A Life Through Music

From Story Act 2, 2017

Eadric Ayres considers the importance and magic of music in not just telling the story of our lives, but also in shaping who we are.

In 2014, America’s National Public Radio’s program, The Protojournalist, asked listeners to contribute to a project A Life Story in 6 Songs. The project captured the public’s imagination, confirming the idea that music infuses our lives and that humans are a species with music in our ears, hearts, memories and spirits.

Is there a list of six songs that could tell the story of your life so far? Musician and writer Eddie Ayres considers the importance and magic of music in not just telling the story of our lives, but also in shaping who we are.

Besheda sat on a chipped and wobbly chair, her hijab pushed behind her ears and a wisp of deep black hair falling into her eyes. Sounds of other children came from the corridor – scampering and giggling, shouting and cajoling. Besheda remained silent, her calloused, raw hands wrapped around a yellowing bow and a child’s cello. Silence, and then, a tiny miracle. Besheda put the bow to the string and drew from her cello music, for the first time ever. A simple open string song. Music, in a land where it had been banned for what must have seemed like a child’s eternity.

Besheda is a young Afghan girl and lives in a refugee camp in Kabul for internally displaced people. It is hell on earth – filthy, crowded, dangerous and with little protection from the viciousness of Afghanistan’s winter, summer and society. Besheda’s life is bewilderingly hard. Every Friday, her one day off school, she must work all day helping her mother with cleaning and cooking, hence the calloused hands. It is a life that few people could survive with any dignity. It is a life with an endless need for resistance.

We humans fight so much in our lives. We may not all be a Nancy Wake with the whole of the Nazi movement to fight, but still, daily we resist the little things – road rage, a petty boss, a forgetful friend, a passive-aggressive parent, a fondness for chocolate. And from those small resistances, larger ones find their place – fighting for fairness, the environment, equal opportunities no matter who we are or where we come from. Every day brings a new need, whether beyond or within ourselves, and every day music plays its part in helping us. Music has kept us walking, marching, working, playing, dancing, thinking, sleeping, talking and loving, when perhaps all we would do is curl up and give up. What do our mothers do for us, as one of the first acts of love? They sing to us. And so music begins. Music is a gift that has spurred mankind for millennia; without music, mankind is mute.

I taught Besheda the cello at the Afghanistan National Institute for Music in Kabul for a year. When she came to me, she was nervous, quiet, distrustful and wary. As the months went by, music worked its magic on Besheda. She began to smile, to chat, to respond to ideas, to interact with others in a way that seemed impossible before she began to play the cello. By the time I left, Besheda had mastered a selection of basic folk tunes, was playing duets and had performed in front of one of the greatest poets in Afghanistan, Massoud Khalili. Besheda, through music, had found her voice. She had found a way to resist the life that decades of warlords, drug lords, invading forces and crippling societal laws had forced upon her.

Besheda is only one of hundreds of students at the Institute in Kabul who have found resistance to their world by making music. Perhaps the stories are not so dramatic for the boys, but for the girls many of them have had to resist pressure from their families and neighbours to stop making music, to be silent, to acquiesce and be ‘good girls’. Through learning their own Afghan and Western music, these courageous girls create a positive cycle of love and achievement in their lives. And it all begins with a single, tentative sound on their chosen instrument. Through learning music, they learn the most important thing any of us must learn – our own capability.

My own life has been completely shaped by music. I saw music’s power at a very young age, because my home had no music. My mother kept records and a record player from before her divorce, but she knew the music held within that vinyl was so powerful, it would destroy her if she heard it. And so we lived a stifled life, until one day my big sister couldn’t resist the pull of those singles anymore and Petula Clark singing "Downtown" spun into the room, to be followed by Dave Brubeck and Astrud Gilberto. It was Astrud who dealt the final blow on my mother. As the "Shadow Of Your Smile" darkened the house, my mother crumpled over the washing up in the sink, unable to resist any more the great loss of her love. Music can help us resist, but it can also destroy that struggle with the strum of a guitar.

My own resistance to accepting I was transgender was aided by music.

Through music, I could lose myself and forget the things that needed to be dwelt upon and surrendered to. But as I finally came to that acceptance, music changed with me. And as I go through the immeasurably difficult journey of transitioning to male, music has been my guide, my teacher, my priest, my confessor, my friend and my counsel. Because music sustains us. As my love Carol says, music lifts us to a place where we can accept ourselves. To truly listen to music, we need to go inward without hesitation or reserve, we need to be truly self-aware, we must be truly at one with ourselves.

Music does magical things. It shifts the deepest, most hidden fears within us and allows us to face them. It exposes the terror and divinity inside us. Whether it is a teenager listening to heavy metal, a mother dancing to funk, a pensioner alone with Beethoven, music brings us to a place beyond words, where we can eventually live with ourselves, and therefore with others. Music creates infinite emotions, but the greatest of these must be love, and through love, strength and resolve. So you, dear reader, I hope you can go right now and listen to music. Any music. Rap, Mozart, hip hop, Debussy, blues, Messiaen, rock and roll, folk, Bach. It doesn’t matter. Listen to what you love and what you don’t know. Surprise your ears and your spirit. Because with music, we can know ourselves. And because music is eternally a demonstration of the universal harmony within us all.



Nancy Wake, a prominent figure in the French Resistance during the Second World War, was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on 30 August 1912. Her family moved to Sydney, where she grew up, when Nancy was just 20 months old. She ran away from home at the age of 16 and found work as a nurse, but a windfall enabled her to leave Australia for Europe in 1932. Wake settled in Paris, working for the Hearst group of newspapers as a journalist.

As the 1930s progressed, the rise of German Fascism formed the basis of many of Wake's stories. In 1935, she visited Vienna and Berlin where the overt and violent anti-Semitism formed in her a desire to oppose Nazism. In November 1939, she married Henri Fiocca, a wealthy industrialist, in Marseilles. Six months later, Germany invaded France. Wake and Fiocca joined the fledgling Resistance after France's surrender in 1940.

Her growing involvement in the Resistance saw Wake and her husband assisting in the escape of Allied servicemen and Jewish refugees from France into neutral Spain. Fearful of being captured, she too fled Marseilles and, after several thwarted attempts and a brief period in prison, Wake escaped across the Pyrenees. In June 1943, she reached England where she began working in the French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

After a period of training, Wake returned to France in April 1944 to help organise the Resistance before D-Day. Working in the Auvergne region, Wake was engaged in organising parachute drops of arms and equipment, and after D-Day, was involved in combat with bodies of German troops sent to destroy the Maquis.

Upon liberation, Wake learned that her husband, Henri, had been killed by the Gestapo in August 1943. In September 1944, she left the Resistance and went to SOE Headquarters in Paris, and then to London in mid-October. After the war, she was decorated by Britain, France and the United States but, being unable to adapt to life in post-war Europe, she returned to Australia in January 1949 aged 37. Shortly afterwards, she ran for the Liberal Party against Labor's 'Doc' Evatt and, having been narrowly defeated, made a second attempt in 1951, again unsuccessfully.

Unsatisfied with life in Australia, Wake returned to England. In 1957, she married John Forward, an RAF officer. The couple returned to Australia in 1959. A third attempt to enter politics also failed and she and Forward ultimately retired to Port Macquarie where they lived until his death in 1997. In December 2001, she left Australia for England where she lived out her remaining years.

She received the George Medal, 1939-45 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, British War Medal 1939-45, French Officer of the Legion of Honour, French Croix de Guerre with Star and two Palms, US Medal for Freedom with Palm and French Medaille de la Resistance for her courageous endeavours. Wakes' medals are on display in the Second World War gallery at the Australian War Memorial.


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Eddie Ayres is a teacher and writer, based in Brisbane. Eddie was born on the White Cliffs of Dover, England and began playing violin when he was eight years old. He studied viola in Manchester, Berlin and London, played professionally in the UK and Hong Kong, and moved to Australia in 2003. Eddie was the presenter of ABC Classic FM’s breakfast program for many years. Eddie’s first book, Cadence, is about his journey by bicycle from England to Hong Kong, with only a violin for company. His second book, Danger Music, is being published in October. Eddie was born Emma, and transitioned just before his 50th birthday. Better late than never.