LEISHA JUNGALWALLA: Removing the facade
Leisha Jungalwalla grew up in country Victoria in a small town at the junction of two highways. In many respects it was a typical Australian town, with a gendered and passionate focus on football and netball.
Jungalwalla went against the grain and took to AFL instead of netball. As a young woman of Indian and Anglo-Australian heritage, she challenged the status quo in more ways than one.
Now as an adult and musician in band This Way North, Jungalwalla is working to challenge the status quo again and would like to see a change in how women are received in the music business. Throughout February Jungalwalla will host a music event in Melbourne called Sass the Patriarchy.
THE PIN. Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
LEISHA JUNGALWALLA. I grew up in Alexandra, it’s a really small town in Victoria with about two-thousand people. It was also a very white town. As far as different cultures went it was the Cutting family, the Jungalwallas, and the family who owned the Chinese restaurant. That was about as much cultural difference as you got in Alexandra.
I grew up with one foot in the door of my small country town community and the other in another culture. My dad is Indian, my grand-parents came to Australia in the late sixties. Alexandra was a very stereotypical Australian country town - the thing that was really popular was to be good at sport and play football or netball.
My parents were pretty open people, they were always open to talking about culture and exposing us to different things. Growing up in a town like Alexandra, there were a lot of small minded attitudes that we had to try and diligently correct. If people were being racist or judging someone with no information or understanding of that particular culture, we let them know we weren’t okay with that.
...we grew up in the same community and this is something we never talked about. That point you made of ‘the Cutting family, the Jungawallas, and the family who owned the Chinese restaurant’ is very true....
LJ. I’ve had a lot of discussions with your sister about this. Us Jungalwallas had dark skin but your family [the Cuttings] did particularly stand out and I’m not sure how you went at high-school but I know for your sister and brother that there were times it was fine, but there were also times it was not. We were all really aware of other cultures existing, particularly because our parents were from other cultures. Trying to explain that to other people there was really frustrating.
Did your parents make an active attempt to get you involved in Indian culture?
LJ. It is hard to differentiate sometimes between the cultural and religious aspects of my dad’s Indian culture. We were definitely exposed to it but my parents were both not particularly religious and therefore didn’t really connect with that side.
When you moved from Alexandra, did it change how you saw yourself?
LJ. Culturally, I am pretty removed from my Indian background. Through travelling I connected with many cultures I knew were out there but hadn’t been properly exposed to. I guess I felt a lot more open and understanding following that experience.
When I travelled to America I did connect really closely with my second cousin, and her brother. We had that sort of understanding where we both knew what it was like to straddle two cultures. She was one of the first people my age who I’ve connected with like that.
Moving into your music career. How are women received differently to men in the music industry?
LJ. People know that women should be valued as much as men, but it’s taking a long time for people to accept that right off the bat. You still get judged very quickly even though most people know they shouldn’t do that.
My bandmate and I play drums and guitar. Every time we perform people settle in to have a lovely, soft, and gentle experience with us and we don’t play like that at all. We blow their ears off a little bit. It’s always fun, you see people’s faces change.
I think that’s just part of the preconceived idea of what women bring to the music industry. There’s only a few women who have come out on top.
Which female musicians inspire you?
LJ. Instrumentally, Bonnie Raitt is an amazing guitarist.
One of my idols is Sharon Jones. I remember seeing her for the first time at a festival maybe eleven years ago. She came out on stage and did the most amazing performance, and just blew me away. I loved her strength and non-sexualness. It’s wasn’t about her trying to grind and bump. It was about her being a killer singer, excellent dancer, and amazing entertainer.
Sass the Patriarchy is an event you’re putting on in Melbourne to address issues of female representation in the music industry, but it’s not all about women on the stage is it?
LJ. Yeah, it’s about creating equal opportunities for men and women. Sass the Patriarchy is about getting together and showcasing amazing women in the Melbourne music scene. We want guys to be involved as well, because we need men just as much as we need women, to be supportive to enact change. Even moreso.
For the event we’ll have amazing female led bands performing, artists exhibiting their work, and people like Tracee Hutchison [Music Victoria], Richard Moffat [Festival Programmar, Groovin’ the Moo], and Dallas Frasca [musician] involved in discussions on strategies and change.
Where do you see that change starting?
LJ. Even in the little things, such as listening to everybody's music in equal measure, taking a chance, and enabling women to get out their and improve their playing.
Something that can easily be done is the times women are playing and having more women on festival lineups. Even how guys approach you and talk to you, do they talk to you like someone who knows what they’re doing, or someone who has no idea. It happens all the time and you have to keep constantly proving yourself. It’s so nice to meet somebody in the industry who can accept that you know what you’re doing.
For female musicians coming up through the ranks, what are your hopes for them in the next ten years?
LJ. I hope there is equal opportunity for everybody. I hope that people approach them in a way that gives encouragement.
When I was a kid growing up with AFL, my dad had to argue for me to play Auskick. They wouldn’t let girls play. From that to where we are now, with the AFL womens league, is huge. I’d like to see the same emphasis and encouragement for women in the music industry.
THE PIN. And for the kid who’s that only kid in a country town who is noticeably different, what would you say to them?
LEISHA JUNGALWALLA. I always had pride in being different and pride in knowing that there were more cultures out there in the world. Try and find that pride somewhere. Even if you’re not different in culture, but you’re different in another way.
When you get older, and reflect, you’ll be happy that you saw the world with open eyes and your abilities with open eyes as well.
*This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: provided by Leisha Jungalwalla.