WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following may contain images, story and voices of deceased, by and about persons. Discretion advised.
20 July 2021 // The Pigram Brothers
Alan Pigram, Steven Pigram, David Pigram, Colin Pigram, Gavin Pigram, Phillip Pigram and Peter Pigram are The Pigram Brothers - a seven-piece Indigenous Australian band from the pearling town of Broome, Western Australia.
The Pigram Brothers had a large music influence from an early age, and grew up in the rich musical culture of Broome.
There is no other music on the planet like the Pigram Brothers; seven brothers played music since they were young.
Stephen and Alan Pigram grew up with his family, helping his family catch and operate the fish in the courtyard of his grandmother’s family.
They come from a family of twelve, 3 girls and 9 boys. I found out later how famous and highly regarded they are for their originality and talent. Their work, Saltwater Country won a Deadly at the National Indigenous Music Awards in Sydney for ‘Best Debut Album’ in 1998. Last year, they picked up another Deadly with their hit song Moonlight. The boys were also involved in “Bran Nue Dae” and “Corrugation Road”, classic indigenous musical plays that toured nationally. A critic praised their music as ‘exceptional’, ‘original’ and ‘of the highest standard that enlightens and consumes audiences of all nationalities.’
But what fascinates me is the Filipino influence in their culture. As a child, Colin remembers having pork ‘adobo’, a Filipino dish that was served to them on special occasions. He remembers his uncle who played ukulele with strings made out of fishing lines. They grew up with ‘a whole mix of people’ in Broome — Malay, Japanese, Chinese and all this influence could have crept into their music. In the group, Colin, Stephen and David are the creative drive for lyrics and composition.
In our yarn, I mentioned that before Federation (1901), Australia was predominantly populated by Aboriginal, Asian and non-Anglo people, especially at the Top End. So, it is pertinent to ask in terms of a period in our history, ‘who really is Australian?’ (The brothers laughed.) I reported that in western Sydney, some second generation Filipino immigrants feel they don’t quite fit into either Australian or Filipino culture. The Pigram Brothers said: ‘We grew up in our grandmother’s country so we are all right. We don’t have an identity crisis.’ While growing up, they felt free wandering around in the bush, fishing and hunting. ‘Now Broome is like a suburb. Tourism is all right. It all depends what goes with it. It’s bursting at the seams,’ Stephen said. The Pigram Brothers sing ‘records of times written on times of change’ such as country, lifestyle, things that happen everyday. ‘We don’t have to say too much. We make people aware in more subtle ways,’ Colin said. He gave the example of My Land:
…Local fisherman gotta bagful, gotta big gang, plenty mouth to feed/ Man with the badge say hey you, you’re breaking the rules/ Don’t care what your rule is/ You know a thousand politicians couldn’t change my ways/ My law is the sea and pull of the sun and the moon/ My land by the water, my land by the waterside/ Jirr, milgin-ngurru  Feeding on the rising tide.
Indeed the lyrics indicate how from the sea-eagle bird’s eye view, land and nature could be approached. And the Pigram Brothers’ indigenous music teaches through the incorporation of tradition into the twenty-first century using some words from their Yawuru language.
And their multicultural legacy is also acknowledged from their recollection of their mother’s cooking of fish and rice: ‘the cheapest thing you can eat!’ so they have it served 2 to 3 times a week, cooked with garlic and lemon grass. Definitely Malay or broadly Asian influence, they said, and this memory appears in their song of nostalgia, Going Back Home:
…I feel like going back home/Right now while the mangoes are ripe/ Frangipani starting to bloom/And the bluebone starting to bite/ Hey mum I can just taste your fish soup and rice/I'm coming back home to you/Can't hack the pace of this city life/Sooner be dreaming in Broome…
(lyrics: Stephen Pigram)
What about the Filipino connection? They mentioned a few names. ‘Santiago’ on their mother side. Their great grandfather, who came to northeast Australia in the 1880s — ‘Thomas Puertollano’. I gasped, ‘Oh yes, I read about him. He was a pioneer, a natural leader who made an enormous contribution to the setting up of the Catholic missions at Disaster Bay and Lombadina. Historian, Regina Ganter wrote that Filipino Catholics were at the interface between missions and Kimberley Aborigines right from the outset.
They were heavily involved in Broome's musical and theatrical exports – forming the original backing band for Jimmy Chi's 1990 musical Bran Nue Dae, which received international acclaim.
Alan, Steven and Phillip were members of Scrap Metal from 1983 until its separation in 1995. In 1996, they formed a family band.
In 2000 they were the subject of the one-hour documentary, Saltwater Country, part of ABC Television's Message Stick.
In 2006 Steven and Alan were inducted into the Western Australian Music Hall of Fame.
In 2011, Alan and Steven Pigram began touring with Alex Lloyd as part of the Mad Bastards Trio, performing music from the 2011 film, Mad Bastards. Their soundtrack was nominated for an ARIA Award for Best Original Soundtrack, Cast or Show Album at the 2011 ARIA Awards.
Steven Pigram – vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica, requinto, valiha, ukulele, dulcimer
David Pigram – vocals, acoustic guitar
Colin Pigram – vocals, acoustic guitar
Philip Pigram – vocals, drums
Peter Pigram – bass guitar
Gavin Pigram – percussion
Like Broome itself - Australian's first truly multicultural town, with Japanese, Chinese, Malays and other groups drawn to work in its pearl industry a century ago - the Pigrams had a diverse range of backgrounds to draw on for their music. From their father came an Irish influence, while their mother, with her Filipino background, injected Broome's typical Asian-Aboriginal mix, Stephen said.
Being taught by Irish nuns and singing in church was another influence; yet another was the area's country music passion.
The harmonies just happened from them being a family with similar voices, he said.
"We tell the boys to find their own harmonies. They know who can do high and low and medium harmonies."
They blend so well together that in the creation of their three CDs they have been able to dispense with the usual separate recording of each voice and are recorded bunched around the microphone "as one voice".
Stephen was the first to take music outside the family, performing with two friends in the 1970s, and then with brothers Alan and Philip, forming a covers group called Scrap Metal in 1983.
The Pigram Brothers were formed in 1995 as an outlet for the music they were starting to write, and Stephen acknowledges the influence of Broome songwriter Jimmy Chi in threading words from their local Yawuru language in the lyrics.
He also credits singer songwriter Shane Howard, who produced their first album, Saltwater Country, with raising their profile in the music world.
Howard introduced them to former Dingoes guitarist Kerryn Tolhurst, who produced their second album, and to Irish singer Mary Black, with whom they have performed.
"We're connected up like a great song line because we all like the same music," he said.
Broome in the 1960s had a population of only 1000 and one of the few forms of entertainment was sitting about at home having a family sing-along.
The Pigram family of 12 children had a ready advantage in that their mum was a keen singer in church and at home, where the nine boys and three girls formed a ready-made choir.
Now, seven of the brothers who form the group Pigram Brothers, and known for their lush vocal harmonies, have helped put the tropical town in the north of Western Australia on the musical map. They have also given voice to a new, distinctively Aboriginal sound that has emerged in recent years.
The group's latest recording, Under the Mango Tree, has just been nominated for its first ARIA in the world music category.
Speaking from Broome yesterday, the oldest brother, Stephen, 46, said: "There was always music around our house. Dad used to make music instruments and there were always instruments lying around . . . odd-shaped guitars."