Ushuaia

by Tumbler

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about

On the south coast of Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. Founded late in the 19th century, today it has a population of about 60,000 people, from just 4,000 fifty years ago. The name is taken from the Yamana language and means ‘deep bay’.

The Yamana were the southernmost of three tribes long-established on Tierra del Fuego. To the north the other two tribes lived by hunting. Down on the southern coast in contrast the Yamana lived in small, family communities, eating fish and berries and using their primitive canoes to move to wherever food was available. They lived together in this way for 7,000 years.

Unlike the more northerly tribes, the Yamana didn’t wear furs but lived naked in the harsh climate with only grease and sometimes a rough cape to protect them from the constant rain and cold. The men paddled the canoes but didn’t swim, relying on their women to dive into the freezing waters to hunt fish and other marine life.

A life spent crouching and kneeling in canoes meant that over the generations their legs became relatively thin and weak. Always on the move, they built small temporary huts for themselves. They didn’t have any large, established settlements. Fire was important for warmth and cooking, and they learnt how to keep embers alive in their canoes when they moved to a new site in search of fresh food sources.

They were a peaceable tribe, living in harmony with both their surroundings and each other. One early missionary, Thomas Bridges, sought to catalogue and understand their language. ‘Yamana’ in their language means simply ‘man’. As he gathered his material, Bridges was surprised to discover a language of well over 30,000 words. (In contrast the average native English speaker today has a vocabulary of about 20,000.)

The richness of the Yamana vocabulary, all verbal because they didn’t have writing, was born from a simple life where talking with each other was the prime recreation. They didn’t have generic terms for things like birds and fish, using instead specific individual words for each different type. A whole range of individual emotions and feelings (for example, the way you feel when after a fine time together a friend leaves you) had their own specific words.

In the late 19th century European traders, missionaries and a few settlers began to arrive. Commercial fishing in the waters around Tierra del Fuego began to damage fish and whale stocks, reducing the Yamana’s food supply.

The northern tribes were treated aggressively by settlers who wanted the land for sheep farming. Many were killed, sometimes for sport, and the rest driven away. Further south, the Yamana suffered a different fate. They didn’t have valuable land but instead caught the attention of well-meaning missionaries, keen to bring them Christianity and put them into western-style clothes and shelter.

Clothes and enclosed living didn’t suit the Yamana. They started to fall prey to disease. In 1876 a serious smallpox epidemic killed two-thirds of an estimated population of around 3,000. By the mid-20th century only a handful of Yamana were left, today they’re all gone. The missionaries wanted to bring them to God. They certainly succeeded.

Why should we care?

Every time an animal or a plant becomes extinct, something important is irretrievably lost. It should feel even more of a tragedy when extinction happens to members of our own human family. Instead though we seem to pay it little heed – it’s of mild historical interest, just a minor footnote to the far more important story of our own civilisation’s evolution and the march of our own inevitable progress.

And yet – how on earth did these humans make their way of life work so well for so long? Seven thousand years is an unimaginable length of time for people to survive, work and live in peace together. Our present Western culture goes back only a few hundred years.
It hasn’t been noticeably peaceable.

A vocabulary of thirty-two thousand words - held in heads and hearts and transferred down through the generations via speech rather than writing - is also unimaginable. It suggests a level of awareness and a richness of communication that we, despite all our education and self-styled advanced civilisation, don’t come close to matching.

How much could we have learned from them? How much could we have gained? How much richer would we all be if the Yamana were still part of the human family, if they still had a place on this planet we share?
But they’re gone – gone forever. Ushuaia is now just one more far-flung, wind-blown outpost of our Western civilisation.

Some of the tourists who visit may take a passing interest in the Yamana but most don’t. They come for the fishing, the skiing, perhaps the landscape. The little tin-roof museum that told their story (‘Museo Yamana’) never did a big trade, and closed last year.

Our song 'Ushuaia' starts with a Misa Criolla-inspired lament, a single voice wailing in tragic loss above choral harmony, with charango/mandolin introducing the folk sound of Latin America.

This isn’t Tumbler’s culture. Our music instead has its roots in Western rhythms and structure, and particularly in this case the folk protest tradition. After the intro piece, plain acoustic guitar takes over and the story begins – “Woke up in Ushuaia, at the end of the world”.

As the song develops, Andean pan pipes, charango/mandolin and bombo percussion reintroduce and overlay the texture and flavour of South America. As the story unfolds, later on the lamenting voice reappears in the background.

The Yamana’s story is of two cultures meeting. We wanted to reflect that in the way we recorded the song. Mostly though, we wanted the song to tell the story of these people’s disappearance – of how terrible and tragic it is and, worst of all, of how little we actually truly care.
The song ends on a fade: “Woke up in Ushuaia… woke up in Ushuaia…”

In Ushuaia we woke up to something important. We hope others will too.

lyrics

Ushuaia

Woke up in Ushuaia
At the end of the world
Stone’s throw from Antarctica
Sure is cold at the end of the world

All of life conceived yeah
From a single stem
Out of Africa we came
Spread around the world continent at a time
Cross the Bering Strait
When the world was young
Spread down through the Americas
Last place on earth the Yamana made home

Woke up in Ushuaia
At the end of the world
Whole damn sky on fire
Ghost canoes at the end of the world
Seven thousand years
Yamana were here
Thirty thousand words
No more no more heard
Woke up in Ushuaia
At the end of the world
Whole damn sky on fire
Sure is cold at the end of the world
But if you wrap up warm
You’re gonna be okay
What’s done is done yeah
And we’re still here at the end of the day

Woke up in Ushuaia
At the top of the crest
Child of western culture
You got to be the best if you’re all that’s left
All of life conceived
From a single stem
No need to grieve
Just hide behind the lie about us and them
Woke up in Ushuaia
All the Yamana gone
Seven thousand gentle years
Blown to the wind soon as we came along
But if you wrap up warm
You’re gonna be okay
What’s done is done yeah
And we’re still here at the end of the day

Woke up in Ushuaia

Woke up in Ushuaia

Woke up in Ushuaia

credits

released August 14, 2017

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about

Tumbler Epsom, UK

Folk/rock project Tumbler introduce 'Ushuaia' - follow up single to albums 'Come to the Edge' and 'You Said'.

Featuring Harry Grace, Dave Needham and Richard Grace.

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