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Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Music in Melbourne – Celebration and Survival [February 11]

Having survived the infamous Clarinet-gate episode of January 2011 (I left my instrument in the Qantas Club Lounge at Melbourne Airport and flew to Sydney to play in the opening gig of PK’s four night ‘A to Z’ Sydney Festival shows at the City Recital Hall – doh! the clarinet was found safe and sound, by the way) I returned home to Melbourne to contemplate (with some relief) a week of listening to other people perform.

On Monday night this week I went to the Melbourne Town Hall to hear the Australian Chamber Orchestra present the first of their 2011 National Concert Season programs with guest baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes. The program was an eclectic mix of old and new, original and re-arranged works. There is always that moment when the ACO first begin playing when you remember just how exquisite their attention to detail is, and how they always perform as if they are one single organism with multiple arms. You know you are in safe hands.

Mahler’s Adagietto (from the 5th Symphony) began so softly, there was almost something sinister in the promise of the ‘forte’ passages to come. It’s a work that provokes (perhaps embodies) intense nostalgia and vulnerability – the perfect emotional state for an audience at the beginning of a program of widely contrasting musical moods.

Artistic Director and lead violinist Richard Tognetti played a cycle of Five Melodies by Prokofiev, pieces that were originally composed as wordless songs. Tognetti stood bent-kneed, as if staggering under the weight of a gold-plated violin (in fact it’s a ‘priceless’ 1743 Guarneri del Gesu) but played with such lightness of touch, the instrument could have been made of balsa wood.

Here’s a question for musical train-spotters: in the first of the five Profofiev pieces, the main melodic motif seems to be exactly the same as the ‘Could you coo, could you care…’ phrase in Gershwin’s ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’ – did George borrow from Sergei??

After a short orchestral work by Robert Saxton, Teddy Tahu Rhodes was up next (‘up’ being the operative word – he was literally twice the height of some ACO members) and was very charming, particularly in his delivery of Richard Rodney Bennett’s ‘Songs Before Sleep’. They were written less than a decade ago but there is something very olde-fashioned – and appealing – about RRB’s setting of these gothic nursery rhymes.

I wasn’t as enamoured with Tognetti’s chamber orchestra arrangements of ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ (To the distant beloved), a collection of songs by Beethoven that is credited with being The First Ever Song Cycle. I kept wondering WHY you would think that an arrangement of this work for orchestra was a good idea. Art song is so much it’s OWN thing, and that ‘thing’ is so much about intimacy and the duet between the piano and voice, but that intimacy was lost when an orchestra was substituted for a piano. Plus Teddy Tahu Rhodes somehow lacked the gravitas that this kind of art song requires; he kept mugging and flirting with the audience in a very musical-theatre kind of way.

I had similar qualms about Tognetti’s orchestral arrangement of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D Major. The work lost the sense of an intimate conversation between a few instruments that you get with a quartet. Sure, it was very pleasant to listen to but not nearly as moving as the original. (Maybe Tognetti has too much time on his hands? Hard to believe)

Here’s another question for you: is the fact that Melbourne audience members rarely seem to clap at ‘inappropriate moments’ (ie. between movements) these days a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a sign that only the most dedicated and knowledgeable music fans, those with significant cultural capital, come to classical concerts any more? Or is it a sign that we have ALL now been educated in the etiquette of listening to classical music?

And did anyone else in the audience notice that the clock on the Melbourne Town Hall organ was stuck on 3:47 for the whole concert? Perhaps it’s a deliberate ploy to make us believe that when we’re listening to fine music, we enter another realm, beyond the reach of time. (Or maybe someone’s forgotten to notify the blokes in the Maintenance Depot)

On Tuesday night I attended the joint birthday party for the Melbourne Recital Centre (turning 2) and its benefactor Dame Elizabeth Murdoch (turning 102). They’re both looking in remarkably good shape. After welcome drinks in the (insert car brandname here) foyer, we were seated in the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall for speeches and performances of some of Dame E’s favourite works. (Still feels like entering a United Nations meeting room, with excellent acoustics)

The VIPs lined up on the stage throughout the celebratory concert occasionally looked uncomfortable, and when they got up to speak they had to turn their backs to the audience to acknowledge each other’s esteemed presence, but the speeches were mostly mercifully short and relatively informal. Premier (and Arts Minister) Ted Baillieu even referred somewhat enigmatically to ‘the girls bringing in the chairs’ as being ‘like Jacques Tati’, before describing Dame E as ‘one of my mum’s best mates’. (Simon Crean made the same boast, in a message read out later on the night)

The Murdoch tradition of arts philanthropy will be continued with the addition of a new Elizabeth Murdoch Creative Development Fund to ‘support the Melbourne Recital Centre’s programs’ and ‘nurture talent’. It will include a ‘Great Romantics Prize’, supported by Dame E’s grand-daughter Julie Kantor, and a program to allow more Victorians from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend MRC concerts.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard sent a special message to Dame E, referring to her ‘humility of character’, her ‘deep sense of public duty’ and describing her as ‘a gift and a treasure for our nation.’

And in between speeches we heard a movement of a Mozart Piano Sonata by Caroline Almonte, the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet played pianissississimo by Ensemble Liaison and friends, an improvisation by the Mannins Gould Jones Trio (happy to listen to David Jones and Tony Gould any time, but the cello as jazz instrument just doesn’t do it for me) and a strangely conservative gospel number from the Soweto Gospel Choir (a musical boomerang, from Africa to America and back to Africa again).

Then it was out into the (insert car brandname here) foyer again for more celebratory drinks, after farewelling the birthday girl who (according to her daughter Anne Kantor) said recently ‘It’s so very tiring to be so old but i DO love living’.

Last night it was a very different crowd who turned up at the Forum Theatre for the premiere screening of ‘Murundak: Songs of Freedom’, the new documentary film about the Black Arm Band. I was commissioned to write the program essay for the very first Black Arm Band performance at the Melbourne Festival in October 2006 (I will paste in that essay at the end of this blog) so it was a pleasure to join in the celebrations for this wonderful record of the ensemble’s early work.

Film-makers Rhys Graham and Natasha Gadd and producers Sarah Bond and Phillipa Campey travelled with the indigenous musicians off and on for four years as they toured capital cities and indigenous communities in Australia and then flew to London, filming backstage and on stage as the musicians performed some of the best known indigenous pop/folk/protest songs: ‘Treaty’, ‘Took the Children Away’, ‘Down City Streets’, ‘We Have Survived’, ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, ‘Yil Lull’ and Goanna’s ‘Solid Rock’.

‘Murundak’ means ‘alive’ in Woiwurrung language, and the film is intensely moving, showing the emotional cost to the singers of re-telling their stories of suffering and survival in song. Bart Willoughby tells the film-makers, ‘Some of us old fellas have this kind of Vietnam syndrome, and we’ve never even been to war’. And most audience members at the Forum screening were quietly weeping, watching footage of the late Ruby Hunter hugging her husband and soul-mate Archie Roach after he performs ‘Took The Children Away’ on the day former PM Kevin Rudd delivered The Apology to the Stolen Generations.

Archie describes the advantages of singing his pain in songs: ‘You walk away stronger, you’re not bleeding, and you haven’t hurt anyone else’. In London, Kutcha Edwards marvels at the experience of ‘singing to the mob who put us in the predicament we’re in’.

BAB founder Steven Richardson, Melbourne Festival Director Brett Sheehy and Black Arm Band members including Emma Donovan, Kutcha Edwards, Dan Sultan, Shellie Morris, Lou Bennett, Bart Willoughby, Rachel Maza, Stephen Pigram and Archie Roach watched the film, then the musicians delivered a high-energy set of BAB songs for the rest of the audience members downstairs in the big Forum auditorium.

Tonight, Friday February 11th, the St Kilda Festival will showcase the film in a free outdoor screening in the O’Donnell gardens, St Kilda, Melbourne from 8.30pm, and it will be shown on SBS Television later this year, followed by a Madmen DVD release. Congratulations to everyone involved – this is an important piece of Australian cultural history, recorded now for posterity.

Black Arm Band – Murundak program essay – Sian Prior – June 2006

During the past decade, there’s been no escaping the phrase ‘the black armband view of history’. First used by Australian historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey in his 1993 Sir John Latham Memorial Lecture, it has since become a handy rhetorical shield thrown up by those wishing to dispute the history of injustices perpetrated by white Australia against its indigenous inhabitants.

The meaning of the phrase has expanded over the years, as it has penetrated deeper within the public discourse. Originally used to describe the attitude of particular historians, this insidious metaphor now conjures up images of a race of people interred in the past, immobilised by self-pity and (with the active support of their whitefella friends) obsessed with ‘shaming and blaming’.

But as a description of how current generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (and their whitefella friends) have responded to centuries of injustice, it is simply inaccurate, and for evidence of this we need look no further than the outpouring of indigenous popular music over the past four decades.

From the driving country-pop of Vic Simms’ ‘Stranger in My Land’ (1973) to Yothu Yindi‘s international dance hit, ‘Treaty’ (1991), from the bitter-sweet female harmonies of Tiddas’ ‘Anthem’ (1996) to the urban hip-hop of Local Knowledge’s ‘Blackfellas’ (2005), songs have been vehicles for the expression of both anger and pride, for political protest and profound optimism. Many of these songs have been the result of respectful collaborations between black and white artists, authentic examples of reconciliation in action.

As Gunditjmara singer/songwriter Richard Frankland has said, ‘Our songs tell stories of real things, real people and real situations’(1). The subject matter of these songs has been as varied as the individual experiences of their creators, but certain themes have recurred over the years.

There have been songs celebrating indigenous resistance to oppression, such as Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly’s ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ (1991), about the struggle of the Gurindji people for their traditional lands at Wattie Creek. The same story was originally told in Ted Egan’s ‘Gurindji Blues’, recorded back in 1971 by a young member of the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu people, Galarrwuy Yunupingu (later to be named Indigenous Australian of the Year).

Murri singer-songwriter Joe Geia’s 1988 song ‘Kwanji’ celebrates ‘a hard-fighting man… forces can’t seem to put (Kwanji) down’. Paul Kelly’s ‘Pigeon/Jundamurra’ tells the story of an Aboriginal resistance leader whose name is ‘spreading all across the valleys… like a burning flame’ (1989), and in ‘Cannot Buy My Soul’, Kev Carmody reminds us that when it comes to freedom fighters of any race or creed, ‘you may take our life and liberty, but you can never buy our soul.’ (1991)

There have been many songs written that reaffirm indigenous Australians’ connections to place. Some are overtly political, mirroring contemporary struggles for indigenous land rights. In 1989, Alice Springs band Amunda recorded a song called ‘1788’ which poses the question, ‘When will he get back his lands from the white man’s hands?’ The Sunrize Band from Arnhem Land spelt it out loud and clear in their song ‘Land Rights’; ‘So let’s stand up for our land rights ‘cause it’s part of the dreamtime’. (rec. 1990)

Several songs written during the late 70’s, including ‘Bran Nue Dae’ by Broome musician Jimmy Chi, became strongly associated with the dispute over land rights on the Noonkanbah Station in the south Kimberley, between the traditional owners and an oil-mining corporation. (2) That song later became the title of Chi’s first nationally acclaimed musical, and along with his second major work, ‘Corrugation Road’ , is considered a major artistic landmark in contemporary Aboriginal arts.

Other songs have had a gentler message, celebrating the power and the beauty of the land. In ‘Uncle Willie’ (rec. 1988), Joe Geia eulogises the ‘mountains and streams’ that are ‘part of our dreams’. Two years later Bart Willoughby’s band Mixed Relations recorded a song called ‘Our Mother’ which describes how the land ‘cared for us with love and affection, she made us strong’.

Blekbela Mujik’s ‘Kakadu’ describes how the world-famous escarpment ‘stands up like a beauty in the blazing sunlit sky’ and in ‘Nitmiluk’ (the Jawoyn language place name for Katherine Gorge) the band celebrated the return of that place to its traditional owners; ‘You’re the father of this land, break the chains and help to set me free.’ (rec.1990)

Yothu Yindi is just one of a number of Aboriginal bands who celebrated the ground-breaking 1992 Mabo decision by the High Court of Australia (overturning the doctrine of terra nullius) in song; ‘Terra nullius is dead and gone, We were right, that we were here, They were wrong, that we weren’t here.’ (‘Mabo’, 1994) A decade later, Ngarrindjeri singer/songwriter Ruby Hunter performed her songs in a concert called ‘Kura Tungar’ (Songs from the River) with the Australian Art Orchestra, reaffirming her ongoing connection to her traditional lands along the Murray River.

Alongside these artists there have been a number of significant non-indigenous songwriters whose work has responded to the Aboriginal politics of land. In 1982, Shane Howard’s band Goanna released a song called ‘Solid Rock’ which became a hugely successful mainstream rock anthem. The song re-tells the story of European invasion and its impact on traditional indigenous culture;’ They were standin’ on the shore one day, Saw the white sails in the sun, Wasn’t long before they felt the sting, white man, white law, white gun, Don’t tell me that it’s justified, ’cause somewhere, someone lied… genocide.’ In addition to his prolific song writing output, Shane Howard has also worked as a producer, recording many albums by indigenous artists over the past two decades.

One of the founders of the Warumpi Band, Neil Murray, is another non-indigenous musician who has written prolifically about Aboriginal relationships with the land. In an interview for Rhythms magazine in 2000, Murray said, ‘My entire creative output has been a quest for meaning in this country… people always say that something in my sound… evokes a sense of place.’ (3) His most famous song, ‘My Island Home’, became a hit for Torres Strait Island singer Christine Anu, and an unofficial anthem of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

In the introduction to their book ‘Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places,’ (2004) authors Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson write that ‘music is used to sing the past into the present and the future’. (4) This is nowhere more evident than in the use of traditional languages, both in the names of indigenous bands, and in the lyrics of their songs.

Until the 1980’s very few Aboriginal pop musicians had sung in language. Country singer Isaac Yama was a pioneer, performing his original songs in Pitjantjatjara in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s (5). When jailed singer/songwriter Vic Simms recorded his song ‘Stranger in my Land’ in Long Bay, back in 1973, he sang ‘The black Australian has his pride, his culture and his dreamtime’. But the fact that this song, and all the other songs on his debut album ‘The Loner’, were written entirely in English, could be seen as evidence of the stifling of that culture.

Ten years later, things were beginning to change. Languages that had been forbidden in many missions and schools in the first half of the twentieth century would find new expression, and new audiences, in the songs of artists like Joe Geia, and bands such as Blekbela Mujik, Tiddas, Yothu Yindi and Warumpi Band.

According to Neil Murray, the Warumpi Band’s debut single, ‘Jailangaru Pakarnu’ (Out from Jail, 1983) was the first rock song to be released entirely in an Aboriginal language. ‘Warumpi’ is another version of ‘Papunya’, the name of the central Australian Aboriginal community from which the band emerged in the early 1980’s, and is sung in Luritja. (6)

Back in the late 1970’s, however, Jimmy Chi was writing and recording songs with his band Kuckles (featuring Stephen Pigram) which employed Aboriginal language lyrics, including the mini-album ‘Milliya Rumurra’ (1979). Their song ‘Nyul Nyul Girl’ was one of the first to substantially employ Aboriginal lyrics, and one of the first contemporary love songs in Aboriginal language.

‘Yothu Yindi’ means ‘mother and child’, and according to lead singer Manduwuy Yunupingu, the band used the traditional music, instruments and languages of the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans of North Eastern Arnhem land specifically to ‘create impact for our culture’. (7) Yothu Yindi, Blekbela Mujik, Joe Geia, No Fixed Address, Mixed Relations, Kev Carmody, Coloured Stone and Sunrize Band have all incorporated didjeridu into their song arrangements in recent decades, and many indigenous bands have also used clap sticks. When a re-mix of Yothu Yindi’s song ‘Treaty’ became a world-wide dance hit in 1992, it ensured that the music, the instruments, the language and the political aspirations of the band members reached an international audience.

More recently, urban indigenous rapper Munki Mark has been using his grandmother’s language, Jarwwadjali, the language of the Grampians in western Victoria, and Arrernte, spoken in Alice Springs. (8) The title track on indigenous hip hop band Local Knowledge’s 2005 EP ‘Blackfellas’ also includes some rapping in language.

If indigenous popular music can be seen as an antidote to the image of pathos and paralysis evoked by the phrase ‘the black arm band view of history’, that is not to suggest that all indigenous songwriters have ‘eliminated the negative’ in order to ‘accentuate the positive’.

Archie Roach’s 1990 song ‘Took the Children Away’ is a poetic but unflinching account of the Australian government’s policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families. Twenty-five years earlier, Bob Randall had written a haunting song on the same subject called ‘Brown Skin Baby’, described by music writer Clinton Walker as ‘the flower in a corner of the dustbin of history’ (9).

The first album of indigenous musician and activist Bobby McLeod, ‘Culture Up Front’, wasn’t released until 1988, but over a decade before he’d been ‘telling it like it was’ for many Aboriginal Australians, in live performances of his song, ‘Sick of Being Treated Like a Low Down Mangy Dog’. (10)

Many of the songs of Murri musician Kev Carmody are inflected by a deep and righteous anger at social injustice. At the same time, they are informed by a sophisticated critical understanding of Australian political relations. In ‘Strange People’, he sings ‘Technology enslaves, the media blinds, our money in the bank supports environmental crimes, strange, strange people inhabit this earth’ (rec. 1995)

But alongside the anger there is an equally deep well of optimism in the lyrical output of Kev Carmody, nowhere more evident than in the song he co-wrote with Paul Kelly, ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’; ‘This is the story of something much more, how power and privilege cannot move a people, who know where they stand, and they stand in their law’.

Perhaps it is in the words of Joe Geia’s bicentennial lament ‘Yil Lull’ (1988) that we can find the quintessential mix of grief and hope, acknowledgement of the past and optimism for the future, that has characterised indigenous popular music in recent decades; ‘I sing for the red and the blood that was shed… and I’m singing for the gold and the new year, young and old… now I’m singing just for you…’

The texts listed below will amply reward anyone interested in further exploring the work of those artists – and institutions – who have been the ‘spear tips’ of this contemporary music movement. Places like CASM, for instance, the Adelaide-based Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music, which was a potent incubator for a number of influential Aboriginal artists during the late 1970s and early 1980s, or CAAMA, the Alice Springs-based Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association which first recorded and broadcast many significant indigenous musicians. Artists like Bart Willoughby of No Fixed Address and Buna Lawrie of Coloured Stone (creators of the enduringly popular song ‘Black Boy’), whose bands toured the country exhaustively in the early 1980’s ‘on the smell of an oily rag’. They have not yet achieved the mainstream recognition they deserve, but they remain two of the most loved and respected indigenous musicians amongst Aboriginal communities.

In October this year, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, some of these indigenous musicians will come together to form the ‘Black Arm Band’, for a series of two concerts called ‘Murundak’ (meaning “alive” in woiwurrung language) at the Hamer Hall. The Black Arm Band will include Christine Anu, Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter, Bart Willoughby, Stephen Pigram, Kutcha Edwards, Kev Carmody, Mark Atkins, Lou Bennett, Joe Geia and Dave Arden, joined by Paul Kelly, Neil Murray and Shane Howard.

The concerts are billed as a ‘celebration of music as an instrument of identity, resistance and resilience,’ and are meant as a tribute to the lasting musical legacy of these ground-breaking artists. But they will have another important function; to begin the reclamation (or perhaps subversion) of a highly divisive little phrase, re-defining it as The Black Arm Band’s view of history.


1. p. 24, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places.
2. p 236. ibid
3. pp. 180 – 181, Singing Australia
4. p. 17, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places.
5. p. 232, Buried Country.
7. p. 179, Popular Music and Local Identity
8. p. 217, Buried Country
9. p. 22, Blak Times, Meanjin Vol 65 No 1
10. p. 156, Buried Country


– ‘Meanjin’, Blak Times, Vol 65, No 1 (2005)
– ‘Singing Australian: A History of Folk and Country Music’, Graeme Smith (2005)
– ‘Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places’, Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson (2004)
– ‘Buried Country’, Clinton Walker (2000)
– ‘The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet’, Karl Neuenfeldt (1997)
– ‘Popular Music and Local Identity’, Tony Mitchell (1996)