that the guards saw no great need to be severe in their habits..indeed, the Italians, using the grapes from the Loveday area near Loxton made their own wine which they smuggled along with them whenever they were sent to the wood-cutting camps..On the night of Artini’s escape, Some other Italian men conspired to distract the guards with wine and song..they sang their songs to the accompaniment of home-made instruments…in this case the ukulele.
[ Insert here a version of “Little Drummer Boy” played on a ukelele with drum backing struck up quickly by Gemano for cover to distract the guards suddenly wanting to do a head-count while Artini escapes.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-ZfJrmuqa0 ]
Artini had agreed to Tess’s demand , but at the last moment secretly straps his mighty axe to his back under his coat as he thought he would need it to cut wood for shelter once he crossed the river. .. but when he sets out to cross the river…The river spirits , seeing his duplicity and intent send a torrent of water down and he is threatened to be swept off the ford..Tess, on hearing his cry, realizes he is weighed down by his mighty axe and tells him to throw it into the waters..but he cannot untie it from under his coat and so he is swept away.
[ In reality, the plan was for Tess to sing a song of a river bird to direct Artini to a secret ford in the river, unfortunately, on that very night of his crossing, the sluice-gates of Lock 1 just up-river at Blanchetown were opened and a surge of water came down the river to catch him whilst in the middle of the ford..He was swept away as he cried that it was his axe, his mighty axe dragging him down and he could not swim…and he consequently drowned that night in the river..His body was later found and it was recorded as “death by drowning..an unfortunate accident “…But my father’s letters tell a different story.]
Artini cries out in despair a last cry!…
”Tess..sweet Tess..sing a song in memory of me!”
Tess cries out his name in anguish…
“Artini!!..Artini!!” ….much like the anguished wail of the bush-stone curlew…
( The ukulele is heard to play a soft lament for Artini..) Il fiore di Teresina .. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8o8J5rBUiy4
Joe the Narrator continues..:
“We never did know if Artini and Tess had intention to join together as a couple of whether they were just partners in Artini’s mad dash to freedom..for we never saw Tess again and she never went back to work on the station where Rosaline also worked ….Whatever their design , one thing is certain..Artini did escape beyond the cares of this life’s burdens…”
And to this day, his cry of despair and her intermingled lament can still sometimes be heard as the call of the Bush Stone-Curlew blown in the wind through the mallee trees…”
(Song to be accompanied by a Ukulele )
Tess and the Woodsman.
I wake in the morning under spreading gum trees,
I wake to the murmur of the mighty Murray.
To the call of the cockeys in the leaves of the trees….
But the sweetest sound is my Tess of the Mallee.
Oh Tess..sweet Tess..sing a song for me,
Oh Tess of the mallee, how I love thee.
At the dawn of the day, on the evening breeze.
Far ‘cross the river, yet so close to me.
I am a woodcutter, an axe man by trade.
My song that I sing is sung with the blade
And did draw sweet Tess to my accolade,
Sweet Tess of the mallee is my pretty maid.
Across the river I hear her sweet voice,
She sings as the curlew to come and be close
But the river is wide and swim I cannot
With my mighty axe hidden under my coat.
Chorus…; ( Oh Tess, sweet Tess..etc.)
To swim I am not able but I must try
To reach my dear Tess on the far side
(Pause to change “person” and “talk” these last two lines )
But the stones they slip away from his feet
And the river takes him from her sweet embrace.
“My axe it drags me down” he cries,
“Cast it away my love!” Tess did advise.
But tight under his coat it was tied,
So too late to undo and there he did die.
Chorus : ( Oh Tess..etc )
The river it takes him and there he will lie,
So come to the river Tess to sing by its side
To sing him awake and sing him at night
Sing me dear Tess oh my mallee delight.
(only the next stanza ; slowly, softly)
Now in the dusk you can hear her sweet lullaby
As she sings to her woodsman the bush-curlew’s cry.
But in the early dawn she’ll sing him this song
And the ring of his axe follow in harmony along..
Oh Tess..sweet Tess..sing a song for me,
Oh Tess of the mallee, how I love thee.
At the dawn of the day, on the evening breeze.
Far ‘cross the river , yet so close to me.
Stage falls back into darkness…
( To be continued into act #3..)