Gum leaf playing is deeply linked with the culture of First Australians who have always played this unique instrument. It is believed gum leaves were used in hunting, signalling, rituals, as spiritual instruments and even as toys.2
The Aborigines Mission Station at Purfleet was established in 1901 and by 1907 a gum leaf band was performing regularly at church functions and picnics.3
During the 1920s and 30s Aboriginal gum leaf bands were extremely popular and their novelty sound amazed audiences everywhere. The Purfleet band played in halls around the district including the Belmore Hall in Pulteney Street.4 The leafists were renowned for their jazz numbers and could mimic the sound of violins and human voices.5 They always received standing ovations.
Biripi Elder Uncle Russell Saunders explains that performance is important to his people. It is a way of strengthening ourselves and our culture. His fondest memories on the mission were having musical performances in the community hall with Aunties and Uncles.
“Growing up on the reserve you are under the manager’s rules, white man’s laws but when we came together in performance we were free for a moment.”
When the men got up to play the gum leaf it was always a special performance. There could be up to 12 men playing and they were skilled enough to harmonise with each other using various sized leaves.6
In the 1950s Bert Marr, Ronnie Marr, Charlie Edwards and Les Maher created a gum leaf quartet. They played sacred and secular tunes as well as a lot of jazz. Les Maher could make didgeridu sounds on the leaf while Bert played the alto part on his preferred leaf – the bush lemon.7
While performances on the gum leaf have waned in recent decades the tradition is alive and well today in Taree.
Author: Janine Roberts with special thanks to Uncle Russell Saunders OAM.
Want to learn how to play the gum leaf? Watch this 4 minute video by Uncle Russ Saunders
1 Daily Telegraph, 17 June 1926, 10.
2 Robin Ann Ryan, “A spiritual sound, a lonely sound” Leaf music of Southeastern Aboriginal Australians 1890s-1990s, PhD thesis submitted at Monash University, 1999.
3 John Ramsland, “Custodians of the Soil: A history of Aboriginal-European relationships in the Manning Valley of New South Wales”, Greater Taree City Council: Taree, 2001, 73-86;
Manning River Times, 16 March 1907, 8.
4 Manning River Times, 16 April 1921, 10.
5 Robin Ryan, “Not really a musical instrument? Locating the gumleaf as acoustic actant and environmental icon” Societies, 3(2), 224-242
6 Interview with Uncle Russell Saunders, 25 November 2021.
7 Ryan, “A spiritual sound, a lonely sound”.
8 Patricia Davis-Hurst, Sunrise Station Revisited, Taree: 2010, 97.
9 Ryan, “A spiritual sound, a lonely sound”.