Contemporary Aboriginal music is a rich and varied activity in Australia. Some of the best and most interesting work is listed in our Online Shop music section.
Aboriginal artists – whether in music or in the visual arts – are often seen to be engaging in political actions through their work. Singer Jimmy Little has asserted “the very fact that an Aboriginal performer gets on stage and sings is a political act” while Galarrwuy Yunupingu, chairman of the Northern Land Council and brother of Mandawuy Yunupingu, lead singer of the band Yothu Yindi, commented that “our painting is a political act”. Archie Roach has written and performed songs of great beauty and power that are overtly political in their message and intent.
Beginnings – Jimmy Little and Others
The first Aboriginal performer to gain significant mainstream attention in Australia was Jimmy Little, who is currently enjoying renewed success with his 1999 album Messenger. The song he performed to achieve a number one hit in 1964, ‘The Royal Telephone’, was a contemporary country song and had no overt Aboriginal character to it. His success nevertheless helped him to establish the first contemporary all-Aboriginal band.
However, it was not until groups like Coloured Stone in the late 1970s and later No Fixed Address, Us Mob, Scrap Metal, Warumpi Band and most significantly Yothu Yindi that traditional-influenced Aboriginal music became more widely accepted into mainstream white Australian culture.
There has been a consistent neglect of Aboriginal music and its development for many years by the mainstream Australian music industry, with one or two honourable exceptions. This neglect appears to have been caused by a belief that Aboriginal music is not viable commercially and the industry’s reluctance to be involved in politically controversial or unpopular issues.
Media exposure of a product is essential for commercial success but until the last decade it was virtually impossible for Aboriginal groups to get on mainstream TV or radio. The drive for wider distribution and success has come mainly from within Aboriginal institutions such as the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) which is a major radio and TV broadcaster, and the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM). Important Aboriginal groups as Coloured Stone, No Fixed Address and Scrap Metal all have links with CASM, and many artists or groups would not have achieved radio or TV exposure without the work and influence of CAAMA. Amongst the commercial labels, Mushroom Records stands out as having supported Aboriginal music, publishing artists such as Yothu Yindi, Warumpi Band, Archie Roach, Coloured Stone and Jimmy Little.
Success of Yothu Yindi
The major breakthrough for the Aboriginal music industry was the mainstream acceptance and success of Yothu Yindi. They were formed in 1986 in the Yolngu community of Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. Yothu Yindi consists of both Yolngu and Balanda (non-Aboriginal) musicians and embodies a sharing of cultures. They took the ancient song cycles of north-east Arnhem Land – featuring such traditional instruments as the ‘bilma’ (ironwood clapsticks) and ‘yidaki’ (didjeridu) – and juxtaposed them with western pop sounds to present a musical meeting of two diverse cultures.
Mandawuy Yunupingu, lead singer for Yothu Yindi
Their contemporary performances are based on traditional Yolngu dance performances – describing the behavior of crocodiles, wallabies, brolga and other animals of their homelands. Their first album Homeland Movement in 1988 received little public attention but the 1991 single ‘Treaty’ and subsequent remix and album Tribal Voice won the band widespread media attention, and generated international recording and touring commitments. The song ‘Treaty’ and the album won an unprecedented string of awards in 1991-92 – resulting in the lead singer and songwriter Mandawuy Yunipingu receiving the 1992 Australian of the Year award. The band has released three albums since then and is a driving force behind the annual Garma Festival of Yolngu culture.
Increasing Acceptance and Popularity
The success of Yothu Yindi reflects not only a greater acceptance of Aboriginal culture by white audiences but also a reduced resistance to Aboriginal music by record companies and radio stations. Mandawuy Yunupingu has became a spokesman highlighting the Aboriginal struggle for cultural respect. Yothu Yindi signified a new kind of Aboriginal and Australian identity with a much greater reliance on traditional Aboriginal culture and combining this with contemporary means of expression such as rock. Their success has made it easier for other indigenous artists such as Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter, Brenda Webb, Kev Carmody, Tiddas and Christine Anu to achieve greater recognition and success.