Contemporary Aboriginal Music

 

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.

Commercial Neglect
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.

Aboriginal Art and Culture – Web Links

This page lists the best Web links we have found that will give you further information about Aboriginal art and culture and also more general context information about land rights, history, statistics etc. The links are organised under eight headings:

Aboriginal art
Aboriginal languages
Aboriginal music
Aboriginal arts organisations
land rights and management
native title
general information sources (separate page)
A separate page gives links to useful arts search engines and sites

Aboriginal Art
Aboriginal Art Directory

The Directory is the largest online tool to help you find Australian Aboriginal art, self-representing artists, art centres, galleries, online stores and wholesalers worldwide.

Aboriginal Memorial

The Aboriginal Memorial, on display in the National gallery of Australia, Canberra, is an installation of 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land. It commemorates all the indigenous people who, since 1788, have lost their lives defending their land.

Aboriginal Studies WWW Virtual Library – Art and Culture

Part of the excellent Aboriginal Studies WWW Virtual Library Web site – this section covers Aboriginal Art, Culture and Spirituality.

Australian Indigenous Art Trade Association

The Association operates to promote the ethical trade of indigenous art and provide a forum where members can discuss issues relevant to the industry.

Australian Rock Art Research Association

This site covers information on rock art research throughout the world – with particular emphasis on Australia.

Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Aboriginal Art

This is an excellent collection held by the University of Virginia in the USA.

Maningrida Arts and Culture

One of Australia’s largest community based Aboriginal Arts Co-operatives servicing over 350 artists in north central Arnhem Land. This is an excellent and informative site – well worth a visit.

Moorditj

Moorditj, a Noongar word for “excellent”, celebrates the work of 110 Indigenous artists from all over Australia, including Sally Morgan, Yothu Yindi, Bronwyn Bancroft, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Ellen Jose and the Bangarra Dance Theatre.

South Australian Museum – Cockatoo Creek canvas
This shows a huge painting including the Dreamings of a place called Yanardilyi – Cockatoo Creek on the edge of the Tanami Desert, 250 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs.

Tiwi Islands – Art Centres

There are three art centres located on the Tiwi Islands: two on Melville Island (Munupi and Jilamara) and one on Bathurst Island (Tiwi Design). This site focuses on Tiwi art, country and culture.

Tjulyuru Cultural and Civic Centre

Tjulyuru Community Centre is situated on the Great Central Highway, Warburton Ranges in the Ngaanyatjarra lands in Western Australia. The centre provides an exhibition gallery and performance venue.

Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Association

The Association is an Aboriginal Art Centre located at Yuendumu, 300km north-west of Alice Springs representing over 160 Warlpiri and Anmatjerre artists. The site gives information and images of art works in acrylic.

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Aboriginal Music
Bangarra Dance Theatre

Bangarra is one of Australia’s most innovative dance companies. Bangarra blends urban Aboriginal sensibility, traditional Aboriginal dance styles and international contemporary dance to produce an exciting blend. The Web site gives the company’s history, activities, biographies of performers and tour dates for performances.

Black Mujik Australia
The aim of the site is to promote Aboriginal artists of the Northern Territory while supplying a resource for those interested or involved with Aboriginal culture and music.

Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music

Since the early 1970s, the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music, University of Adelaide has been a major home and place for professional training for Aboriginal musicians and performers.

Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association

CAAMA was established in 1980, is Aboriginal owned, and its objectives focus on the social, cultural and economic advancement of Aboriginal peoples. It produces music, radio, television and has a retailing arm.

Daki Budtcha

Daki Budtcha is a music Web site promoting indigenous music, including artists such as Maroochy Baramba

Garma Festival

The Garma Festival, held each year in August in north east Arnhem Land, is the largest and most vibrant celebration of Yolngu culture. It involves around 20 clan groups, as well as representatives from clan groups and neighbouring Indigenous peoples throughout Arnhem Land and the Northern Territory.

Manikay – Aboriginal Music from Arnhem Land

An online database of many commercially released albums and films containing traditional Aboriginal music from Arnhem Land.

Yothu Yindi

The Web site gives information about the Band, Complete Discography, Tour Dates, Video Clips and Music Files, Art Gallery, etc – a quality site.

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Aboriginal Languages
Australian Indigenous Languages Bibliographies

Part of the AIATSIS web site, includes profiles of many Australian Indigenous languages.

Aboriginal Languages of Australia

This site gives a comprehensive and well maintained guide to links and sources for around 80 of Australia’s Aboriginal languages, of which around 20 are still strong. About 35% of these resources are produced by Indigenous people.

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Aboriginal Arts Organisations
Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists

The Association promotes, markets and develops policy between Art Centres, Government agencies, institutions, galleries, independent merchandisers, exhibition curators and other industry groups

Desart – the Association of Central Australian Aboriginal Art Centres

DESART is controlled by the Aboriginal producer-owned art and craft centres in Central Australia. These centres support approximately 3000 Aboriginal artists and craftspeople, most of whom live on remote communities and homelands dotted around the vast area. The Web site lists member organizations, map of the region and shows examples of art from the communities.

Koorie Heritage Trust

The Trust was established in 1985 to maintain and promote the living culture of the indigenous people of south-east Australia. The Trust has a collection of around 3,000 artefacts and a library of over 6,000 items

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Land Rights and Management
Cape York Land Council

The core responsibility of the Council is to assist Aboriginal people of Cape York Peninsula to obtain the return of their traditional lands. Web site gives information on Cape York communities, native title, other social issues.

Lore of the Land

This website and accompanying CD-ROM is the result of a partnership between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It offers the opportunity to explore Australia’s history, geography and the voices of its people( including Aboriginal people from south west Victoria and the western desert) and the way they relate to the land.

There are four land councils in the Northern Territory established under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976: the Northern Land Council covering the Top End of the Northern Territory; the Central Land Council covering the southern half; the Tiwi Land Council covering Bathurst and Melville Islands north of Darwin; and Anindilyakwa Land Council covering Groote Eylandt.

Central Land Council

The Council is a statutory representative body representing Aboriginal people in the Central Australian region. The Web site gives a comprehensive coverage of land and related issues in Central Australia.

Northern Land Council

The most important responsibilities of the Council are to consult traditional landowners and other Aborigines with an interest in the land. There are about 200 communities scattered over Aboriginal land in the Top End, ranging in size from small family groups on outstations to settlements of up to 3,000 people.

Indigenous Land Corporation

The Corporation’s main functions are to assist indigenous peoples in Australia to acquire land and to manage indigenous-held land in a sustainable way to provide benefits for themselves and for future generations. Site gives details of the Land Use Strategy, papers, newsletters.

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Native Title
National Native Title Tribunal

The Tribunal is a Commonwealth Government body that facilitates the making of agreements among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, governments, industry and others whose rights or interests may co-exist with native title rights and interests. Web site gives an overview of Native Title, legal cases, indigenous land use agreements and other topics.

Boomerang

Boomerangs are throwing sticks which come in a wide variety of shapes. The term ‘boomerang’ apparently derives from a word in the Dharug language of eastern New South Wales, though it has also been identified as coming from a Tharawal word.

Boomerangs are often thought of as essentially Australian, but in fact it is only the returning boomerang that is unique to this continent – throwing sticks have been used for thousands of years by many hunter gatherer societies. Boomerang making has been happening for at least 10 000 years in Australia. For example, Mimi figures are shown holding boomerangs in ancient rock art from Arnhem Land, and at Wyrie Swamp, South Australia, three boomerangs have been found which are dated at between 9 000 and 10 000 years old.

Boomerang from central Australia

Boomerangs come in three types: returning, non-returning and ceremonial. Returning boomerangs were most commonly used in south eastern and south western Australia, and only rarely used in Central Australia and the Lake Eyre Basin. They were not used at all in a large part of the Western Desert, in much of northern Australia, Cape York Peninsula and in Tasmania. In Cape York, however, rock art suggests that boomerangs were once used there, and they are still used in ceremonies.

As a general rule, larger and heavier boomerangs tended to be used by Aboriginal people of the inland plains and deserts. Shorter and lighter boomerangs were used by people from the higher country and coastal areas. Those from inland areas tended to be decorated with red ochre or carving, while those from coastal regions tended to be undecorated.

Boomerangs are mainly used in hunting for animals. They are also used as blades for carving meat, for digging, for fire making, for scraping other tools, and in music making (as clapsticks). Boomerangs have important uses in rituals and ceremonies, and particular forms may be used in these.

Aboriginal men holding boomerangs

Aboriginal men holding boomerangs
Aboriginal men from central Australia,
holding boomerangs of various shapes,
photographed in the the early 1930s.
The returning variety is usually 30 to 75 cm long, with two straight arms joining in a sharp-angled curve; the sides may be flat or slightly convex, with one end twisted up slightly and the other down. It is often thrown with a run-up, and then with a flick of the wrist. It is held at one end, above and behind the thrower’s shoulder, with the concave edge to the front, and swung forward rapidly with the flatter side underneath. Just before release, added movement is given by the strong wrist flick. It is this spin, together with its special shape, that gives boomerangs their remarkable flight.

If thrown downward or parallel to the ground, it sweeps upward to a height of 15 metres or more. When thrown so that one end strikes the ground, it ricochets into the air at great speed, spinning endwise. It flies in a wide circle and is used to frighten animals towards traps or for sport.

The non-returning type is longer and heavier with a shallower curve – it can be ricocheted from the ground towards its quarry, or used as a hand club. A hooked variety, used in Central Australia and the Northern Territory, was designed to catch on a shield then spin round to strike the enemy.

Boomerangs for music and ceremonial purposes were also important. This significance is reflected, for example, in the fact that most central Australian Aboriginal languages have a particular word for the sound of boomerangs being rattled together in music and ceremonies.

Framing and Stretching Aboriginal Paintings

Many Aboriginal paintings are in acrylic paint on cotton or linen canvas, and they are stored and delivered rolled up. This is possible because, unlike ochre and some other natural pigments, acrylic paint is flexible and the painting can be rolled without damage (provided reasonable care is taken).

One of the most common ways to display an Aboriginal art work on canvas is simply to hang it on its stretcher frame – often no border or additional frame is needed.

stretcher is a wooden support that a canvas is attached to for stability. A frame around the stretcher, in addition to complementing the appearance of the painting, provides extra support for the canvas.

A competent picture framer will be able to stretch the painting onto a stretcher frame quickly and economically. Alternatively, you can stretch the canvas yourself fairly easily once you know what to do and have the right tools and materials.

Making a Stretcher Frame

First you need to collect the necessary tools and materials: a stapler with staples (or hammer and tacks), stretcher strips (bars), and possibly also a pair of canvas pliers to grip the canvas (similar to ordinary pliers except they have a broader gripping area). In addition, a T-square is convenient to help make sure that the stretchers are square.

You can buy stretcher bars, staplers and stainless steel staples from art supply shops or framers.

Measure the size of the painted area that you want on display and cut the stretcher strips to size. Then assemble the stretcher frame using the strips, pushing the mitred ends into each other and gluing the joints.

One or more cross bars may be needed (one is shown in the diagram) depending on the size of the painting and the strength and stiffness of the stretcher bars.

Making a wooden stretcher frame

Check that the stretcher frame is square, either by using a T-square or by taking a tape measure and checking that the diagonal distances from opposing corners are equal. If these are equal, the frame is square. If there is a problem, correct it by attaching a small metal right-angle brace or a small right triangle of plywood on the inner frame corner.

For stretcher bars longer than 90 cm (36 inches), an inner brace should be inserted between the bars to support them from bowing inward after the canvas has been attached. This will also protect against frame distortion during periods of fluctuating humidity.

Stretching a Canvas onto a Stretcher Frame

To stretch your painting onto its stretcher frame, follow these steps:

1. Unroll the canvas and lay the painted side down on a clean (dust-free) flat surface. Place the frame on top of the canvas. It is important to leave any excess overlapping material because this is what you use to grip, stretch, and attach the canvas to the frame.

2. Fold one side of the canvas over one of the shorter stretcher bars and then attach a staple or canvas tack at the centre of the outside edge of that bar.

3. On the opposite side, use pliers to grip the canvas at mid-bar. It may be easier to have the frame upright while doing this. With a firm grip, pull the canvas until a straight crease is formed to the tacked end. While keeping tension on the canvas, insert another staple or tack at the centre edge of the bar, just like the other side.

4. Move to the next stretcher bar (one of the longer ones) and repeat steps 2 and 3. As you do, a triangular canvas crease will form as you attach the third side and then a diamond-shaped crease when the fourth tack is attached to the remaining bar.

5. Now, place temporary staples or tacks at all four corners. Starting with the centre of one of the long bars, grip the canvas tightly with the pliers and fasten tacks at 5 centimetre (2 inch) intervals. Repeat with several tacks in both directions (from the centre) and then switch to the opposite side and repeat the process. Continue working from the centre until both long sides are completely along the side, stretching the canvas evenly as you proceed.

6. Once both long sides are finished, remove the temporary tacks that you fastened in step 5. Now repeat the same fastening process for both of the short sides, working out from the centres. For smaller canvases, one entire short side can be fastened first, followed by the opposite side. Larger canvases should be rotated several times to evenly stretch the material over the frame. Note that a linen canvas will normally require that the staples or tacks be placed closer together, due to the limited stretch of this material.

7. Fold and pleat the corners of the canvas and then neatly wrap them around to the rear of the canvas frame. Keeping tension on the material, staple all of the excess cloth to the rear of the frame so that it is neatly secured. Then staple or tack all four outer corners. This excess material is important to have in case you ever need to re-stretch or remount the canvas.

Traditional Aboriginal Musical Instruments

 

Aboriginal traditional music consists mainly of rhythmic singing supported by a limited number of instruments. Traditional Aboriginal instruments are almost always percussive and mainly involve beating – for example handclaps, body slapping or hitting of clapsticks. The most important non-percussive instrument is the didjeridu (yidaki, also other names), and on the northern coastal regions large conch shells were used to produce sounds. There are no traditional stringed instruments.

Instrument
Description
Clapsticks A singer holds a pair of wooden sticks, one in each hand. One long and slightly flattened stick is generally grasped in the middle and held flat. The other stick, more rounded and held towards the end, is brought sharply and cleanly on to the first to make a percussive rhythm.
Boomerang clapsticks These have a similar function to clapsticks – at times they may be shaken to provide a continuous rattle, as well as being beaten together.
Handclapping Handclapping and slapping various parts of the body are used by singers of both sexes, sometimes as a substitute for a pair of sticks.
Percussion sticks A set of three or four wooden sticks hit with another stick (sometimes referred to ‘gongs’).
Percussion tube A hollow log drum used with particular ceremonies.
Other percussion These include a stick beaten on a shield, a stick beaten on another stick lying on the ground, and the women’s bark bundle hit on the ground.
Rasp The Kimberley Tabi songs are accompanied by a rasp. A notched stick, or the side of a spear thrower is scraped by a second, smaller stick.
Rattle Island style songs from Cape York may be accompanied by the rattling sound of bunches of seed pods shaken in the hand.
Bullroarer A piece of wood attached to a long string which is swung around to produce a roaring sound
Skin drum A single-headed hour glass shaped drum, whose head is made from lizard or goanna skin, is used on Cape York with traditional songs and island dance. The open end is sometimes shaped like the mouth of a crocodile.
Didjeridu (yidaki) The didjeridu provides a constant drone on a deep note, somewhere between D flat and G below the bass clef. This drone is broken up into a great variety of rhythmic patterns and accents by the skillful use of the tongue and cheeks. Many different tone colours are achieved by altering the shape of the mouth cavity and the position of the tongue and by shutting off various parts of the anatomy which act as resonating chambers for the human voice. The greatest skill of a didjeridu player lies in the use of two entirely different notes, which are alternated in rapid succession to form complex cross-rhythms. These two notes are pitched a major tenth apart, the upper note being the first overtone.
Instruments table based on work by Hans Telford

Clapsticks
These were once the most common and important musical instruments throughout Australia (except in the Torres Strait, where drums provided the rhythmic accompaniment.) In many areas they were often the only musical instrument, with voices providing all the melody. Clapsticks may be single and beaten against some other object (e.g. the ground, trees, weapons, bark) or paired and beaten against each other (in some areas stones are used instead of wood). There are two basic kinds of clapsticks: sticks, sometimes shaped according to the song items they are used for, with the smaller one beaten against the larger, and boomerangs, either used in separate hands or held in one hand so that the extremities can meet alternately, giving a rapid beat. Both forms were widely used, boomerang clapsticks being common in recent times in the north, where they were not in use as weapons and were obtained by trade. Clapsticks could be played by the lead singer, but also as a general accompaniment and often by women.

Text by Dr David Horton from the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia

Didjeridu (yidaki)

The name didjeridu is not an Aboriginal one but seems to have been coined by Herbert Basedow in 1926 on the basis of sounds made by players practising on the instrument. The didjeridu (perhaps less than 1000 years old) was originally used from the Gulf of Carpentaria across northern Australia to Derby, the most southerly point being Wave Hill.

Rock art showing instruments

Rock art showing instruments
Rock art from Kakadu, National park showing use of didjeridu and clapsticks.

It spread to southern Cape York within the last 200 years and further into Central Australia only this century. It may have evolved from an ’emu decoy’, a short hollow branch blown to lure birds, such as emus and brush turkeys, by imitating their calls.

The didjeridu is made from a log hollowed out by fire or termites and cleaned out, or from bamboo with septa removed, and a mouthpiece of wax or resin is moulded to one end. The inside diameter measures about 30 mm at the end that is blown, and about 50 mm at the opposite end. Different tube lengths (normally 100-160 cm) produce different sounds, and a player will normally have a number of instruments to choose from to suit the voice of particular singers who are being accompanied.

The didjeridu is played by blowing through vibrating lips directly into the mouthpiece, air reserves being held in the cheeks and replenished by rapid sniffs through the nose which do not interrupt the continuous blowing. There are two playing styles. In Arnhem Land (and Groote Eylandt) an ‘overblown’ or upper tone is used, the end of the instrument rests on the ground or in a baler shell, and the right hand is left free to tap the tube. Elsewhere there are usually no upper tones, the end of the instrument is above ground or resting on the foot, and the right hand gives additional support.

Copyright and Intellectual Property Protection for Indigenous Heritage

The issue of whether there is adequate protection for indigenous cultural heritage and intellectual property is a live topic amongst Aboriginal artists and communities. It was been the focus of several papers commissioned by the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). The most relevant of these is the report from 1997 Our Culture, Our Future.

What is Indigenous Intellectual Property?

Indigenous intellectual property consists of the intangible ideas and knowledge associated with artistic works and designs and other forms of cultural expression such as music, dance, song and story (see “Our Culture, Our Future”).

Indigenous people stress the strong connections between intellectual and cultural property and other parts of their cultural heritage, particularly to country and their sense of identity. Indigenous rights in cultural and intellectual property include the right to determine its nature and extent in accordance with their laws and customs, the right to manage and control it, and the right to exclude others from access to and use of this property.

The social and economic significance to Australia of the cultures and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people often remain unacknowledged. Indigenous people are increasingly asserting their rights to have these contributions recognised and to share equally in financial and other benefits resulting from use of their culture. This includes being compensated where there has been unauthorised use or misuse.

There has been a long history of misuse and unauthorised reproduction of works of art, designs and other intangible cultural expressions (such as languages, oral traditions, songs and dances). These misuses were graphically shown in a challenging Web site called ‘The House of Aboriginality’. This was a multimedia project at Macquarie University about the ‘imitations industry’ which has arisen to exploit the popularity of Aboriginal art. It aimed particularly to curb such activities, including the unauthorised use of traditional Dreaming designs.

Recognising and Protecting Indigenous Intellectual Property

In recent years there has been increasing awareness of the need to prevent misuse of Indigenous cultural and intellectual property. Successive decisions by the courts have extended the protection given by the Copyright Act 1968. The decision in 1983 in favour of the Aboriginal Artists Agency set a precedent for the protection of copyright by Aboriginal artists by acknowledging that Indigenous works could be recognised legally as original works. The decision in 1994 in relation to copying of an Aboriginal design in carpets led to huge award of damages and established that copying part or whole of an original work was a copyright infringement. Recent court decisions provide a basis for extending copyright laws to better accommodate Indigenous perspectives.

However, it is the view of ATSIC that, despite these developments, effective protection of Indigenous intellectual property is beyond the scope of existing laws. This is because such laws do not provide for the recognition of collective rights, nor do they allow for the protection of the intangible expressions of culture. Indigenous peoples’ cultural expressions generally do not meet the requirement for ‘originality’ as defined by the Copyright Act. In their present form, intellectual property laws provide protection only for a fixed period, which is a further limitation on protection for Indigenous cultural knowledge, products and expressions.

Is the Copyright Regime Working?

Clearly the view of ATSIC and many Aboriginal artists is that copyright protection under current laws is not effective. Changes which have been supported by ATSIC include the reform of copyright and other laws and the establishment of an authenticity label for Indigenous art and cultural products and performances.

Others take a more positive view of the copyright regime. For example, Professor Jon Altman, Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University argues that Australian copyright law can work for the benefit of indigenous artists (Artlink Vol 20 #1, page 91). He suggests that “Effort is now needed to ensure adequate representation of artists and the utilisation, where appropriate of intellectual property for commercial gain. It is likely that the industry will need considerably greater scale before an Indigenous collection agency can be justified.”

One Response – A Label of Authenticity

Indigenous communities have been concerned about the production and sale of art and cultural products claiming to be made by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artists. This concern led the National Indigenous Arts Advocacy Association (NIAAA) to develop and implement a Label of Authenticity – a national certification system for the authentication of works of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The system was launched in late 1999 but was not widely adopted. Through lack of use the system collapsed and NIAAA has disbanded.

The Label of Authenticity was a certified trade mark that can be placed on art or cultural products and services to denote genuine Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin. The intention was that it would help to encourage the sale of authentic products and also deter the sale of copied or “rip-off” designs and products. Any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person who met the standard set by the rules for the Label could apply for certification entitling that person to use the Label in relation to their works.

While the positive intentions of the NIAAA were widely acknowledged, not all people involved with Indigenous arts and culture were persuaded of the value of such a label. For example, Brenda Croft (a member of the Gurindji nation and curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia) raised several concerns, the most significant of which was the use of the term “authentic” (Artlink Vol 20 #1, page 85). Her concern was that the use of the term would require Indigenous artists to validate their identities to others. She pointed out that in her view the primary need is for public education – so that non-Indigenous people (including buyers of art and craft works) have a better appreciation of the complexities of contemporary Indigenous cultural expression.

Conclusion

Protection of Indigenous intellectual property rights is both a concern to indigenous communities and difficult to achieve in practice. Views differ over the answers to a number of key questions including:

  • Can copyright law be shaped to meet the characteristics of Indigenous intellectual traditions?
  • Does the labelling of works as “authentic” create further problems of its own?
  • To what extent can Indigenous artists control generic aspects of their designs and works?

Aboriginal Music

Music is a powerful part of Aboriginal culture and is part of everyday life as well as being a vital part of sacred ceremonies. Traditional music is still practised and performed widely – and there is also a very strong and lively contemporary music scene.

Visit our separate pages on:

Traditional Instruments and the Didjeridu (yidaki) and
Contemporary Music
Music in Traditional Society
Music plays a major role in traditional Aboriginal societies and is intimately linked with a person’s ancestry and country (the animals, plants and physical features of the landscape). It is traditionally connected with important events such as the bringing of rain, healing, wounding enemies and the winning of battles.

Aboriginal music is learnt and carried on to later generations by performing it. It is not seen as fixed but rather is something that is varied or built upon in successive performances. There is usually a large number of participants and is performed communally. The diversity of culture across Aboriginal groups is reflected in the diversity of songs, music, instruments and techniques.

Types of Traditional Music
There are three distinct types of Aboriginal music. The first and largest type consists of that used in sacred and secret ceremonies. These are songs which can only be performed in a particular place, and for a particular purpose. The ceremonies usually commemorate some event or events connected with a totemic ancestor. The songs and ceremonies of this type can only be known and witnessed by initiated men. There are also women’s secret ceremonies, a large proportion of which are connected with reproduction, and particular songs for children.

The second type of music is the semi-sacred, of which there is a large amount. They were sung by men, while women danced, during the initiation ceremony of young boys. The sacred and semi-sacred songs were performed in full only at the appointed ceremonial ground, and were never sung by men who were not initiates of that totem at that particular place

The third type is non-sacred or entertainment music. These songs are the only form of Australian Aboriginal music that can be performed by any person – man, woman or child – at any time or any place. The best known form of these public events is the corroboree in which the men dance for up to three or four hours continuously while the women and children sing. Non-sacred songs were traded freely between tribes and spread easily, often crossing from one language into another.

Arrernte painting for public corroboree – Spencer and Gillen 1901

Music also plays a part in ordinary daily life. Herbert Basedow in 1925 noted that:

It is common practice . . . among the tribes of Australia, for one individual to carry on conversation with another by singing the words. When, for instance, it is the intention of the person engaged in conversation to make the matter as little noticeable as possible, or when they want to impart information to each other without attracting the attention of a third party, they clothe their words in song. And the same is also done when a third party is criticised.
Young aboriginal children are encouraged to dance and sing about everyday tasks. At puberty a child learns the first songs about the totemic plants and animals of their clan and the history and mythology of the group – these have specific melodic formulas that distinguish them from other group’s songs. Young men also learn more lighthearted songs which are the basic entertainment for their group. When a man marries and enters further into group responsibilities, the karma songs are the central part of his education and his source of spiritual strength. His maturity can be measured in the knowledge he has acquired through songs and ceremonies.

Music, Songs and Ceremonies – Krill Krill Songs
One of the most recent and significant examples of the continuing role of song and ceremony in Aboriginal traditional culture is the emergence of the Krill Krill song cycle and ceremony in the east Kimberley.

The Krill Krill (or Gurirr Gurirr) ceremony was revealed to Rover Thomas after the death of a woman to whom he was spiritually related in 1974. The woman was severely injured in a car accident close to Turkey Creek (near Warmun community) and was transferred first to Wyndham then, as she was being flown over the west Kimberley coastline, she died from her injuries. About a month later Rover Thomas was visited by her spirit and she gave him a series of songs and dances about her travels after her death, visiting many sites of sacred or historical importance in the Kimberley.

After several years of his telling these stories, they evolved into a song and dance ceremony called Krill Krill performed by the Warmun community. This ceremony included the carrying of painted boards by dancers. These boards initially were painted by Thomas’s uncle Paddy Jaminji, under Rover Thomas’ instructions, and only several years later did Rover Thomas take up painting independently himself. These paintings have led to the remarkable growth of the east Kimberley style of painting in which Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, Hector Jandany and Jack Britten are some of the best known artists.

The Krill Krill songs record in brief verses the travels of the woman’s spirit in the Kimberley. The number and combination of songs presented in each performance may depend on the nature of the venue and the audience, and on occasions new verses have been added. In each performance, however, the order of the movement across the landscape is maintained. This set of songs is remarkable in a number of ways: as an example of innovation in songs and ceremonies, as the origin of a new and lively school of art, and as an example of continuity in an extremely old oral tradition.

Aborigines or Aboriginal – Which Word to Use?

 

Aborigines or Aboriginal? What is the correct word to use to refer to the indigenous inhabitants of Australia? This is a complex question with several answers. The complexity arises not only from the fact that there are many different indigenous peoples in Australia (Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander people as well) but also from the recent history of occupation of the continent.

The word “aborigine” is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:

1. an aboriginal (the first or earliest known of its kind present in a region) inhabitant especially as contrasted with an invading or colonizing people
2. a member of any of the indigenous peoples of Australia
Many Australian Aboriginal people dislike the term “Aborigines” because it has been imposed on them during the course of colonisation. Some also dislike “Aboriginal”, although it is widely used (though preferably as an adjective, as in “Aboriginal peoples”).

There has therefore been a widespread adoption in many parts of Australia of alternative words, usually the word for “person” from a local indigenous language.

For example, the word “koori” has become used extensively across south eastern Australia. Some languages of south-east Australia (parts of New South Wales and Victoria) had a word – coorie, kory, kuri, kooli, koole – which meant ‘person’ or ‘people’. The word koori was recorded as early as 1886, being in used by the Aborigines from the Riverina and Victorian regions. In the 1960s it came to be used in the form koori by Aborigines of these areas to mean ‘Aboriginal people’ or ‘Aboriginal person’.

In other regions different words have been adopted: Murri over most of south and central Queensland, Bama in north Queensland, Nunga in southern South Australia, Noongar (Nyoongah) around Perth, Wongi in the Kalgoorlie region, Yolngu in Arnhem Land, Anangu in central Australia, Yuin on the south coast of New South Wales and Palawa in Tasmania.

Art, Land and the Dreaming

Art is a central part of the life of Australian aborigines and takes many forms. Traditionally it was made for purely cultural reasons and was only able to be created or viewed by people initiated to the proper level of knowledge. More recently, artwork has been made specifically for public viewing. Regardless of whether the art is for private or public purposes, for many artists their work remains inspired by the traditional marks and symbols from the Dreaming and the artist’s country.

Uluru
Uluru is a landscape of profound spiritual significance for Anangu Aborigines.

The Dreaming is a term used by Aboriginal people to describe relations between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world. It relates to a period before living memory or experience – a time of creator ancestors and supernatural beings. This period is called the Dreamtime. Many art works are visual representations of the symbols associated with the artist’s Dreaming.

Dreaming and the DreamtimeTraditional Symbols

Conventional designs and symbols are an essential part of the long traditions in Aboriginal art. When applied to the body of a person taking part in a ceremony or the surface of an object, these have the power to transform the object to one with religious significance. Dots are one of the conventional symbols widely used and for many non-Aboriginal people these are what give Central and Western Desert art its distinctive character.

Sand Painting
Aborigines with sand painting and body painting – from Spencer-Gillen expedition to Central Australia in 1912
Contemporary Culture and SocietyContemporary Aboriginal Culture and Society

The diversity of Aboriginal peoples and their cultures continues, despite being profoundly altered since the occupation of the continent by European invasion. It is difficult to cover the wide range of issues in contemporary culture, but some of the most important ones identified by Aboriginal representatives include:

Native Title and Land Rights
The”Stolen Generation” of children
Education and Health (coming soon)
Law and Justice (“Deaths in Custody”) (coming soon)
As background to these issues, we have also prepared pages about Australia’s Indigenous Population and Traditional Bush Medicines.

Prehistory of AustraliaAboriginal Languages

In the late eighteenth century there were between 600 and 700 Aboriginal ‘tribes’ in Australia. Each had its own territory, its own social system and laws, and its own language. Between them, they spoke between 200 and 250 separate languages. Of these, around 150 have all but disappeared and now only 20 or so are still strong and in active use in daily life. Many Aborigines are deeply concerned about the state of their languages, but pride in culture through art is helping to maintain or recover some of them.

One question often asked is what word should be used to refer to Australian indigenous people. For a discussion of this, see our page Aboriginal or Aborigines?

Further information is also available from the excellent site maintained by Matthew Ciolek about the art and culture of Australian Aborigines.

MusicAboriginal Music

Music is a powerful part of Aboriginal culture and is part of everyday life as well as being a vital part of sacred ceremonies. Traditional songs are of central importance in telling and maintaining Dreaming stories. Contemporary Aboriginal culture is also rich in music and there are exciting blends of Western and traditional sounds across a variety of styles, ranging from didjeridu music to the contemporary popular sounds of Archie Roach or Yothu Yindi.

Aboriginal LanguagesPrehistory of Australia

Aboriginal people believe that their origins lie in the Dreamtime and that they have always lived in Australia. Western archaeological evidence has, since the 1950s, rapidly accumulated evidence of human occupation of this continent for more than 40 000 years, and perhaps as long as 60 000 years.

While these accounts of Australian prehistory appear to be in conflict, this may not be as great as it first appears. The Dreaming tracks which cross the continent record the travels of ancestral beings – and in Arnhem Land or Cape York some of these tracks come from beyond Australia’s shores. Archaeologists believe similarly that the ancestors of Australian Aborigines voyaged across the sea from islands to the north – providing the earliest evidence of sea travel by modern humans.