Rugged up in my tiny Sydney apartment this winter, the only thing keeping me warm, aside from my hot water bottle, is the Tiwi Island-RnB-fused sound of B2M, an auditory window of tropical pop pleasure.
Eighty kilometres north of Darwin in the Arafura Sea, the Tiwi Islands are nicknamed the Island of Smiles. Having had the opportunity to travel to Tiwi and cross from Bathurst Island to Melville Island (hence “B2M”), I can vouch that it’s a well-deserved name for one of the most generous communities I’ve ever visited.
When I got to chat to self-taught B2M guitarist and vocalist Jeffrey “Yello” Simon about the band’s upcoming show at Riverside Theatres, it came as no surprise to hear the group is heavily invested in the sharing of Tiwi culture – not just among the 2500 or so islanders, but among all Australians.
“Sometimes black and white look at each other and as soon as that word ‘culture’ comes up, there’s always that barrier and you can’t cross it,” says Yello. “But in Tiwi culture, we’re very welcoming. We like to share it and say this is part of your history, this is part of your culture. If you’re Australian, this is your culture, too – embrace it.”
Formed in December 2004, critics have described B2M as a band that brings together the sound of a ’90s boy band (“Australia’s answer to the Backstreet Boys,” wrote the Huffington Post) with traditional Tiwi chants and a social agenda.
Determined to make a difference among Tiwi’s troubled youth, the seven-member band planned from the start to create a positive message for a community that, at the time, had the highest suicide rate in the world.
B2M set out to create catchy music to educate the Tiwi youth on the dangers of drugs and alcohol and how to avoid getting caught in the vicious cycle of substance abuse.
Yello knew the issues intimately.
After joining the police force aged 21, he found himself dealing with regular call-outs to suicides and attempted suicides. It was one thing to respond to an emergency, Yello recalls, but another to feel proactive. He took to music “as an educational tool to break the cycle”.
Delivered over contagious Nile Rodgers-style hooks, B2M’s positive message quickly spread to the mainland and then overseas in countries including East Timor, Indonesia, Taiwan (where they headlined the Pulima indigenous arts festival) and Ireland.
“The battle goes on,” says Yello, who, like the rest of the band, is a parent. “We’ve seen positive change. We’ve had some great conversations with people who tell us how a lyric or a verse has woken them up and made a difference.”
Yello concedes the band’s uplifting rhythms and harmonies can make it hard to judge whether the message is cutting through but regards even the smallest difference B2M can make as a win.
B2M’s first recording, 2008’s B2M – Live at The Monsoon Sessions – was a live acoustic set recorded in Darwin. Later that year, the band won the coveted Emerging Artist of the Year at the NT Indigenous Music Awards and in 2011 released their first official track, the insanely catchy Japparika – which also happens to be the Tiwi Bombers’ football anthem.
After releasing their debut album (2213) Home in 2013, and touring it nationally, the band was keen to expand its repertoire for their current tour titled Mamanta, meaning “friend”.
Working with Australian-Irish musician Steve Cooney, who has played with Celtic legends including The Chieftans, Luka Bloom and Sinead O’Connor, B2M has been exploring the blending of traditional Irish Gaelic music with the sounds of Tiwi.
Again, it springs from their desire to tell stories through positive collaborations, says Yello. “History has proven that there is a chance for reconciliation and with good work by black and white together it will help bring these stories to the surface. As a nation we’re ready for this and what better place to start than with music!”
Even with this globe-spanning fusion, a B2M gig is a lesson in Tiwi culture delivered in music, storytelling and traditional dance. Each member of the band has a distinctive role and the show inevitably sends its audience home with the feeling they’ve been spirited to the far north for the evening and returned with a wealth of cultural knowledge.
Prior to the tour kicking off in Darwin in March, the band had a special showing for the elders on Tiwi. Without their blessing and permission to use traditional chants, the tour couldn’t happen. If there’s one message B2M want to carry from their elders to the rest of the nation, it is, “we’re all one mob.”
The Mamanta tour is on a scale and level of technical complexity the band hasn’t attempted before. But despite their nerves around putting the show together, Yello has retained his mischievous sense of humour. “Indigenous life expectancy is so low, we only have one shot at this!” he jokes.
For Yello and his bandmates, it’s not about shifting CDs, T-shirts and tickets. It’s about sparking a conversation with a show that entertains and invigorates but also educates in the generous spirit of Tiwi Islanders sharing their culture. “The more we share it, the more it will survive.”
B2M plays the Riverside Theatres, September 2
Deborah Brown is a choreographer, actor, filmmaker and proud Torres Strait Islander.