No Bull by Vika and Linda Bull

I have long been a fan of Vika and Linda Bull. Of course, there’s the Black Sorrows and their extraordinary backing vocals for Paul Kelly, but it was their self-titled debut album in 1994 – and particularly their song, Sacred Things and the incredible rendition of Many Rivers to Cross – that cemented it for me.

As is happened, they were among the last of the concerts I saw before COVID shut things down (the Between Two Shores tour, which was a celebration of their Tongan culture and other musical influences – it literally brought me to tears).

Vika and Linda’s joint memoir, No Bull, recounts their journey with music, from their childhood – singing at the Tongan church and in the car, with their mother as coach – to their start backing various bands, and eventually performing as a duo.

There is so much of Melbourne in this book (and much of it in my own hood). The Bulls grew up in Doncaster, went to school in Camberwell, lived in share houses in all the usual places (South Yarra, St. Kilda and Fitzroy), and played at pubs and venues that I spent many an evening at during the nineties (in particular, the Central Club in Richmond brought back fond memories).

The writing switches between Vika and Linda and their voices are unequivocally them – the editing has been done with the lightest touch. Like their singing, their writing is in harmony, but their individual perspectives provide richness.

Not only can we harmonise well but our differences make it work.

Anecdotes reveal their differences – Vika’s willingness to take a risk, and Linda’s attention to detail, and her obsession with fashion –

Two young brown chicks walking around Doncaster Shoppingtown dressed like they were about to go and tend to goats in the Swiss Alps must have been quite the sight…

Of course, it has not been a smooth path for Vika and Linda. They don’t shy away from describing the difficulties they had making a living from singing and their personal battles – Vika with alcohol (she is now sober) and Linda with her unhappy marriage (these things combined to cause them to be estranged for a couple of months). They also describe the racism they experienced from a young age, with Vika highlighting the fact that the marriage between her Tongan mother and Australian father was highly unusual, given that the White Australia policy was very much in existence when they met.

When I went to their author talk a few weeks ago, Vika and Linda both said that any racism they experienced was handled by their mother, who was determined to protect their father – she didn’t want him to think he’d made a mistake marrying her – and to this day he is surprised and shocked when he hears what they experienced.

Vika said that until starting school, she thought she was the same as the other kids in their neighbourhood – “No one had ever called me names before. No one had ever called me black!” There was a pivotal moment when her grandparents arrived from Tonga, and her grandpa came to pick her up from school, dressed in his ‘Sunday best’ –

...a crisp white shirt, lovely leather sandals and a tupenu – a kind of sarong. Over this was a ta’ovala, which is a woven Tongan mat, held in place with a kafa – a belt made from our hair that Mum had made especially for their arrival… Not exactly your standard Donnie grandpa uniform.

Vika was mortified, and yelled at her grandfather for drawing attention to them. She reflects on the incident with great shame, and it ultimately became the inspiration for a song that expressed how much she loved her grandpa.

The overall feeling you get from this book is one of love – a deep sisterly love; love for their family; and love for music.

Side stage, I’ll look Vik in the eye and we always give each other a nod or a little hand squeeze. It’s a private moment, tight and quiet. We have never said it aloud to each other, but I reckon we’re both reaching for the same thing: the sound we make when we get it right, the one that only comes from blood harmony, from singing together since we were little kids.

3.5/5 Probably one for fans, but their positive energy bounces off the page.

One response

  1. I’ve seen Vika and Linda, but only because I was at a Paul Kelly concert. I am envious that you saw them in their pub days. Sadly, I went to very few music pubs (the result of no money and truck driving) though I did see Hunters & Collectors at Jindabyne (then failed to take my then 17 yo daughter to see their farewell pub concert somewhere in the western suburbs, which we both regret).
    I like the sound of their writing and of course as a Blackburn and Melb Uni boy I’m pretty familiar with all their suburbs too.

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