When civilian peace monitor, former diplomat and part-time folk musician Fred Smith (real name Iian Campbell Smith) last played at The Playhouse in January 2010, he was backed by the 20-voice Spooking Men's Chorale, singing Queen covers and songs about power tools. Since then, Smith has spent 18 dusty months in Afghanistan, working on behalf of the Australian Government to build relationships with tribal leaders and improve co-operation and understanding between the local community and the Coalition Forces. His journeys and experiences were the inspiration for his new album Dust of Uruzgan, which he will launch at the Playhouse this September.
Working in Afghanistan doesn't allow for regular periods of thoughtful contemplation and reflection. However, Smith explains that the sentiments and ideas behind the tracks on Dust of Uruzgan would develop in his subconscious, and release themselves later on.
"All the melodies and basic ideas for the songs bust down the door when I was trying to sleep or get some work done," Smith says. "Life over there is busy – like 12-14 hour work days. So you don't really have time to feel your feelings. I finished most of the songs during periods of leave and they would come pretty quick, so they'd been bubbling away at the back of my brain and were a way of processing it all." He goes on, "But then that's what music is for – to help people feel their feelings – which is not really what soldiers are trained to do, or diplomats for that matter."
Whenever Smith had the chance, he would play at BBQs and other events around the Coalition bases in Tarin Kowt. Smith tells of how he formed a group with an Australian quartermaster and a Dutch nurse with a beautiful voice, and another with a group of Afghans in preparation for Afghan New Years. Practicing with the latter group showed Smith the difference between his own and the Afghan music cultures.
"It took some adjustment to play with the Afghans because their musical tradition is so different from ours," Smith says. "Western music is all about melodies over chord changes whereas their songs power along in the same chord which is neither a major nor a minor. What we had in common though is a feeling for rhythm and an appetite for the release and community that music brings."
Smith's work is renowned as a rather heavy mixture of thoughtful and often dark lyricism with a stark streak of black humour. Dust of Uruzgan is no different, exemplifying the thin line that separates tragedy and comedy. "You laugh hard over there," Smith says. "It's a bunch of guys pissing around in the desert trying to do a difficult job - perfect material for slapstick. It's hilarious, and then all of a sudden it isn't. And there's a lot to deal with emotionally, and not much time to deal with it."
Fred Smith launches Dust of Uruzgan on Saturday September 3 at The Playhouse, with Liz Frenchman. Tickets from Canberra Theatre Centre for $39, or $34 concession.