Jayden Lillyst is a musician, teacher and Gunditjmara man. His mother and maternal ancestors are of the Gunditjmara - the traditional owners of the southwestern Victorian locales of Warrnambool, Port Fairy, Woolsthorpe and Portland.
Jayden is also an Old Paradian – a final year student of 2001 who preceded his brother Matthew (2006) at the Bundoora campus and followed in the footsteps of his late father Gary (with whom he is pictured in 2014), who completed his schooling at the ‘Old Bluestone Pile’ in 1966. Jayden’s nephews Jamaica Ilsley (2018) and Rylie Cadd (2019) were also schooled at Bundoora.
Now based in Ballarat, home to Jayden was once a brick veneer premises in Wimpole Crescent, Bellfield – not far from Thornbury where he recently reflected on his life and times.
Between gulps of his cappuccino in a quaint High Street café, Jayden talked of his great love for the process of songwriting and singing, and for playing guitar.
“I still have the guitar I played in my first lessons,” he said proudly. “It’s still going strong. It’s given me the pleasure of playing with Uncle Archie Roach and Paul Kelly. I had bought this guitar down on Brunswick Street (Frontier Music), which isn’t bad for the $300 I paid for it . . . 20 years-plus and still going.
“I started learning guitar at Parade, in Year 8 under Mr Tsiambatzis, but there was also quite a lot of cool musicians in our family. Everyone sees Uncle Archie Roach but there was also Uncle Tony Lovett, Uncle Alf Bamblett and ‘Uncle Crow’ - Peter Rotumah, Mum’s brother - who pretty much mentored me.
“I saw Uncle Crow play at a lot of family dos and decided ‘I want to be a rock star like him when I grow up’. You liken it to someone liking Tupac actually meeting Tupac . . . for me it was Uncle Crow.”
For more than 15 years, Jayden’s performed as a solo artist and in cover bands including Sally and The Drunken Uncles, Swamp Monkey, SKIN Choir, and The Blackies.
“I love getting up to play. It’s providing a service for people,” he said. “Even now, when I’m not getting paid to do it because of the Corona virus, I still love to play to people who have been isolated.
“I’ve been playing live to people on facebook and it’s been great to know that my cousins are also watching on with their kids, whether in Port Augusta or somewhere in WA, or in the Top End at Jabiru. They’re getting that same experience I got when my family and I used to watch my Aunties and Uncles play in places like the Heywood Town Hall.
Speaking of the direct impact of the pandemic upon his own family, Jayden assured that although his wife Kylea (a Wurundjeri woman employed in disability services) had been restricted in their movements, they are once again finding normalcy, as are their children – 12 year-old son Jack (now a Year 7 student at St. Pat’s) and six year-old daughter Kamryn (currently in prep).
“It’s just meant that we’ve found other ways to assist, whether through Skype and Zoom, that sort of thing,” Jayden said.
“The same with my music. It’s just how I do business now, and there are pros and cons. My son does have specific behaviour issues, such as interrupting in class, but the perk in studying at home was that he had a mute button (laughs) . . . so he could still do his work, do his thing and press the mute button.”
Since April last year, and with the support of the Ballarat & District Aboriginal Co-operative (BADAC), Jayden has immersed himself in primary prevention program called ‘Burron Guli’ (meaning ‘Boy to Man’ in Wadawurrung language) – in keeping with similar work he’d undertaken with his mother Delsie Lillyst for the Catholic Education Office since 2002.
“A lot of the musical and educational stuff I was doing isn’t happening right now because of the pandemic, but BADAC has still seen fit to keep me employed to deliver a lot of the cultural things also,” Jayden said.
“The primary prevention programs relate to family violence prevention, and I’ve been working with young boys in primary schools to help them develop better behaviours as they get older and form relationships.
“Culturally translated, this is a promotion of good, positive messages for young fellas, to make sure they get a good start and help them along the way before they become offenders. Culture keeps us safe. Giving them a strong start with culture will keep them and their families safe.”
Jayden’s taken much from his time at Parade in imparting his knowledge and experience on the primary school students he seeks to support. He sees that what he does is also in keeping with Aboriginal culture in terms of inner service – that as with the land “there’s no ownership . . . it’s about serving”.
Jayden’s exposure to his Collingwood Catholic father’s family and Indigenous mother’s kinfolk truly enriched his upbringing and helped shape his broad life perspective. Thinking back to happy times in Wimpole Crescent, he noted that his maternal and paternal clans always got on, reflecting his long-held view that Indigenous peoples understood the working class and the working class understood them.
“For me there was Nanna and Pa, who were Dad’s parents, and Mum’s parents Nan and Pop,” Jayden recalled. “I didn’t see much of Pop because he was for the most part living up in the NT, but I’d always see Nan when we’d visit her in Heywood.
“I knew from a young age that I was Indigenous, but as a kid I also liked watching Andrew Gaze and Shane Heal playing basketball – and while it’s true that Mum and Dad came from vastly different backgrounds, they shared a similar world view.”
Not surprisingly, Jayden spoke with great affection of men of stature within his family like Uncle Jack Charles and women of substance like Aunty Anne Taylor.
Then there’s his mother Delsie, whose maiden name of Rotumah can be sourced to Rotumah Island, a Fijian dependency which also consists of nearby islets.
“Mum’s Dad was from the south-east Arnhem Land but there was this connection with Rotumah Island in the South Pacific,” he said.
“There’s a story that he once fronted up to a pub in the Northern Territory because he loved to have a drink with his Indigenous and non-Indigenous mates, only to be told by the bartender “Sorry, we can’t serve black fellas in here” – to which he replied: ‘Do you serve Fijians?’.”
The prevailing global outrage brought on by the horrendous death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, has of course dominated all news cycles – and Jayden has his own deep-rooted view of the meaning of the three words ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the context of the Indigenous story.
“If you go back as far as you can and you think of everyone involved - ‘Black Lives Matter’ means something to Aboriginal people, ‘Black Lives Matter’ means something to African people and ‘Black Lives Matter’ means something to various other people of colour,” Jayden said.
“But the word ‘black’ isn’t itself created by any of those people for whom it’s supposed to explain. That word is only 200 years old – it’s not an Indigenous word,” Jayden said.
“On the other side, the first non-Indigenous, fair-skinned (‘white’) people to come to Australia were thought of as ghosts or spirits by the Indigenous – so if people start dissecting it and thinking about it along these lines they might begin to understand that even the language serves as a reminder of the systemic challenges and what ‘systemic’ actually means.
“As for ‘All Lives Matter’, to me that’s just a way of saying ‘Black Lives Don’t Matter’.”
Jayden welcomed the fact that the issue of Indigenous injustice and inequality was now front and centre in the greater conversation, and that in terms of policing, even the police themselves were protesting the inherent flaws in the system.
As he said: “What all this has done is given people a voice”.
In looking back on this time at Bundoora, Jayden recalled that of the 1500 students at Parade, he was the only identifiable Indigenous student – “although I knew there was another boy, Justin Downing (1998), who was a couple of years above me”.
That said, the Gunditjman never felt isolated because the College was so inviting.
“The Parade days were good for me,” he said. “I still catch up with old schoolmates - blokes like Jeremy Hann with whom I also went to primary school at St Joseph’s Northcote - and we still share stories, because these years between Years 7 and 12 were special years.”
Further, Jayden’s truly heartened by the College’s support of today’s students from the Top End – “a good opportunity” as he puts it.
“I was involved in similar work with St. Joseph’s College out in Ferntree Gully, and what was most important was understanding where the Indigenous boys were coming from, why they sometimes couldn’t make that flight, and why that Sorry business had its obligations for them to sometimes remain back home on country, relative to ceremony."
“You’d look at a classroom and there might be only 25 students in there, but the Indigenous boys might have come from a classroom of four, so ambient noise could be an issue. Then there was English – not as a second language, but as a fourth or fifth language – and the boys I dealt with spoke Warlpiri, Laragia and Arrente and then learned English.
“St Joseph’s was doing really well with the program when I was there and it sounds to me that the same is happening with Parade. The College is obviously focusing on how the boys are received and just as importantly how the boys are receiving the College.”