IT’S not everyday that you catch me praising a new CD for being “useful”, but so it is with “Dust of Uruzgan” by Canberra contemporary folksinger Fred Smith.
Useful? Shouldn’t an artist be complimented for being imaginative or funny? Normally, yes, but imaginative and funny as it undoubtedly is, Smith’s album is very useful, indeed.
That’s because it’s dedicated to the 18 months he spent as a DFAT officer around Taren Kowt, Afghanistan. And Smith has some important things to tell us, both in song and the equally useful liner notes to this album, about this mystifying conflict. You’ll even get to understand the strange Dutch practice of “swaffelen.” (Oh, all right, it’s “penis-swinging”).
Smith’s back in Canberra now, which he calls a nice contrast to life in Uruzgan province, and will soon embark on a 30-concert tour of the country.
And since we’re allowed to talk about the war here, he doesn’t think we should pull out altogether.
When you hear him sing about the education minister who couldn’t read and write and another minister who ran a “knock shop”, you’ll understand how useful we are in encouraging civil change.
While on posting, he lived in shipping containers, played ping-pong (“really big up there”) got close to the action in the district of Chora and performed with local, Dutch and American musicians, the last in 2C temperatures on Christmas Day.
Once, he even talked to an Afghan woman. “I don’t think you’d want to be one of them,” he says. His insights into their condition are reflected in “A Thousand Splendid Suns” and “Trembling Sky”.
Smith usually “becomes” other characters serving in Afghanistan; half singing, half speaking, he opens with the heartbreaking title song telling how Ben Ranaudo, from Springvale, Victoria, was killed by an IED [improvised explosive device].
It’s almost a relief when he adopts his normal laconic style for the tuneful “Live like an Afghan,” in which he steps inside the shoes of the people in whose country he’s serving. A pseudo-pop note creates a similar sense of irony in “Better Soldier.”
It’s not just the Australian perspective. In “Taliban Fighting Man”, he becomes an American Marine who’s so enjoyed fighting and male friendship, that he finds it hard to contemplate going home.