If you ever visit Torres Strait (and you really should) you’ll hear people use the expression “steady steady”. It might be in response to a “how you going” or advice on how to proceed. It’s a term from the old pearl diving days, describing a way the boat might be handled to give the diver a smoother time down deep, searching for pearl shells.
And Steady Steady is the name of the just published biography of a man who spent a fair amount of his life underwater diving for pearls – Henry Gibson Dan, better known these days as Seaman Dan, the ARIA award winning singer songwriter who released his first album in 1999 at the age of 70.
Uncle Seaman was born on Thursday Island in 1929. He lived at Coen, on Cape York Peninsula, as a young lad, and then in Cairns during World War Two. Just after the war, he began diving for trochus shell on the Great Barrier Reef, and later became a pearl diver in Torres Strait and the seas of northern Australia. Seaman Dan had loved music since his youngest days, and started to perform with bands during the 1950s in Darwin. He’s had many jobs over the years, diver, drover, ice man, gold prospector, taxi driver – but he always made time to enjoy and perform music.
In January 1999, a chance meeting with music producer and academic Karl Neuenfeldt on Thursday Island led to an offer for Uncle Seaman to go to Cairns to record some songs. He had some original compositions and some traditional Torres Strait songs – the result was the award-winning album Follow The Sun. Over the next decade, Uncle Seaman made five albums, won two ARIA awards, and he’s performed for audiences all over Australia and overseas.
At age 83, Seaman Dan is one of Australia’s oldest active recording artists and performers. He still plays two gigs a week at home in the Torres Strait. He told me today music is the reason he gets up in the morning.
Steady Steady tells the story of a remarkable and adventurous life – and there are many Torres Strait folk of his generation who lived similarly adventurous lives. But there is only one Seaman Dan, a master of island style music and a true gentleman.
LISTEN Click on the red arrow to hear my interview with Uncle Seaman and some of his songs
Steady Steady – the Life and Music of Seaman Dan is published by Aboriginal Studies Press http://www.aiatsis.gov.au/asp/aspbooks/steadysteady.html