In 2008, Australian composer Nigel Westlake’s son, Eli, was killed in a tragic road rage incident. With the support of his family, and his son’s friends, Nigel used his love for his son to establish a music and film program to support young indigenous Australians.
In an interview in 2011, Nigel reflected that after the death of his son, “I really thought I was finished musically. There was nothing more to be said. The muse had disappeared.”
As children, our greatest fear is the death of our parents. As parents, that fear is the death of our children. An unimaginable loss. But so often, great loss is inspiration for great work, and for Nigel Westlake and his family, Eli’s death led to the creation of the Smugglers Of Light Foundation – an organisation using music to help indigenous youth reclaim their heritage through music and film.
So how did Nigel gradually deal with the loss of Eli and find the momentum to continue and find purpose.
“At that particular time (of Eli’s death), that’s how it felt. I didn’t mean that I’d said it all musically, by any means. I meant that there was no incentive to write.”
“Looking back on it now, it’s five years ago this week that we lost our son, Eli, I think for the first 12 – 18 months the thing that was most present in my mind was to keep memories of him alive.”
“It was like keeping him in a vault. I didn’t want anything to come in or go out and I was so protective of those memories I couldn’t give way to anything. I couldn’t give way to the creative process and sit down and absorb my mind in a piece of music. My thoughts had to be with Eli.”
“That’s what drove me to form the Smugglers of Light Foundation in his memory, to take those memories and the thoughts about his future, the life that he might have had, his qualities of empathy, compassion and so forth, and bundle them all up in to a package called the Smugglers of Light Foundation.”
“That gave me a good focus to get that on the road but starting something like that is a very big undertaking and I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing, so it was a very steep learning curve. Musically, it didn’t seem important at that time.”
The moment of decision, the catalyst for the foundation started at the family home when the house overflowed with Eli’s friends and family, gathering together to share their grief.
“It was the week after Eli had been killed. Being a young man with so many young friends they all descended on our house and they actually lived with us for a week or so.”
“All these young people – some we knew quite well, others we didn’t know so well. At night they’d stoke up the fire and find a place on the floor or couch and sleep the night. There were never less than 40 or 50 people in the house at any one time, a constant flow of young people and also close friends and family.”
“It was during that time that we got talking to these young people and they were saying, ‘How can we remember him? How can we never forget him?’ One of them said, ‘Yeah, we should form some sort of foundation or charity or something’ and I raised my glass and said, ‘Yes! Well here’s to Eli’s foundation!’. I didn’t have a clue what I’d let myself in for.”
“It was about three weeks later when the house was totally quiet and the chill of winter had set in and it was like a mausoleum, my wife and I were looking at each other thinking, ‘What the hell have we done? How do you start a foundation?’ But there had been about 40 people there who were witness to me raising my glass so I had to keep that promise.”
“I was actually sad to see them go because what had brought us together was our love for Eli and from that time we’ve maintained very close relationships with many of them.”
“Every year on the anniversary of his death a lot of them come up to the country where we laid him to rest and just be with us for a short time. So it’s created a wonderful connection for us with a different generation.”
“There are so many things that I look to as positive outcomes from losing Eli because you can’t wallow in the tragedy of it. You’ve got to find a way to use it as a catalyst to move on, and that’s been a catalyst for re-connecting with those young people, that’s a great thing.”
Having the idea to create a foundation in Eli’s memory is one thing, doing it is surely another.
“The first thing I did was I went to APRA (the Australasian Performing Rights Association) of which I’ve been a member since the mid-80s. It’s an agency for Australian composers and it’s the lifeblood of Australian music because it’s where all the residual payments for music usage on TV, film, radio, etc, is collected and distributed amongst members so it’s pretty much how someone like myself, a freelance composer, can focus on that fulltime with those resources.”
“APRA have a wonderful history of connections with charities, they’re very support of the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Foundation, they also are very involved in Support Act – a support mechanism for retired musicians and composers.”
“Brett Cottle, the CEO of APRA said, ‘Come in and talk about this foundation thing’ and I went in with a long list of questions, an incredible apprehension and lacking in confidence of not knowing what I was doing.”
“Brett said, ‘Well that sounds great, APRA would like to be a partner of organisation and we’d like to supply you with all the accounting and legal facilities free of charge and just to kick off the foundation here’s a grant’.”
“It was unbelievable. So it was through APRA and our connection with them that we’ve been able to get off to a fairly quick start.”
“We’re still a very young organisation and we’ve got a long way to go, but we are doing stuff and I realise that in the bigger scheme of things it’s kind of a drop in the ocean but at least it’s something and it’s something that we feel very passionate about and whenever I’m in indigenous communities I really do feel Eli looking down upon me, his eyes awash with tears of joy. It’s a great feeling to be able to take that tragedy and turn it into something that is tangible evidence of him.”
“One of our main programs at the moment is called Song Nation. We have a team of three people, one of whom is Gail Mabo – daughter of the famous land rights campaigner Eddie Mabo – Gail has become the patron of the Smugglers of Light. She is a wonderful woman, very dear friend.”
“She saw what we were doing in Townsville a couple of years ago and said she wanted to be part of it, offering to do whatever she could to help. They go to remote communities and this year we’re going to the Torres Straight and some far-flung communities in WA. We spend four or five days with the young children. “
“The first thing we do is bring in elders of the community and we have them tell stories about the history of the culture, their origins and so on, and then we get the kids to encapsulate those stories into a form of music, whether that be hip-hop or a song.”
“We do an on-the-fly production number with the kids recording their song and then we do a choreographed film clip. Gail helps do the choreography because she studied at the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre some years ago.”
“It’s basically getting the kids connected with their culture which in some communities is alarmingly fragmented.”
“The kids sometimes have no reason to speak to elders so they don’t really have a handle on where they’ve come from or the heritage that they’re sitting on top of.”
“It gets them involved in where they’ve come from and they get to express that through music and film.”
“The films inevitably have very powerful positive messages about reconciliation, about future aspirations, about dreamtime stories, and those clips go up on YouTube and attract tens of thousands of hits which in effect disseminates positive mantras throughout those communities.”
“When our team goes to communities, a lot of those kids already know most of the songs that we’ve written in other communities and they’ve got them as ringtones on their phones – it’s amazing how they embrace it.”
“We’ve had school teachers coming up to us and saying that the kids are coming back to school, that they’re interested in learning, some of them going to university next year, so it’s a very small thing but it seems to have a very positive outcome.”
“We also have an annual scholarship for an indigenous film-maker or musician, a small amount of money to help them gain skills in their chosen fields and help them open doors for their future employment.”
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform ‘Missa Solis’ – Nigel Westlake’s requiem for his son, Eli.