With a remarkable history that stretches back at least 50,000 years, the indigenous people of Australia are part of the world’s oldest cultures. Preserving their ancient heritage through a complex oral tradition of mythological “Dreamtime” stories, music has always played a central role in maintaining cultural identity. From the traditional sounds of voice, bilma (clapsticks) and yidaki (didgeridoo) through to contemporary singer-songwriters and rock bands, Australia’s indigenous music continues to evolve in fascinating ways.
Aboriginal creation myths tell of legendary totemic beings who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – animals, plants, rocks, waterholes – and so singing the world into existence. The songlines are paths which can be traced across the continent, linking sacred spirits that have returned to the land. Thus, they define the intangible relationship between Aboriginal music, beliefs and the land.
The indigenous people of Australia are thought to have arrived between 40,000 and 100,000 years ago. In 1770 English explorer James Cook claimed the continent for Britain, which he justified by the legal concept of terra nullius (“no man’s land”) – a distinctly European idea defined as “an absence of civilization”.
From 1788, the indigenous people were driven off their ancestral lands and resettled, or hunted and killed like animals. Such brutal practices persisted until well into the twentieth century, and discrimination has continued, with the recognition of Aboriginal rights a relatively recent development. European settlement also meant the suppression of traditional culture, the importation of diseases and the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. There are currently over 450,000 people in Australia who identify themselves as indigenous and some two hundred surviving languages.
Since the 1950s one of the strongest influences on contemporary Aboriginal music has been country music. Adapting the tradition of campfire singing, Aboriginal singers such as Jimmy Little have had continued success. Other prominent country-influenced performers/songwriters include Bob Randall and the Pigram Brothers.
The real revolution in Aboriginal music began in the late 1970s, with the documentary film Wrong Side of the Road, showing the rock bands No Fixed Address and Us Mob struggling to get exposure for their reggae-influenced songs. It marked the beginning of a public recognition of music as a tool in the fight to communicate the Aboriginal story.
The number of Aboriginal rock bands formed over the past three decades is phenomenal. The desert-bred Warumpi Band attracted attention as the first mixed Aboriginal and white group, singing in both tribal languages and English.
Since 1990 there has been continuous development within the indigenous rock/reggae scene, with most new bands coming from the regions around Darwin, Alice Springs and Aboriginal-controlled Arnhem Land. The most prominent groups have been Nabarlek, Saltwater Band and Yilila.
Yothu Yindi have been far and away the most successful exponents of distinctively Aboriginal rock, and are inseparably associated with the struggle for Aboriginal rights.
Assimilation was the euphemistic term for a policy, practised up until the 1960s, of taking children from their parents and raising them in white foster homes or institutions. Many were literally kidnapped and told that their parents were dead. Three of them – Kev Carmody, Archie Roach and his wife Ruby Hunter – have become major singer-songwriters, and are today among the most powerful indigenous voices of Australia.
Carmody is the leading balladeer of Aboriginal concerns and has been dubbed Australia’s Dylan. He is especially contemptuous of the hypocrisy of British colonizers, a theme brilliantly developed in the song “Thou Shalt Not Steal”.
The rise of female Aboriginal performers has greatly broadened the perspective of Australian indigenous music. The vocal trio Tiddas enjoyed a popular career of close harmonies before disbanding in 2000, and the Stiff Gins currently occupy similar musical territory.
Other notable male singer-songwriters include Frank Yamma and Dan Sultan. However, the most recent success story has been the phenomenal rise of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Blind from birth, his remarkably pure and gentle voice has propelled him to the forefront of the Australian indigenous music scene.
Multicultural Australia has also become the adopted home for numerous migrant musicians. The result has been a vibrant local world-music scene in most major cities. Adelaide has hosted Australia’s annual WOMAD Festival since 1992, and many of the other regional festivals contain a strong world music component. Prominent non-indigenous acts include Tatar/Russian singer Zulya and Australian/Egyptian oud player Joseph Tawadros.