Sombreros. Street singers. A secret serenade. Statues?
There was this thing called Expo ’88 in Brisbane. It was alright. I picked up some work doing modelling and body casting for the white statues that littered the site. But another outcome was that people got used to the idea that street performers were desirable and fun. This meant that for a while there was a lot of gigs to be had and that it was possible to be paid industry rates for this kind of work. I picked up quite a bit, sometimes as an actor, sometimes as an actor/musician. For a few yeas after Expo, you could do a three hour call down at South Bank, a public space by the river, or for a corporate event, or during holiday seasons in shopping precincts. Colour and movement.
1993. I found myself walking across the William Jolly bridge on a blazing summer afternoon to meet with a couple of chaps who’d asked if I wanted to be part of a musical street act they were cooking up.
Peter Cossar and David Kidd were the year after me at uni, I didn’t know them well at all. Sitting at Peter’s kitchen table in his Montague Road rental, they talked about a gig they’d done for someone else as ‘gypsies’ kind of raggle-taggle crim-types. Roving. They wanted to do something more musical, and less offensive, possibly as a trio. David had an amazing voice and Peter was a fearless performer who could also play the guitar. He’d been a low-slung bass player for a few Bris-bands.
We were all was pretty cold on the idea of gypsies, but when the idea came up of doing a kind of ‘three amigos’. I thought that sounded pretty good. Bogus mariachi. We’d do Mexican versions of songs we dug, as well as repertoire you’d expect from three guys in sombreros. Once we started rehearsing, we’d grab anything. Cowboy songs like Rawhide. Trini Lopez. Plus anything with even a vaguely Spanish feel. Guantanamera. A flamenco version of Feelin’ Groovy. Dean Martin’s Sway. It was fun playing with these guys, in all senses of the word, and they welcomed me. I harmonized well with David, who sang lead on most things, and Pete and I would pound away on two nylon-strings, occasionally adding little moments of filigree twiddling.
The name was a deliberate misspelling of a Sanskrit word for a Yoga concept [‘serpent power’] referring to ‘coiled energy’: enlightenment with libidinous overtones. It also sounded foreign and inauthentic at the same time. We agreed to paint on moustaches to add to the joke. I would comment that I lost my real one in a boating accident. We also had character names, but no real characters. Juan Moretime-Kundelini, Jose Cardown-Kundelini and, inexplicably for a time, Tim McNamara-Kundelini. You can hear the final names in the audio. We’d play up the inauthenticity, claiming to be identical triplets. So far, so silly.
We did up a home demo cassette, I painted up some costumes and did a photo shoot in front of some butcher’s paper at my place. There were lots of agents in town at the time brokering corporate and street gigs, so we sent the stuff to them and got work. Very early on we performed in the Queen Street Mall, the central shopping precinct in the Brisbane CBD. We sang and played well into the three mics and soon learned that if you said ‘Ole!’ at the end of a song you’d get applause. We began to strike poses, and offer patter and puns in cod-Spanish accents.
I’d push my skinny body into the songs, wiggling my legs and butt while playing high-slung guitar as fast as the song would take. I knew by now that in sincerely inhabiting the songs physically, doing it ‘for real’ as a white guy without a funky bone in his body, I’d get a laugh. It was less effective if I went for the laugh first.
We were capable of creating some quite beautiful moments as well. Sinatra’s Somethin’ Stupid I’d duet with David. Beatles songs. Til There Was You. South of the Border. As we gained confidence, we’d arrange more challenging material such as the Andrews Sister’s & Bing Crosby’s Three Caballereos. This being pre-internet, it meant scouring record shops and libraries for new material, which was something I loved doing. Being obviously bogus meant we could try anything.
The work came easy. Started a bank account and put some in the pot each time as well as taking a fee. Peter’s wife Katherine began managing the group. We expanded our repertoire and eventually had more songs than we needed and focused on favourites. We got some new costumes made and imported some real sombreros. We gathered another member: my friend Stephen Davis, who’d seen how much fun we were having. Sancho Verimuch-Kundelini.
We recorded a studio demo, multitracking some tunes and playing others live, incorporating the backing vocals and curlicues we’d stuck into the songs to amuse our audiences, but principally ourselves. I loved this session, planning and playing it. I came up with some linking ideas, that the Kundelini Brothers would ‘ride’ in to the studio, then ‘ride away’ on an invisible horse.
We turned it into a CD which we gave to people we might get work from. One of these potential employers was Dreamworld, a theme park down the Gold Coast. We played an audition down there at 8am one morning. We were a bit rusty at that time of day, but we got the gig.
Dreamworld had decided that populating the park with ‘crazy characters’ would be a good strategy for getting more punters in. They filmed a TV advert, in which the Kundelini Brothers featured prominently. My barber saw it on telly, so I gave him a CD which he said he and all his mates loved and would listen to after a few drinks.
The theme park gigs were well-timed, and for a while there, well-paid. They’d tide us all over into January, a particularly dark time for freelance performers. They were grueling, up to 5 40 minute sets a day, and the days were quite long. We’d play cards in a stinky demountable during the breaks, the rollercoaster rolling overhead. We worked hard, sweating into our costumes as we performed not only to people, but traveled from place to place in a choreographed musical ‘walk’, all bum-slaps and camp high-kicks. I was convinced that the group needed to have a design function as well – that even viewed from a distance, there’d be entertainment value.
I’d worked with street performers in the past who’d turned to the dark side. They’d mistaken aggression for energy, and would tend to assault audiences with their performances, rather than invite them in. I hated working with people like this. It emerged that the Kundelini Brothers were good at serenading. That is, approaching a potentially receptive audience, and presenting them with a song dedicated to them. This activity’s perfectly suited to public space, especially ones where people might be queuing for one thing or another.
I took pride in the group approaching them with respect and giving them something that they’d enjoy. We were quite obviously nice chaps, and would serenade an obviously married woman, or make up a song for kids about their pet. We’d celebrate our virile manhood alongside paunchy dads. On quieter days it could be absurd, lonesome work. I had a very personal connection to this this viral video when it came out…
We didn’t perform to any belugas, but we may have amused some tigers. Repeating the material ad-nauseam wasn’t good for me mentally, but it meant we got very tight musically. We gathered the last lot of new material. I was concerned about perceptions of ethnic stereotyping, though the rough concept we were working under was clearly not based in it. I researched real mariachi music and we worked some real Mexican and Spanish stuff into the sets, but it didn’t really stick. The only people who enjoyed it were Spanish-speakers, and then it was because our Spanish was so terrible.
We arranged a ‘retreat’ up at David’s’ parent’s house up at the Sunshine Coast where we’d notionally decided to write a Kundelini stage show, but ended up drinking beer and playing cards instead. We stood in the sea together.
We stopped rehearsing. There was no need. We were playing all the time. So the material settled and it was like riding a bike. In the best sense of the word. Of course we all had our own stuff going on around and alongside the group. Acting, bands, other jobs. We realized that we’d get more work if we went back to being a three-man unit. We drafted in other guys who could cover for us if any members were unavailable, teaching them the best of the material. Danny Murphy was our go-to guy, but there were others – up to 8 of us at one stage, who could have called themselves Kundelini Brothers.
We decided to go with one agent in particular, who had taken acts overseas, principally Asia. We wanted to go too. Eventually we ended up going to Hong Kong, twice. We performed roving and stage sets, including one inexplicable gig in front of live-feed images of ourselves on a vast vidi-wall, for thousands of screaming girls. They were assembled to see a HK pop-star, not us.
The offers such as the three month gig working over there was appealing in principle, but in practice, none of us wanted to, or were able to do it. Other commitments. Children. David K had left to join a successful group called the Ten Tenors and was pursuing an operatic career that involved lots of touring.
The last serenade I did with the Kundelini Brothers was a secret gig. Pete and I did it as a duo. We drove up to a block of flats, unusually, arriving in costume. We waited for a text. It came. We put our sombreros on, crept down a sloping driveway, and took our place beneath a second story balcony.
We began playing Til There Was You gently and David Kidd invited his girlfriend Liz out onto the balcony, where he went down on one knee and proposed to her. She fell into his arms, and we walked back up the drive, still playing, got in the car and drive away. (She said ‘yes’.)
We loved eachother’s company, and I’m proud of what we did. I felt protected by the group. They made me laugh. Sitting in dressing rooms between sets, surrounded by clowns, musicians sporting mascots and garlic-stinking stilt-walkers, we played a lot of cards, mostly ‘500’. It’s one of the few card games where there’s sweet glory in losing comprehensively via a lay-down misere. But the pleasure and tension of the game, like a musical group, is sustained by partnership, faith, belief, strategy, risk and guesswork.