Singer songwriter Christian Ravello grew up in Wollongong, New South Wales, surrounded by family. Yet, like many other children of migrants, he went through a period where he tried to fit in and assert himself as an Australia. A life-changing trip to Chile changed the way he approached music and his roots.
Ravello writes children’s books to celebrate childhood and deliver a positive message about image and belonging.
He chatted with us recently about his music, books and taking part in the film Here Out West, which landed him a nomination for the AACTA Audience Choice Award for Best Actor.
You mentioned you grew up in Wollongong in the 1970s. What do you remember about growing up there?
It was very interesting. There used to be an enormous group of Chileans who would get together in Jervis Bay, down the South coast. Every Christmas we’d get there, we’d be there camping for four or five weeks. It was such a beautiful community, but some of that’s now gone. I still go down there (Wollongong) to visit my mum and my sister, and I still see people I knew from long ago.
My dad served as the president of the Illawarra Chilean Association in Wollongong for many years.
Because my mum was used to be a teacher and one of the few Spanish teachers in the 1970s, most [children from the] Spanish-speaking communities would go to the school where she worked.
It was really nice to be amongst the community, but the irony of it all was that a part of me wanted to be Australian. I remember when I started school, they put me in a special language class (ESL) and I thought ‘Hang on, English is not my second language. That’s my first language.’ Why they do that? I don’t know, but in my mind, it was prejudice. And so, for many years, I felt I needed to prove to myself that I was Australian. For example, I didn’t play soccer; I played tennis, I played cricket—all Anglo sports.
It probably wasn’t until I turned 15 when I travelled to Chile for the first time that I started playing música Andina. After the trip, I asked myself, ‘How do I embrace my Latin heritage more?’
My Spanish back then was terrible. Even though both my parents spoke Spanish, they didn’t really speak Spanish at home. Because mum was a schoolteacher, she’d always encouraged me to speak English, perhaps because she had to learn English herself.
Migrant parents have to make some tough choices regarding language. Our fears, I guess, play an important part in which languages we teach our children first…
My parents migrated here in 1970 with my two siblings, who were born in Chile. I was born five months after they arrived in Australia.
Mum is one of seven siblings. She was the first to come to Australia and literally got off the plane and was driven in a big Ford Falcon to Wollongong, where she stayed at the [immigrant] hostels.
Mum used to work as a high school teacher in Chile but, because of her lack of English skills, she became a kindergarten teacher. She taught kindergarten for 30 years.
‘One of the most important questions they asked me was: ‘Who would you be without music?’ To be honest, the question frustrated me because I didn’t have an answer.’
You mentioned you started playing the piano at four years old. How has this influenced your work as a poet and, most recently, as an actor?
I started classical piano at four, and music has always been in my life. When I was about 16 or 17 years old, I took up the guitar and started playing the pan flute and just kept on doing music.
About four years ago, I did a TV, radio and song writing course in Los Angeles. There, one of the most important questions they asked me was: ‘Who would you be without music?’ To be honest, the question frustrated me because I didn’t have an answer.
This question somehow took a layer off whatever beliefs I may have had [about myself and my music] and I started exploring other things, like poetry.
Poetry and music. How does your music influence your poetry?
I tend to do a lot of rhyming poetry and this lends itself to writing fun rhymes for children, something that also allows me to embrace my inner child a bit more.
I was sent to a Catholic school and was an altar boy. My mum was a teacher and I feel that maybe, as a child, I didn’t have all the enjoyment I should have had. Somehow, the children’s books I write give me some of that enjoyment. It has been really nice to embrace my inner child.
Are you the main character in your books then?
In 2019, we had the devastating fires in the Blue Mountains, where I live now, and I wanted to write a book dedicated to all the animals that were lost in the bushfires. So, I wrote If I Could Be a Kangaroo.
The poem about the kangaroo is based on my son, who used to love wearing onesies. The book follows the adventures of a child who acts like a kangaroo throughout the day.
There’s also a book about being an emu, If I Could Be an Emu, which is based on my daughter, and If I Could be a Wombat, which is based on one of my stepdaughters.
I have another two [forthcoming] books [in this series] inspired by my two stepdaughters; one is about a possum and the other about a kookaburra.
These books are a fun way for children to learn about Australian animals, but each is book is a rhyming poem. When I’m writing, I ask myself: ‘If I was the child reading it, would I enjoy the story?’
What’s your process for translating your books from English to Spanish?
I translated the wombat book into Spanish, and the idea of translating the others is in the back of my mind. Bilingual books are a different market, but many people have asked me [about the translations].
Translating, for me, is a challenge because my first language is English. So Nancy Mattos has been helping with this, which is an interesting process because in poetry you can’t be so literal and the way you say things in English and Spanish is very different.
What are your musical influences?
Classical music such as Mozart and Bach, but I also grew up listening to Crowded House. The Beatles, Billy Joel.
When I went to the Chile for the first time, dad bought me a guitar. This was when there were bands like Soda Stereo, Los Pericos, Los Tres and so many of other incredible bands. It was a new world. It opened up my mind to the Rock Latino music scene.
That first trip to Chile, it clearly influenced your music. Besides the music, what do you remember from that trip? Did it also influence the way you felt about the country your siblings were born in?
In 1996, I travelled with dad to the south of Chile to the Los Lagos region. It was beautiful and green, with lots of trees and lakes. I remember going to a seafood market in Puerto Montt and had the most delicious seafood soup.
I travelled to the south of Chile again in 1995 and in 1998, when I went down as far as Punta Arenas and did a trek in the Torres Del Paine National Park. I was left in awe of the Lago Grey glacier.
I went to Chile in 2016 and caught up with my dad (he moved back to Chile around 2010). We spent a few days together travelling along the west coast of Chile (Concon, Maitencillo) and it sort of felt like we were re-living our trip from 1986, but this time it was his son taking care of dad. To this day, I hold many fond memories of the trip and the bonds that I was able to re-establish with my late father.
I love Australia and have been fortunate to visit many places. I think I appreciate many things about growing up and living in Australia all my life—and the opportunities it has provided not only my family and other migrant communities who have made Australia their home.
You’ve were nominated for your performance in the film Here Out West. How did this project come about?
I’ve always been a performer; I’d done musicals, I played in the school band. I even performed in the Spanish version of Evita the musical in Sydney many years ago. I enjoy playing music and when you get on stage, you are performing; you put on a persona in a way.
When I saw a casting call for Chilean extras for a football scene in a movie called Here Out West, I thought, why not? I applied on the very last day, and they rang me and told me to come in for the audition.
Within six weeks, I was filming. I was cast to play the role of Jorge, a divorced Chilean father and poet. A beautiful synchronism because the character was someone like me: a divorced father and a poet. It was easy for me to tap into the emotions for this character.
What has it been like to be Latin American in Australia? Do you think there’s more multiculturalism now?
I don’t think multiculturalism is presented as widely as it should. I mean, yes, you go to SBS or ABC and there is representation but other commercial channels are very Anglo.
We could be more multicultural and embrace more multicultural creators.
Which Latin American musicians do you listen to?
I love listening to Silvio Rodriguez (Cuba), Jorge Drexler (Uruguay), as well as Chilean bands such as Ilapu and Inti-Illimani. I particularly love a Chilean folk singer/songwriter called Nano Stern.
I am drawn to musicians who tell a story and not just repeat a chorus or just write songs that ‘sell to the masses’. I prefer lyrics with substance that can provoke a thought or make a statement about a particular theme or issue. The last couple of years have been challenging for the industry, but as a musician and poet, I keep sharing my own experiences and express my view of the world.