Australia may be famous for its music, but it is also a family affair. ‘Kindred Chords’ is a book that maps out the bloodlines that defined our soundtrack. 



When I was young, my sister and I spent quite a few school holidays at the Amsterdam home of my aunt, my father’s favourite sister. She was always happy to have us, because she had five sons and loved to have little girls around. Liset was a talented gossip and thrived on loud and raucous parties, but most of the time she was forced to sit quietly at the table in a corner of her lounge room.

Early in the morning, a sliding door would separate one part of the parlour from the other. On the left, the family spoke in whispers, on the right a steady stream of people were being taught to play the violin. My uncle Jan, Liset’s husband, was a painter, but most of all a formidable music teacher. When we stayed over, he would wake us in the middle of the night, sing a note and ask us to complete the scale, or tell him what song started like that. We had no idea: our father was a sculptor and we could have told him the difference between Titian and Van Dyck, but we knew very little about music. Jan’s sons had no such excuse. They were trained and trained and trained, and in the end, all that discipline paid off: Christiaan went to study with world-famous violinist Jascha Heifetz before embarking on an impressive classical career. His brother Dick became concertmaster at the Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra, while Joep travelled to India to play sarangi and work as a musicologist. Only two boys ‘escaped’ the musical family tradition, both to become writers. 

I have always been fascinated with families and their tendency to reproduce traits and talents. I am a big fan of Who do you think you are? and am often struck by history repeating: five generations of circus performers, or doctors, or (as in the case of J.K. Rowling) formidable single mothers. As is clear from her captivating new book Kindred Chords, Loretta Barnard shares my interest. In an Australian first, she has portrayed 27 musical families to see what makes them tick and to ask the chicken or the egg question: is it nature or nurture that produces great performers? And so we travel from the ouds of the Tawadros brothers to Angus and Julia Stone, the Yunupingu family, the clan of Jimmy Barnes, the Veronicas, AC/DC’s Young siblings, Graeme and Roger Bell, and even the Fields of the Wiggles. After reading their stories a lot becomes clear about why families are so prolific in Australian music. First of all, genetics seems to play a part. ‘The way you hear and comprehend music is as genetic as having good feet for dancing or being tall for basketball’, thinks Ami Williamson, the daughter of country music star John and a mean singer in her own right. But that, of course, is not nearly enough. Music teacher Joy Yates, the mother of Jade MacRae and wife of pianist Dave, is convinced that ‘just because you may have inherited a gene doesn’t mean you lie back on your sunbed and do nothing. You always have to work at it’.  


For any of the families in this book. Australia is a small country, but with a large and interesting music scene. Many of its members belong together in more ways than one. Kindred Chords is its roadmap. 


If there is anything that pervades Kindred Chords it is that: hard work. It starts with the enormous discipline of hours and hours and hours of practice, often instigated and overseen by the musician parents.

The father of composer Nigel Westlake, clarinettist Donald, was ‘very strict about lessons and practice, implementing a rigorous regime to which Nigel had to either adhere or else give the game away. There were to be no compromises. Do it properly or don’t do it at all, was his directive’. That focus is the driving force of every musician in this book. The Young brothers, Barnard writes, sat together at the piano ‘running through ideas and trying out riffs’ as often as possible, while in the Grigoryan family ‘the point of every day was to listen to something or somehow get our hands on a new recording’. Music was the norm and so was applying yourself. Violinist Dene Olding started playing the piano at three years old, listening to his mother spending hours going over the same music. At 14, his parents let him go to Julliard, the famous conservatory in New York. As musicians themselves, ‘they understood the critical role of solid early musical training’ and were willing to sacrifice financially and emotionally to get their son where he wanted to go.

That might be one of the most important conclusions from Kindred Chords: if music has shown itself to be a real career possibility, it is easier for later generations to follow that path. ‘Mum said learning to play music was as important as learning to read and write’, Paul Field of the Wiggles says, while his brother Anthony remembers being ‘brought up to believe in and express ourselves’. In their family, making money from music went back many generations. Their great-great-aunt was Queenie Paul, one of the Tivoli’s most popular performers. With her dancers, the Sun-Kissed Cuties, she went on a six-month tour of Singapore and Malaya as early as 1952. That, I’m sure, will set a family-trend.

Of course, having potential bandmembers or collaborators close to home helps as well. Almost all musicians in this book got their start under their parents’ wing. At twelve, Slava Grigoryan joined his at their weekly gig at a local pancake restaurant, while Jimmy Barnes’ children often sing with him and organise his tours. It is the same in Loretta’s own family. Her grandmother Kath travelled Australia with her dance band, accompanied by her husband, with toddler Bob (Loretta’s father) asleep under the piano.

At 11, Kath’s son Len joined the band as a drummer, followed a few years later by his little brother on trumpet. At 18, Len formed his first band, the South City Stompers, with Bob, not quite 14, on cornet. And so it went on. Len made over 85 albums. Bob, too, became a great success: records, television, radio, (world)tours, session work, show bands. Even the great Louis Armstrong was eager to meet him. Streets were named after him, and in 1975, the first of the next generation, Loretta’s brother Tony, got to play with his father on one of his recordings. So did Adam, Bob’s other son, and when Len died, the three men worked together with Len’s daughter, singer Rebecca, and Beau and Casey Golden, Loretta’s sons and Bob’s grandsons. They are now amongst the best jazz musicians in the country. And of course, they play together too. I don’t doubt that the music won’t stop there.

For any of the families in this book. Australia is a small country, but with a large and interesting music scene. Many of its members belong together in more ways than one. Kindred Chords is its roadmap. 




KINDRED CHORDS is available now through Shooting Star Press.



Share via