Ahead of the Cairns Ukulele Festival I was also given the chance to interview Aunty Cessa Mills, who has performed for many years as one of the Mills Sisters from Coconut and Thursday Islands. Having introduced a global audience to the trio’s classic and traditional island songs since the 1980s, Aunty Cessa Mills will be returning to the stage for the Cairns Ukulele Festival Community Concert Day. Since retiring in 1995, Aunty Cessa Mills spent her life helping bring the music of Thursday Island to the world stage with her international performances. Now a festival regular, Aunty Cessa wants to bring a multiculturally diverse group of ukulele performers with her for audiences to enjoy and celebrate cultural diversity at the Community Concert Day.
All I can say is that if Aunty Cessa brings the same sense of humour to the stage as she brought to our interview, it will be a great fun show!
When did you start playing?
Since I was a little kid, four or five years old, I’ve been playing ukulele.
Is that because you had a parent who was playing?
All my family was a musical family – they play guitar, ukulele, steel guitar.
At that age did it seem like it was a toy? Was it a fun thing?
It was a fun thing. We loved to sing. It’s in our blood that we’re always singing, getting around singing.
Given that the singing is important, did you take up the ukulele to support the singing?
When my sisters and I went out entertaining, my music was ukulele. My sisters, one played guitar and the other one a tambourine and shakers. From 1988 on.
That decision to start performing together, whose idea was that?
We were entertaining for about 20 years on the island [Thursday Island], in and out, at different festivals overseas – Europe and things – for years we were playing in the pubs once a week. We would have a packed house every Friday night.
Given that you were playing with your sisters, did you ever have any disagreements about your musical direction, what you were going to play?
No, we all sat down together on different days when we weren’t singing and learned the songs, country and western, our island songs – it was fun. We’d practise what we were going to sing.
Did you write some music together?
Yes, we did. We sing about home, everything about home – about TI, all the beautiful islands around the place, as well as our country.
You’re going to sing in traditional language when you go to the Cairns Festival – I’d imagine that it doesn’t matter if the audience doesn’t understand the language, you can convey what you mean through your playing.
Yes, we do.
I read that you retired in 1995 but it doesn’t seem like you’re really retired because you’re doing a lot.
We retired when we turned seventy. [But] like I say, we just love music. Wherever we go, the first thing we carry is our instruments.
Do you play every day?
Well, I’m a very busy woman with sewing and things so I don’t play ukulele every day. Only when we go out – we practise a lot up here for this festival, it’s got us going, practising, practising. We’ve got a nice crowd here. There are certain days that we practise and on other days I’m home doing my craft work.
What sort of craft work do you do?
I do beading and I sew bags for markets every fortnight here, because I have to have things to take to the markets. Because they look for it – the Torres Strait bags.
It’s no surprise to me that you didn’t technically retire because it sounds like you are always occupied doing something creative.
That is correct. [Laughs] I’m always doing something. It’s boring if I sit down and do nothing. If I’m not doing anything I’ll get my ukulele out and try some songs out. Just singing the songs that we love to sing.
Were you like this as a child, always doing something?
Yes. We’d sit in the evenings with our parents and singing a lot – they’d teach us all our island songs, or we’d pick up the guitar from them. We were always singing. Never thought we’d end up like this, going out entertaining for the twenty years that we’ve been singing here and going to the Ukulele Festival.
I guess that’s the thing about magic – if you’re on stage and there’s a certain magic, you can’t force that but that’s why people respond to your music.
Well, that’s why I think.
So you all play different instruments – why did you choose the ukulele in particular?
It’s the only thing I can play, really. The guitar’s got six strings and I’ve only got five fingers [laughs]. I can only play four strings. So I love the ukulele. It’s so simple and easy.
The ukulele you play, is this an instrument you’ve had for a long time?
No, I buy ukuleles up here and I’m given gifts from everywhere. When I went entertaining out there with my sisters, everybody was giving me ukuleles for a gift, for a Christmas present, and I just sit down and play with my grandchildren. Teach them how to play, give them all away. For this purpose I bought my own.
When you’re choosing an instrument like that, is it the wood you look for, or the feeling when you play it that helps you choose?
Not really. As long as it can play a tune I don’t care what it’s made of. I wouldn’t have a clue how they make a ukulele. As long as it makes a sound. If it’s something that makes a tune, I’ll sing to it.
I suppose that means that if one of your ukuleles gets damaged, you’re not too heartbroken.
If it gets broken, there’s lots around – I can get another one and another one.
From one of your grandchildren.
Yes, but I don’t know what’s happened, whether they still own the things. As long as I’ve got one of my own that I keep and play when I want to.
So you haven’t tried to form a band with your grandchildren yet.
Oh, they’ve come in wanting to know the chords of such a thing and I say, ‘Well, I only play three chords. I don’t read music – I do everything by ear. I’ve only got three chords: C, G and F. That’s all I play.’ If they open the music book in front of me with chords I wouldn’t have a clue. I play piano by ear too. I don’t need music in front of me, love, I just go ahead and make my own.
And you’ve played in many places do that. You’ve played in Europe and across the Pacific. How do Australian audiences compare with European audiences?
Out there they didn’t even know where I come from – they thought I was some bush fella from somewhere they don’t know. They were amazed at our singing out there, and our culture. But in Australia everybody knows what we sing and where we come from. They know that we’re singing our island songs.
When you go to the Cairns Festival – you’ve been before?
Not the Ukulele Festival. It’s going to be my first. This one is going to be so lovely.
And when you go to festivals like this do you focus on your own shows or do you watch other artists?
No, we love to see other artists and hear the music. I can’t wait.
Well, you might be given some more ukuleles.
Well, I think so too [laughs]. I already have two ukuleles, one at the back of my neck playing, one in front.
When you do shows like that, do you go in with a set list and stick to it, or do you adapt to the audience that’s there?
We’ve got lots of songs. Try to stop us when we get down there!
Cairns Ukulele Festival – 25 to 26 August 2016