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Smoke Encrypted Whispers
Samuel Wagan Watson

Southern Cross Soloists

Ron Haddrick (Narrator)

Composer(s):  23 Brisbane composers:Tom Adeney, Damian Barbeler, William Barton, Betty Beath, Gerard Brophy, Lisa Cheney, Peter Clarke, Stephen Cronin, Robert Davidson, Paul Dean, Louise Denson, John Gilfedder, Ralph Hultgren, Michael Knopf, Stephen Leek, Mary Mageau, Freeman McGrath, Richard Mills, Sean O’Boyle, Peter Rankine, Marianne Scholem, Stephen Stanfield, Toby Wren.
Catalogue Number:  MR301140
“Outstanding, innovative, inspiring…Disc of the Year” Otago Daily Times (NZ)
“...remarkable CD... a sonic tapestry of contemporary Brisbane, as torpid as a summer day, as threatening as a thundershower ...” Weekend Australian
“...lovingly to be treasured.” Limelight

Poetry of remarkable humanity accompanied by musical performances of scintillating colour and nuance…

Smoke Encrypted Whispers is a sequence of 23 poems by the leading Australian indigenous poet Samuel Wagan Watson that pairs the Brisbane-born writer’s texts with succinct musical commentaries – part reflection, part response – by 23 of the poet’s Brisbanite composer peers.

What results – in a performance by the musicians of Southern Cross Soloists interspersed with readings of the individual poems by the distinguished Australian actor Ron Haddrick – is a variegated tapestry given cohesion and coherence by the multiple interwoven threads of Watson’s words.

Smoke Encrypted Whispers offers tales of the poet’s own interior dreamtime and depth of feeling to produce a vivid and touching picture of growing up in suburban Brisbane.

While offering one revealing insight after another into the spirituality of displaced indigenous experience in contemporary urban Australia, Watson’s poetry taps into a potent mythology that predates the settled history of the continent – as well alluding to the fears, heartbreaks, hopes and humour that are universal rather than isolated qualities. Through it, we are invited into a magical universe veiled behind the obfuscating layers of our mundane existence.

Watson’s Brisbane is a Grimm’s fairy-tale world, where half-seen spectres and almost intelligible whispers inhabit the night, and hideous metal gorgons sneer and yowl in the searing light of the day. His vibrant poetry innocently and fearlessly lays bare the stories of his life, and offers incisive glimpses of the mysterious undercurrents that flow deeply beneath and through all of our lives. The triumph of the poems is their facility for capturing and coining that submerged, sub-conscious other-world’s ephemeral and forever changing intimations to give them felt and forceful substance. It also provides a rich muse for his compatriot composers’ evocative miniatures, to which the richly expressive woodwind palette of the Southern Cross Soloists adds piquancy and urgency.

More cathartic than years of therapy, more fun than meditation, Smoke Encrypted Whispers offers evidence that our own inner dream world is far more vital and vivacious than anything flickering virtually on a cinema, television or computer screen. And it offers a remarkable and rare opportunity to experience poetry of remarkable humanity accompanied by musical performances of scintillating colour and nuance.

The Performers:
Made up of distinguished soloists, Southern Cross Soloists is one of Australia’s most successful and respected chamber ensembles.

Actor Ron Haddrick MBE is a treasured member of the Australian acting fraternity, whose extensive work on stage and television and in radio during a career exceeding 65 years has endeared him to generations of Australians.

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Smoke Encrypted Whispers

Track Listing

1-2 smoke signals (Robert Davidson) 3:26 Preview $1.20    Buy
3-4 tigerland (Paul Dean) 2:56 Preview $1.20    Buy
5-6 scared of the dark (Richard Mills) 2:55 Preview $1.20    Buy
7-8 wecker road (Toby Wren) 4:16 Preview $1.20    Buy
9-10 cribb island (Stephen Cronin) 3:16 Preview $1.20    Buy
11-12 capalaba (William Barton) 3:35 Preview $1.20    Buy
13-14 rip (Ralph Hultgren) 3:24 Preview $1.20    Buy
15-16 smoke water (Mary Mageau) 3:38 Preview $1.20    Buy
17-18 author’s notes #1 (Stephen Stanfield) 3:22 Preview $1.20    Buy
19-20 darkroom (Peter Rankine) 3:00 Preview $1.20    Buy
21-22 fisherman islands (Louise Denson) 3:19 Preview $1.20    Buy
23-24 paper trails to midnight (Damian Barbeler) 2:23 Preview $1.20    Buy
25-26 author’s notes #2 (Sean O’Boyle) 3:53 Preview $1.20    Buy
27-28 ghosts of boundary street (Lisa Cheney) 4:59 Preview $1.20    Buy
29-30 dog tired tune (John Gilfedder) 3:15 Preview $1.20    Buy
31-32 when I crossed the ditch . . . (Tom Adeney) 3:57 Preview $1.20    Buy
33-34 author’s notes #3 (Freeman McGrath) 3:41 Preview $1.20    Buy
35-36 the dust company (Marianne Scholem) 3:07 Preview $1.20    Buy
37-38 from boundary street, west end, to the berlin wall, east germany (Peter Clark) 4:57 Preview $1.20    Buy
39-40 snapshots (Betty Beath) 3:00 Preview $1.20    Buy
41-42 aunty grey smoke (Michael Knopf) 3:44 Preview $1.20    Buy
43-44 author's notes – conclusion (Stephen Leek) 3:15 Preview $1.20    Buy
45-46 revolver (Gerard Brophy) 3:31 Preview $1.20    Buy
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Download entire release:

Southern Cross Soloists

Ron Haddrick (Narrator)

23 Brisbane composers:
Tom Adeney,
Damian Barbeler,
William Barton,
Betty Beath,
Gerard Brophy,
Lisa Cheney,
Peter Clarke,
Stephen Cronin,
Robert Davidson,
Paul Dean,
Louise Denson,
John Gilfedder,
Ralph Hultgren,
Michael Knopf,
Stephen Leek,
Mary Mageau,
Freeman McGrath,
Richard Mills,
Sean O’Boyle,
Peter Rankine,
Marianne Scholem,
Stephen Stanfield,
Toby Wren.

Samuel Wagan Watson

Samuel Wagan Watson was born in 1972 in Brisbane but spent much of his childhood on the Sunshine Coast, north of the city. He is of Munanjali, BirriGubba, German, Scottish and Irish descent.

It is not surprising that Samuel is passionate about Indigenous matters and, given that he comes from a longstanding activist family, that he is also interested in working class issues. His great-grandfather was sold into bondage to a white station owner in central Queensland. He was one the first Aboriginal people to be freed from the Aboriginal Protection Act, having worked to get enough money to hire a lawyer. Wagan Watson’s father was a pioneering Indigenous student at the University of Queensland in 1971. A prominent Murri activist, he is a writer, has been a lecturer at the University of Queensland in black Australian literature and an organiser and speaker at many protests.

The Watsons are a family with writers in a variety of genres. Wagan Watson’s father has written much on activist issues over the years and a novel, The Kadaitcha Sung. His sister, Nicole, recently published a novel, The Boundary.

He cites music as a major influence on his work. He gives credit to Johnny Cash, Iggy Pop and the Warumpi Band as formative in his development. Other major interests include Tom Waits, particularly for taking risks with collaboration, and Robert Johnston and his delta blues. He has been involved in collaborations with musicians and bands over the years, even as far away as with a Saami band in Norway.

His first collection of poetry, of muse, meandering and midnight, won the 1999 David Unaipon Award for unpublished Indigenous writers. In 2001, he published a collection of ‘road poems’, titled itinerant blues and a chapbook hotel bone for Vagabond Press. He is also the co-author of the award-winning website, ‘blackfellas, whitefellas, wetlands’. In 2004 his previously published poetry was included in a volume smoke encrypted whispers along with the new poems included on this CD. This collection won the 2005 Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry Book of the Year in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. He has also received a Highly Commended in both the Anne Elder Awards and the 2000 Award for Outstanding Contributions to Australian Culture.

Samuel has toured around the world, reading his poetry in Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Germany and Norway. Samuel is also a writer for one of Australia’s most established Indigenous radio stations, 98.9FM Murri Country. (Murri is the collective term for the Indigenous people of South East Queensland.) His poetry, which has a strong ‘on the road’ flavour, features his travels. His work is anchored in local specifics but reaches out internationally, even into space. He was commissioned by the Japanese Aeronautical Exploration Agency to write haiku for the pleasure of the astronauts on the International Space Platform.

Some of Wagan Watson’s poetry focuses on the West End area of Brisbane where Boundary Street acts as a reminder of the boundary which excluded Murris during curfew periods. He draws parallels in the poetry between this infamous boundary and the Berlin Wall to bring home the oppression of his people. However, it would be inaccurate to pigeonhole his work as purely political. There is a much wider aesthetic in play:

All good wordsmiths get ‘the thousand-yard stare’. That’s when you’re looking beyond the page. Some writers never cross beyond the second or third dimension of a page… After words are yanked from the pool in my head, I hang them out on the ‘wire’ to dry, and then after the sun goes down, I throw them on the ‘rack’ and stretch them out a bit. (author’s notes #2)

Issues about consciousness exist in the poetry alongside gritty realisations of lived reality. Many critics have commented on the ‘whispers’ of the title: how the meanings of the poems reverberate between themselves in an implied, subterranean dialogue between layers of reality and time.

While there is much that is recognisable in Samuel’s work, it also takes us beyond his personal history into the collective cosmos of Queensland’s Murri people and their cultural world. This gives the work a resonance beyond its already profound exploration of personal dilemmas. Shifting between the very physical reality and an allusive, numinous dimension, Wagan Watson moves us into worlds with which we might be unfamiliar:

Doorways whistling breezes, a cadence of toothless old skeletons that filtered the smoke encrypted whispers of this mass grave. I think of those whispers every time my plane lands on the unmarked tombstones of one of Brisbane’s least known burial grounds. (cribb island)

Though his work is very serious, it isn’t without a strong sense of fun. As his son says in ‘rip’, ‘Look here Dad…I’m playing with your memories!’ In experiencing Wagan Watson’s poetry, we get the opportunity to do the same.

Bruce Simms

Executive Producer

Maria Vandamme


Phil Rowlands


Phil Rowlands & Ian Perry

Music Recording

Studio 420, Ferry Road, Brisbane, 6 – 8 February 2012

Narration Recording

Trackdown Scoring Stage, Moore Park, Sydney
28 March 2012


With special thanks to The Robert Salzer Foundation

Permission for inclusion of the poems granted by the Publisher, University of Queensland Press.

This recording was supported by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body