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Music and meaning: the Aboriginal rock album.

Over the past two decades, rock music has become a conspicuous means through which Aborigines confront and raise awareness about issues affecting Indigenous Australians and seek to educate other Australians about Aboriginal cultures. Aboriginal rock music is a complex site with multiple meanings dependent on, among other factors, the perspective of the listener, changing attitudes to Aboriginal arts, and the representation of Aboriginality by performers, writers, and the record industry.(1) It is common, for example, to align Aboriginal rock music with other indigenous musics internationally and to present it as protest music from a reading of its topics at the level of the individual song. This approach is found in Breen (1994), Chi (1990), Streit-Warburton (1995) and Sweeney (1991), and song topics cited by these writers include black deaths in custody, the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents, Aboriginal prison experience, and land rights. Strengthening the view of the song as the unit of meaning is the practice of using it for spreading information about the dangers and consequences of AIDS (for example, `Inipanya AIDS Ngku' by Isaac Yamma and the Pitjantjatjara Country Band), alcohol abuse (for example, `Leave the Grog' by the Yartulu Yartulu Band) and petrol sniffing (for example, `Petrol Sniffing' by the Wedgetail Eagle Band) in Aboriginal communities, and for the expression of local identity (for example, `Ngura Panyatja Titjikalanya' by the Titjikala Desert Oaks Band; `Warumpinya' by the Warumpi Band).

It is not difficult to understand this level of interpretation of Aboriginal rock music, as relationships between song topics and historical situations' definable social and health problems, and symbols of identity can be readily established. This reads Aboriginal rock music from a non-aboriginal perspective as the response to events, and is at the expense of deeper and more complex uses of rock +music in Aboriginal communities. In place of the song as the unit of meaning, the reading of Aboriginal rock music presented here considers the album as a composite statement to which individual songs are contributing elements. This is a structuralist approach in which songs, while still capable of signifying at their own level, assume wider meanings from an understanding of their positions and roles in larger structures. At the same time, meanings of those larger structures are the results of the contributions of their contents and the relationships between those contents.

Three albums will be analysed to test this thesis. They are by Yothu Yindi, the Kulumindini Band,(2) and the Warumpi Band. To achieve the readings presented, it is necessary to view the albums from the perspectives of the communities in which the respective rock groups live and work. This is done by drawing parallels between album contents and their ordering, and either locally understood social organisation or factors of relevance to those communities. It is a process of potential methodological danger as any investigation of musical meaning is necessarily influenced by its author's viewpoint, and the discussion of Aboriginal cultures which is included here is based on the author's interpretation of available information. The readings of albums which are offered are only some of many possibilities; the intention is to investigate how an album can assume meaning as a whole, not to discover what an album means, though it will be necessary to consider possibilities for this. Examination of albums by other Aboriginal rock groups demonstrates that the practices of album design used by these three groups are also found among other Aboriginal performers, leading to the conclusion that meaning in Aboriginal rock music is not solely at the level of the song but, depending on the degree of knowledge of Aboriginal cultures possessed by a listener, can be interpreted at the level of the album. The implications of this may be significant in defining aspects of the aesthetics of Aboriginal rock music, in understanding something of the ways in which rock music is used in Aboriginal communities, and in appreciating the intrinsic qualities of rock music by Aboriginal bands.

Yothu Yindi: Tribal Voice

Members of Yothu Yindi are from Yirrkala and Galiwinku (Map 1), and describe themselves as `Yolngu', a local term for an Aboriginal person. To date, this northeast Arnhem Land rock group has issued four albums: Homeland Movement (1989), Tribal Voice (1991), Freedom (1993), and Birrkuta: Wild Honey (1996). Each of these focuses attention on a factor of Aboriginal life from the group's viewpoint. The first, Homeland Movement, was inspired by `the move back to out-stations or homelands centres ... a move [which was] pioneered in north-east Arnhem Land, [and] has seen Aboriginal people returning to their traditional lands and lifestyles' (Yothu Yindi 1995). The group's third album, Freedom, appeared after the release of the 1992 High Court Mabo decision by which rights to native land title were guaranteed (Bartlett 1993). In the song `Mabo', the album contains this rock group's reaction to the High Court ruling (Chryssides 1993).


The group's fourth and most recent album, Birrkuta: Wild Honey, expresses ideas connected to Yolngu views on the `relationship with the natural environment [which is] fundamental to our existence' (Mandawuy Yunupingu, album notes). This is most foregrounded in the album's title track, `Honey (Birrkuta)': `We must be like the bees, make the world a better place, map the way and shape the day...' In line with Yothu Yindi's publicly expressed intention to `give others an understanding of Aboriginal life' (Yunupingu 1990, 103), the group's second album, Tribal Voice, is a representation of its musicians' `tribal' contexts. Among the ways this is achieved are the use of the djatpangarri, a genre of Yolngu music (see Stubington and Dunbar-Hall 1994), the presence of yidaki (didieridu) and bilma (clapsticks) as members of the rock group line-up, and the expression of Yolngu clan and moiety systems in the album's contents and their organisation.

Along with other Aboriginal cultures, Yolngu cosmology divides the world and its contents into two moieties, which Berndt and Berndt (1992, 44) explain in the following way:

Eeveryone within [a] tribe, and in neighbouring

tribes, and in fact all natural phenomena, [are

classified] in two distinct divisions, or moieties ...

Moiety simply means half ... this system of dual

organisation ... provides a clear-cut division for social and

ceremonial purposes.

Among the Yolngu the moieties are called Dhuwa and Yirritja, and their influence is explained by Mandawuy Yunupingu, lead singer and songwriter of Yothu Yindi (Chryssides 1993,262), as

an explicit structure that governs Aboriginal people and

particularly where I come from ... It's a structure that we

live under, something like a constitution ... Everything in

the world is divided into two aspects ... and that's how

we relate to everything. That's what our social pattern

is centred upon.

The main unit of Yolngu social organisation is the clan, of which, according to Morphy (1984), in northeast Arnhem Land there are more than sixty. A clan is `a focal point of individual and group identity' (Morphy 1984, 5) and membership governs rights to specific areas of land and the ritual representations (song, dance, design, paraphenalia, story) associated with them (Morphy 1991, 48-49):

Membership of a clan gives an individual sets of rights

and obligations with respect to the ownership of land

and mardayin, which according to Yolngu ideology are

jointly owned by members of a clan as a whole.

Mardayin, translated by Yolngu as `history law', `sacred

law', or simply `law', centers around the songs, dances,

paintings, and sacred objects which relate to the actions

of the wangarr (ancestral) beings in creating the land

and the order of the world.

Each clan is assigned membership of one of the moieties, and partial listings of this categorisation are given by both Morphy (1984) and Williams (1986). A composite listing from these sources is shown in Table 1.

Table 1 Yolngu clans according to moiety (after Morphy 1984, 6; Williams 1986, 64)
Dhuwa moiety Yirritja moiety

Datiwuy Dhalwangu
Dhabuyngu Gumatj
Djambarrpuyngu Gupapuyngu
Djapu Madarrpa
Djarrwark Manggalili
Galpu Munyuku
Marrakulu Wangurri
Ngaymil Wartamiri

Tribal Voice contains thirteen tracks,(3) in which, in a practice found among other Aboriginal rock groups, traditional songs(4) and rock songs are mixed (see, for example, albums by Blekbala Mujik, Sunrize Band, and Tjapukai Dance Theatre). The album's title track, and therefore the song which encapsulates its intent, appears in a central position as the sixth of the thirteen tracks. This song encourages listeners to `stand up for your rights' and uses the hookline `You better listen to your tribal voice':

There's a wakening of a rainbow dawn

And the sun will rise up high

There's a whisper in the morning light

Saying get up and meet the day...

All the people in the world are dreaming

Some of us cry for the rights of survival

Saying c'mon, get up, stand up for your rights...

You better get up and fight for your rights

Don't be afraid of the move you make

You better listen to your tribal voice.

(Yothu Yindi 1991, album notes)

The album's contents and their organisation emphasise the idea of `tribal voice' in three ways. First, by the relationship between the song `Tribal Voice' and its surrounding tracks; second, through the presence on the album of songs which refer either to the land or to the sea; and third, through reference to the Yolngu clan system and its representation of the Dhuwa and Yirrija moieties.

Seven of the tracks on Tribal Voice are indicated in the album notes as having clan association. Four of these are traditional songs (tracks 1, 5, 8, 12), while the other three are rock songs on topics related to clans (tracks 4, 7, 9). For example, the rock song `Dharpa' (track 7) is described thus:

This track talks about the great Australian bush. The

song reflects a story about the Gumatj warrior stalking

the red kangaroo. (Yothu Yindi 1991, album notes)

Two of the traditional songs, `Gapu' (track 1) and `Beyarrmak' (track 12), are used in a type of musical framing device at the beginning and conclusion of the album. In this device each of these traditional songs is paired with, first, the original and, later, a mix of the rock song `Treaty', with which `Gapu' and `Beyarrmak' have observable musical links. The other two traditional songs (`Dhum Dhum', `Yindydjapana') and the three rock songs with clan topics (`Maralitja', `Dharpa', `Mitjala') appear in a central grouping of five songs surrounding track 6, `Tribal Voice'. In these ways, the call to `listen to your tribal voice' is embedded in a number of songs which present `tribal voices', and the album as a whole is constructed between expressions of `tribal voices'. The position of the title track in relation to songs of clan association is shown in Table 2.


A second way that reference to Yolngu culture can be found on Tribal Voice is in the inclusion of songs which refer to the land or to the sea. Williams (1986), in her explanation of Yolngu land ownership, discusses ways in which each clan group at Yirrkala has rights to both coastal and inland territories. Each territory has traditional songs associated with it; Williams calls these, respectively, `sea' and `land' songs. On Tribal Voice a similar double set of songs as Williams describes in traditional music can be found spread throughout the album. Of these, numbers 4, 5, 7 and 8 are also songs of clan association in the central `tribal voice' grouping of songs, adding to them a second layer of Yolngu implication (see Table 3).

Table 3 `Sea' and `land' songs on Tribal Voice
Track Song Sea/land

1 `Gapu' (saltwater) sea
4 `Maralitja' (crocodile man) sea
5 `Dhum Dhum'(wallaby) land
7 `Dharpa' (tree) land
8 `Yindydjapana' (dolphin) sea
9 `Mdtjala' (driftwood) sea/land
11 `Gapirri' (stingray) sea

In a series of repetitions at the conclusion of `Tribal Voice', the hookline, `You better listen to your tribal voice', is altered, the word `tribal' being replaced each time by one of a list of Yolngu clans (Yothu Yindi 1991, album notes):

You better listen to your gumatj voice

You better listen to your rirratjingu voice

You better listen to your wangurri voice

You better listen to your djapu voice

You better listen to your warramiri voice

You better listen to your marrakulu voice

You better listen to your dhalwangu voice

You better listen to your datiwuy voice

You better listen to your mangalili voice

You better listen to your ngamil voice

You better listen to your madarrpa voice

You better listen to your djambarrpungu voice

You better listen to your munyuku voice

You better listen to your diapu voice.(5)

The first two clans named in the song's hookline playout, Gumatj and Rirratjingu, are the clans to which members of Yothu Yindi belong.

The significance of the moiety system, as Yunupingu comments, is that it provides a structure governing life. It is observable, for example, in Yolngu traditional ceremonies in which moiety complementariness (through clan membership) governs performance of mardayin (see Morphy 1991, 134ff). It can also be found in clan land ownership, where `adjoining territories belong to clans of the opposing moiety producing a checkerboard effect of moiety ownership' (Davis and Prescott 1992, 39). The name of the rock group, Yothu Yindi, is itself a reference to moiety complementariness. Yolngu marriage is exogamous and Yolngu society is patrilineal: a person must marry a member of the opposing moiety, and a child takes the moiety of its father. A mother (`yindi') and her child (`Yothu') are therefore of opposing moieties. This exemplification of the moiety paradigm is expressed in the Yolngu term `yothu yindi', or `child and mother' (see Chryssides 1993, 262). In this way, the naming of a rock group, as will be seen also for the Kulumindini Band and the Warumpi Band, carries implications over that group's identity, output, and association with the community or communities it represents. Comparison of the clan list in `Tribal Voice' with the moiety listing shows that the clans are mentioned in the song in alternating Yirritja and Dhuwa categories, or in `yothu yindi' relationship. Through this, the song acts in a number of ways: as a naming of clans, metonymically as a reference to the moiety system in its entirety, and ultimately as a statement of Yolngu identity. In that the clan associations of the songs radiating around `Tribal Voice' acknowledge the balance implied by the `yothu yindi' concept in their alternation of Yirritja and Dhuwa links, they provide clues which assist in gaining an understanding of the selection and organisation of material on the album. Both the title track and the album present Yothu Yindi's `tribal voice'; explanation of the song provides information about the album.

Kulumindini Band: Marlinja Music

The Kulumindini Band is from Elliot in central Northern Territory (Map 1). In the case of their first album, Marlinja Music (undated, but issued before 1993), understanding of the local construction of Aboriginal identity and events concerning ownership of significant sites can be used to read the album as a composite set of references to that identity

In common with many Aboriginal rock groups from Central Australia, this group uses the name of a place for the title of their band (Kerry Gardiner, Kulumindini Band, pers comm): `Kulumindini...a sacred site ... emu dreaming'. Kulumindini belongs traditionally to the Jingili, and is mentioned in `Jingfli People', a song about the importance of place (Kulumindini Band undated, album notes):

An my people have gone

Came to this place, Kulumindini

I am sorry for my father's land

Jingili people, let's go home

Jingili people, don't lose your land

Jingili people, let's go back home

Jingili people, don't lose your land.

`Marlinja' is the local Aboriginal term for a significant Dreaming site of the Mudbura people situated on Newcastle Waters station, north of Elliot (Map 2). It is the topic of the first and third songs of the album, `Oh! My Home Marlinja' and `Ngurra Marlinja' (ngurra = place, site, home). As with another six songs on this album, `Ngurra Marhnja' is sung in Mudbura. These other songs include `Mundiyarla Ngurra Kurrditj-Kaini', also about Marlinja, and `Ngurra Waranunku', about what is now called Beetaloo station, the Jingili homelands (Kerry Gardiner, pers comm). In 1991, Robert Tickner, federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, returned Marlinja to the Mudbura after decades of dispossession by non-Aborigines. The album Marlinja Music celebrates this event.

For the Aborigines of this area, the language names, Jingili and Mudbura, are linked in the composite term `Jingih-Mudbura' as a description of linguistic affiliation. This is explained by Sutton et al (1983,701):

[The people of this area] are affiliated to three

languages, Kuwaarrangu, Mudbura and Djingili

(Jingili). Language affiliation is, according to tradition,

patrilineally acquired, although long-term residence at

a particular location may result not only in a person

learning a language other than that of his or her father

as first language, but in some cases may result

in changed linguistic affiliation. However, there is

apparently an enduring relationship between a

particular language and a particular tract of land ...

Kuwaarrangu and Mudbura are either near identical

dialects, or (in some people's speech) alternative names

for a single dialect. Djingili is an utterly different

language. Close integration of eastern Mudbura with

Djingili people ... since last century appears to have

resulted in heavy borrowing between the two

languages, and some people also give their language

affiliation, for example, as Djingili-Mudbura.

Despite the distinctiveness of these languages, intermarriage between speakers of each has resulted in those speakers combining for the purposes of social practice (Chadwick 1975, ix):

The Djingili (Jingili) intermarried with a people

to the west known as Mudbura or Gwarangu

(Kuwaarrangu)... Although the two languages are quite

distinct, the people of the area regard themselves as one

group as concerns ceremonies, customs and social laws.

They call themselves Djingili-Mudbura. The relationship between Jingili and Mudbura was used by Kerry Gardiner (pers comm) in his description of the membership of the band:

Members of the Kulumindini Band are all of the

Jingili-Mudbura language groups ... neighbouring language

groups who have traditionally been very, very close

culturally, but very different linguistically ... Mudbura

people are the more numerous whilst Jingili are the

traditional owners of Elliot.

The album Marlinja Music is a paean to Marlinja, a significant place for local Aborigines. As a whole this album reinforces local feelings for this place through continual reference to it, and notions of return to and ownership of it. The album also shows the local cultural relationship between Mudbura and Jingili, thus reflecting an underlying pattern of Jingili-Mudbura life: a number of songs are sung in Mudbura, one song specifically addresses a `Mudbura Girl'. Another song, `Jingili People', appeals directly to the Jingili, and mentions Kulumindini, which belongs to them. The four elements which contribute to the album's contents (the places, Kulumindini and Marlinja, and the languages and their speakers, the Jingili and Mudbura), which are interwoven in local understanding, are continually referred to, by name, by the languages used in lyrics, in the titles of songs, and overall by the name of the group and title of the album. In this way, Marlinja Music can be read as a statement of local identity in that the four elements on the album are linked either by primary or secondary relationship to all others through the Jingili-Mudbura composite (Table 4).
Kulumindini Marlinja

Jingili Jingili-Mudbura Mudbura

Table 4 Relationship between Jingili, Kulumindini, Marlinja and Mudbura

The contribution to the album of these elements can be shown by the listing in table 5, in which each is underlined.
Track Song Language Topic

1 `Oh! May Home Marlinja' English place/Marlinja
2 `Why Are You Leaving?' English romantic
3 `Ngurra Marlinja Mudbura place/Marlinja
4 `Nginya Barna' Mudbura (unavailable)
5 `I'm Sorry to You' English romantic
6 `Mundiyarla Ngurranka' Mudbura place/Marlinja
7 `Mudbura Girl' English romantic
8 `Wanjuwarra Ngayinya' Mudbura romantic
9 `Barna Yandurru' Mudbura return to place
10 `Ngayinya Ngurra' Mudbura Jingili lands
11 `Jingili People' English Jingili
12 `Nguku' Mudbura (unavailable)

Table 5 Contents, languages and topics of Marlinja Music (Kulumindini Band)

Both Tribal Voice and Marlinja Music can be analysed to show the influence of locally understood social organisation in their performers' names, their titles and contents. The implication of this is that these albums are musical statements of Yolngu and Jingili-Mudbura cultures. Another way through which a rock album by an Aboriginal group can be read as an expression of Aboriginality is in its musical stylistic choices. This relies on the use of styles of popular music which can be identified as significant to Aboriginal listeners. The use of musical style, and its role as one of a set of Aboriginal signifiers, is a feature of the third album for consideration, Big Name -- No Blankets, by the Warumpi Band.

Warumpi Band: Big Name -- No Blankets

Like the Kulumindini Band, the Warumpi Band derive their name from a place, Warumpi, what is referred to by non-Aborigines as Papunya, in the Northern Territory (Map 1). Their album Big Name -- No Blankets (1985) can be read as `Aboriginal' on a number of levels through the use of three factors: language, song topic and musical style.

Along with Western Arrente and Warlpiri, one of the languages spoken around Papunya is Luritja (Hobson 1990), a Western Desert language which is used for four songs on Big Name -- No Blankets. One of these (`Waru') includes sections in Gumatj, a Yolngu language from the extreme northern parts of Australia,(6) while the remainder of the songs on the album are in English. In the case of Luritja and Gumatj, there may be at most a few thousand speakers of each (Schmidt 1993, 4); songs in these languages would thus have appeal to speakers of them. The importance of recording songs in Aboriginal languages, both for speakers of specific languages and for Aboriginal listeners in general, was commented on by Neil Murray (Warumpi Band, interview):

I guess we write some songs in Aboriginal languages

because we want to communicate something we think

is urgent to those people who can understand, and also

emphasise to the rest of white Australia that these are

living languages and they need to be concerned

because they're in danger of dying out. They need

recognition and we do it for the pride and sense of self

esteem that Aboriginals will get from hearing the songs

on TV and radio, even if it's not their language.

Aboriginal people will get a kick out of hearing songs

in an Aboriginal language.

All the topics of songs on Big Name -- No Blankets can be seen as relevant on two levels to local Aboriginal listeners. One set of songs has topics which are generally `Aboriginal'; another is specifically relevant to listeners in the Warumpi area. In the first set, the topics are: the power of nature (`Waru'), the need to survive (`Gotta Be Strong'), black-white relations (`Blackfella/Whitefella'), Aboriginal living conditions (`Breadline', `Sitdown Money'), children's wellbeing (`Wiima Tjuta'), and the problems of alcohol abuse (`Nyuntu Nyaaltjirriku'). The second, more locally specific group of songs consists of those about the importance of place (`Warumpinya', `Fitzroy Crossing', `Mulga and Spinifex'). In a practice common to many Aboriginal rock groups, one of the songs on this album, `Warumpinya', sung in Luritjia, is dedicated to the place of the band's origin (Warumpi Band 1985, album notes):

Nganampa ngurra watjalpayi kuya

Nganampa ngurra tjanampa

Nganampa ngurra, Warumpinya!

(They always say our place is bad

It's our place, not theirs

It's our home, Papunya!)

Stylistically this album is eclectic, containing tracks of generalised rock (`Animal Song', `Blackfella/ Whitefella', `Gotta Be Strong', `Mulga and Spinifex', `Sitdown Money', `Warumpinya'), three country-and-western songs (`Breadline', `Fitzroy Crossing', `Wiima Tjuta'), and one reggae song (`Nyuntu Nyaaltjirriku'). Although the significance and initial use of country-and-western in Aboriginal music are uncertain, some of the earliest research into contemporary Aboriginal music noted its popularity, referring to it as `hillbilly songs' (Beckett 1958, 32): `among black, white and brindled, hillbilly songs are the real favourites in the Australian outback'.

Since then, country-and-western has been recognised as an important stylistic influence used by Aboriginal musicians (Allan 1988; Breen 1989, 1994; Castles 1992; Ellis et al 1988; Fahey 1993; Latta 1991; Watson 1983), to which Kartomi provides clues. When questioned about its use, musicians Richard Wally, Jo Geia and Ernie Dingo said it was

akin to the outback Koori(7) experience. In America that

repertoire includes songs about experiences like those

of Kooris in the outback, i.e., songs about horses, cattle,

the land, and unity, and is based on work on the land.

Koori men, they said, feel closer to cowboys than they

do to city people. Yet tragedy is inherent in this music,

for it is rooted in hardship and racial conflict ...

country-style music is nevertheless what they can best identify

with, in all its levels of meaning and expressiveness.

(Kartomi 1988, 21)

Roger Knox, when asked what such music should be termed, replied: `We call it Koori music' (Rutherford 1988, 238).

Despite agreement that reggae is a recurring influence in Aboriginal rock music, the origins of that influence remain conjectural (Breen 1989, 1994; Castles 1992; Davies 1989; Ellis et al 1988; Michaels 1986; Web6 1987). As with country-and-western, to some Aboriginal musicians, reggae is considered synonymous with Aboriginal music:

In the mid-seventies black music ... began to have some

impact. One such music was reggae ... this music with its

lyrics purporting an identity with oppressed black

people, portrayed itself as being sung by and directed

at black people, and condemning European cultural

influences... one of the most successful Aboriginal

bands, No Fixed Address, saw themselves essentially as

a reggae band, and could declare at one time that

reggae was Aboriginal music. (Narogin 1990, 63f)

The factors of language, song topic and musical style can be shown to carry significance for Aboriginal listeners. Examination of the contents of Big Name -- No Blankets in relation to these factors shows that all songs can be interpreted as Aboriginal in character in varying degrees. On one level, that of song topic, the album assumes a generic Aboriginal nature, as all song topics refer to issues of Aboriginal life. Certain of the songs, and particularly `Warumpinya', are especially relevant to members of the Papunya community. Through the use of Luritja for song lyrics, and musical styles identifiable as `Aboriginal', this character is intensified. The contribution of these factors can be shown by a listing of the album's contents, topics, languages and musical styles (Table 6).


In addition to these factors, both general and specific Aboriginal references on this album are reinforced through the use of two musical instruments of Aboriginal cultures. A didjeridu is used in `Animal Song', a pair of boomerangs in `Warumpinya'. The didjeridu, while not an instrument of the traditional music of the Luritja-speaking area (Moyle 1974), has become accepted and widespread as an instrument of contemporary Aboriginal popular music (Dunbar-Hall, in press). The use of a pair of boomerangs, an instrument of traditional music in the Luritja-speaking area (Moyle 1974), is a regionally appropriate addition to the rock group line-up. That this latter instrument is used in `Warumpinya', a song about the place of the band's name, acts as an additional intensifier of the song's appeal and adds another layer to the composite nature of the album.


Individual songs on these albums can be interpreted as protest (`Treaty'), social message (`Nyuntu Nyaaltjirriku'), and the expression of identity (`Oh! My Home Marlinja'). Stepping back from songs, however, and treating them as contributors to the group of ideas which constitutes an album, shows that albums can be deconstructed as a level of meaning for themselves.

Examination of albums by other Aboriginal rock groups demonstrates that these practices of album construction are widespread. For example, on Nitmiluk (1990) by Blakbela Mujic, a west Arnhem Land rock group, traditional songs are used to frame an album which celebrates the return of Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory) to the Jawoyn people. The significance of Nitmiluk is the topic of the album's title track, a rock song which begins and ends with a local traditional song and which bears melodic similarities to its traditional sections. Other songs on Nitmiluk refer to topics of Aboriginal relevance, both conceptually (`Indigenous Man') and geographically (`Kakadu', `Uluru'). Stylistic eclecticism, which contributes to Tribal Voice in the mixture and integration of traditional and rock songs, and to Big Name -- No Blankets in the presence of contemporary `Aboriginal' styles, occurs on Nitmiluk. In a manner which confirms the expectation that a reggae song is almost predictable on an Aboriginal rock album this album contains one reggae song, `Blackman's School'. Albums by other bands, including Indijjinus, Mixed Relations, North Tanami Band, Pukatja Band, Wedgetail Eagle Band, Western Desert Band, and Yartulu Yartulu Band, rely to varying degrees on the same types of contents and organisation. In a different medium, the musical, Bran Nue Dae (Chi and Kuckles 1991), can be analysed in a similar fashion.

The method for interpreting Aboriginal rock music used here is an attempt to understand albums in relation to the communities from which their performers come, and to investigate ways in which contemporary music is conceptualised and used in those communities. In the relatively new field of research into Aboriginal rock music, this suggests directions which may prove fruitful for understanding Aboriginal cultural agendas and the ways they are represented.


This article is based on a paper given at the thirty-third conference of the International Council for Traditional Music, Canberra, 1995.

(1.) `Aboriginal rock music' is defined as music produced by rock groups which present themselves as `Aboriginal'. This is despite the fact that such groups often contain non-Aboriginal members, as is the case with the three groups to be discussed here.

(2.) Information on the Kulumindini Band was provided by Kerry Gardiner, a member of the band. His assistance is gratefully acknowledged.

(3.) Tribal Voice was first issued in 1991 with thirteen tracks. Due to its success, it was re-issued in 1992 with the addition of three tracks from the group's first album, Homeland Movement (1989). The numbering used here is from the original album. This method of album construction in which the title, or most significant, track is positioned as the central song is consistent on the first three albums by Yothu Yindi. On Homeland Movement, the title track occurs as the third of a group of five rock songs which, on the original cassette recording, constituted side 1 of the cassette. Subsequent re-release on CD obscures this important aspect of album contents organisation. On Freedom, the song `Mabo' occurs as the eighth of sixteen tracks. This pattern does not appear on Yothu Yindi's fourth album, Birrkuta: Wild Honey, in which the title track occurs as the thirteenth of fifteen tracks.

(4.) The album notes specifically draw attention to a number of tracks as `traditional', with the statement: `Traditional music performed by Yothu Yindi is that of the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans who have lived in, and looked after, this land for the last 40,000 years or so'.

(5.) Although this is the text provided in the album notes, it is obvious from listening to the sound recording that this is not exactly what occurs. First, the hookline is taken over by a female backing group while the lead male singer speaks the italicised words; these words are difficult to hear, especially so after the first few. Second, the number of repetitions of the hookline is less on the actual recording than is given in the album notes. However, this text is adhered to and can clearly be heard on the video recording of the song.

(6.) This is probably due to the fact that one member of the group is from a Gumatj-speaking area.

(7.) `Koori' is one of the many terms by which Aborigines refer to themselves.


AIDS: How Could I Know? 1990, CAAMA 203.

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Author:Dunbar-Hall, Peter
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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