Balang T Lewis

After Lewis and Young.


Some time in February 1998, I saw an advertisement for ‘Lewis and Young’ – a duo of clarinet and didgeridoo, who were to play at the National Gallery of Victoria on St.Kilda Road. They were scheduled to play a few afternoon sessions. The temperature was high, and having an interest in improvised jazz, I felt that spending an hour or so in the air-conditioned coolness of the old NGV would be a good way to escape the heat. Their performance was free. Lewis, it turned out was Tom E Lewis – didgeridoo player and Young was Christopher Young, various wind instruments, but mainly the bass clarinet and flute.

On the first afternoon of their series of three improvised performances, I sat on the floor as they performed in front of the water wall. I was the only person in the audience. Some people passed through, but, I was the only person who sat through their entire performance. I felt this to be a privilege. Although I had never heard of them before, or listened to much didgeridoo playing, I intuited that they were indeed adept musicians. The lack of an audience didn’t do them justice methought at the time.

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I had just returned from a couple of months in Indonesia (primarily Yogyakarta) and had felt a growing confidence in my own taste for music and in knowing what I enjoyed. I invited my long-term friend, Josh, to their performance the next day. While having coffee, Josh, saw someone speaking to Lewis or Young at the end of their performance. He joked and said, ‘I guess he’s asking them if they take requests.’ But at the same time I had thought: I’m going to invite them to play at my 21st party that would happen later that year. I followed Lewis and Young for the next couple of months and went to their gigs which seemed to happen no more than once or twice a month. In largely pre-internet days, I relied on The Age newspaper for information.

Feeling somewhat mischievous, I asserted to my parents, who were footing the bill, that I wanted Lewis and Young to play on the courts at the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club, where I was having my party. My father was a member at the club: this bastion of Britishness and formality in working class Richmond. Above the doorway is a portrait of Queen Lizzy. Not long before my departure to Indonesia a few months earlier, I had told someone I had just played real tennis against that I was on my way to study in Yogyakarta. He replied, ‘well, there are no royal tennis courts in Yogya’. I was too shy or slow to immediately respond with telling him that I was interested in other matters. Having Lewis and Young, particularly, the playing of the didgeridoo on the court, for me, was a kind of postcolonial step. Later, Chris would simply assert: the acoustics on court were amazing. He didn’t voice any interest in the performance’s symbolism.

A couple of years later and just prior to leaving for Medan, North Sumatra, in 2000, I saw Lewis and Young play again: this time with their ensemble, Dogbox – inclusive of Mark Finsterer on guitar. They were playing at the now closed Bennetts Lane. Again I was enchanted and this time I bought their cd: I think it was the first cd I had bought by a local musician or ensemble. I took the cd with me to Indonesia, but more importantly, the memory of their gig at Bennetts Lane stayed strongly with me. Lewis and Young seemed to punctuate moments in my life; at vulnerable and intense moments – before leaving or after coming ‘home’. Their music was always comforting.

Through a series of coincidences and despite frequently not being in contact, I have remained friends with Christopher Young for the better part of 20 years. This time, our friendship has been consolidated through the shared sense of loss regarding the death of Balang T Lewis, who was best known by his stage name Tom E Lewis. Although I barely spoke a word with Lewis, Chris may appreciate the fact that I saw him play with him. It was their collaboration that brought them fame in the early stages of their musical career. They toured Europe and Asia together.

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starring a young Tom E Lewis

I have felt more saddened than expected upon reading of Lewis’s death. Over the last year I had been listening occasionally to his two recent country music albums. I had seen excerpts of his portrayal of King Lear. Whatever he did he appeared to be a master of it. I couldn’t place him: master of what? Film acting; didgeridoo, folk music, the theatre, arts management? No matter. I heard Chris’s voice shaking as he spoke of Tom. I feel a sense of pride simply in the fact of having seen him play and Lewis and Young perform together and to have felt moved by their music. Over the phone, we both said, ’59 is too young. He had so much more to give.’ In the days since, I’ve been playing their cds as I drive my daughter to school. I’m inculcating her with the names ‘Balang T Lewis’, and ‘Chris Young’ and stating which instruments they’re playing. I’m trying to keep his music alive and pass it on to my daughter so that she doesn’t have to wait until she is having her 21st birthday party to feel what I felt.

Or, maybe I’m hoping that this music – which I find beautiful – will become so familiar to her that she doesn’t think of it as something new. That perhaps over time these sounds will become an everyday part of her music and sound references. Or, that maybe if she is to perform or to become engaged in music in any way, that these sounds will simply be yet another reference point she can borrow and learn from.