Written by Rebecca Beisler
Beloved singing duo Vika and Linda Bull were star guests at the Uniting Church’s Let’s Talanoa session this week in a joyful conversation about their Tongan culture, faith and the power of music.
Vika and Linda have performed the world over and recorded eight albums but first began singing in their Church choir. Their parents, Siniva and Austen Bull, were founding members of the Tongan Christian Fellowship in Melbourne which grew into the Canterbury Uniting Church, a congregation that continues to be the worshipping home for a large number of UCA Tongan members.
In recent months the sisters have kept Australians singing and dancing through COVID-19 lockdowns with their weekly Sunday Sing Song recorded from Linda’s loungeroom and streamed live to social media. They quickly amassed a huge following.
Joining the Talanoa via Zoom, Vika and Linda explained that when COVID wiped out the music industry for the year they began Sunday Sing Song on a suggestion from their manager, but never expected that thousands of people would end up tuning in each week.
Like many UCA ministers who suddenly found themselves sharing worship live, Vika and Linda said they experienced a sharp learning curve on the technical aspects of sharing live to social media.
“We had to learn very quickly as we went along,” Vika explained. “We made mistakes, sometimes it was sideways, but we had a good laugh and we learned new skills. Something really great came out of it.”
Being based in Melbourne, Vika and Linda have been through the second lockdown due to the pandemic. They said that it’s tough being isolated from friends and family and to no longer be able to perform in live venues.
“Doing Sing Song gave us something to look forward to and kept our spirits up,” said Vika. “The feedback has been really wonderful. It made us want to get up and work towards something.”
The overwhelming positive response inspired their new album Sunday (The Gospel According to Iso), a collection of uplifting gospel songs that quickly found its way to number two on the Australian music charts.
Their hope is the album will be an anecdote to the struggle and isolation of 2020.
One of the songs on the album, Memphis Flu, was originally written in the 1930s is even about the deadly 1929 influenza season. Despite its bright melody, the dark lyrics made them think twice about whether to include it.
Putting pain in your bones – a few days you are gone – to a place in the ground called the grave…
Yes it gets rich and poor and it’s going to get more. If you don’t listen up and behave.
“We ummed and ahhed about it because it is so raw,” said Vika. “We were unsure because people were really sick, and people were dying, but then we thought we have to include it, because it’s what we’re living, it’s what we’re going through now.”
The sisters shared how they themselves drew strength and inspiration from music.
“Music is very uplifting, it’s like my saviour,” said Vika. “And I really love it when I’m singing with my sister. And I love Tongan singing. When Tongans harmonise together, to hear that, it is something else. It so beautiful and moving. Every time we hear a Tongan choir, we cry.”
Vika shared how it was their mother who first taught them how to sing.
“When I think about singing, I always think about my mother,” said Vika. “Her singing in Church, and everyone in the congregation singing along and her strong faith. I’ve always drawn on that, not only how much she believes in God, but her love of mankind, that’s what Mum is about.”
Linda shared how their Tongan upbringing had instilled in them the values that helped forge their careers.
“A big part of our upbringing involved respect and we learned that through the Tongan community. Simple things like, you’re a kid, let your elders go first. (In Tongan community) you know who is important in the room and that’s really important in music as well. You have to know boundaries, who to look to, whose toes not to step on, and you only learn that by being quiet and watching, Tongans taught us that.”
“Also we learned patience, because as kids we had to wait a lot, and we had to wait a lot in music.”
Visiting Tonga as children remains a favourite childhood memory.
“We love both our countries, but visiting Tonga was so different,” said Linda. “We didn’t know that Tonga didn’t have TV in the 70s and that was a shock. We loved the ocean. We loved the colours and we loved the heat and we loved our family - the way they welcomed us with open arms even though they’d never met us. It is a feeling I’ll never forget. We feel like we’ve got a foot in both countries, and that’s a good feeling.”
Vika and Linda also spoke about challenges of being two women of colour and the racism they had experienced in Australia both as children and throughout their career.
Vika shared how she was picked on at school and her own regret at being embarrassed when her grandfather picked her up at the school gate wearing his tupenu, a traditional skirt worn by men in the Pacific.
Linda also said the sisters had “copped a lot” of racism in their career, including being refused into venues. But over the years she said that she and Linda had received so much positive feedback about how their careers had encouraged and inspired other singers of colour from different cultural backgrounds.
“We didn’t realise at the time the impact of our culture. Also because we were singing together, actually, what that did was put two Pacific Island faces on TV at same time, not just one, or none. Our strength was that we had each other.”
To move our nation forward Vika said she believes Australia needs to embrace our First Nations people, and to have more diverse faces on our TVs and in the public space.
Finally, the sisters shared why they had chosen “Amazing Grace” as the final song for their album.
“When we go to Church and we hear a closing song, you walk out the door and you feel blessed. That’s how I see Amazing Grace, I see it as a blessing,” said Linda.
Vika added: “I felt it was good for this album because it is about salvation and hopefully we’re going to get through this time. It’s been a terrible time. We’ve all been cut off from one another. But it’s also given us time to be at home and to reflect on what’s important and what isn’t.”
“It is a perfect ending for this record, for what were all going through.”
Ofa atu, Vika and Linda!