It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me

While the internet has proven to be a grand way of keeping up with the art scene, politics and news, to date it’s proven a less than ideal way to stay on top of what’s happening musically in Aboriginal Australia. I haven’t really found satisfactory tools for exploring indigenous music on the web, even though the CAAMA shop is online, and Skinnyfish Music‘s website offers tiny sample clips of some of the bands they stock. (I was knocked out to discover that the iTunes store here in the USA now sells the four-CD set produced to celebrate CAAMA’s 25th anniversary.) But by and large I still haven’t unlocked the secret of learning about and hearing new Aboriginal bands from this side of the ocean. So this week I thought I’d offer up a few short reviews of some of the indigenous musicians who are “in heavy rotation” on my iPod these days in the hope that some of you will have recommendations of your own. When I was in Darwin in August 2005, Nabarlek‘s second album, Munwurrk (Bushfire), was everywhere I turned. Nabarlek hails from the tiny settlement of Manmoyi in Central Arnhem Land and is billed as “the garage band that never had a garage.” They’ve been around for a long time–over twenty years’ progression from acoustic guitars and flours tins, through a stint not as a rock band but as a dance troupe, and back to the making of music with electric guitars. On the strength of that reputation, I plunked down the money for the CD. Of course, when I think “garage band” I think three or four guys with beat up amplifiers that make the walls vibrate in time with the drummer’s snare drum attacks. This is not at all the sound of Munwurrk, or its predecessor, Bininj Manborlh (Blackfella Road). For starters, Nabarlek looks more like an orchestra than a rock band, with eleven members and three main singers. Their songs are heavy with rhythm guitars and percussion, rounded out with keyboards and margoh (didjeridu) So the first thing you notice about them is the richness of the sound: the incessant growl of the didj amidst a synthesized background chorus of bells playing against the beat of clapsticks is my earliest memory of their music. Many of the songs themselves are contemporary musical settings of traditional stories, like “Najorrkon (Rock Possum)” with its familiar warning to a younger brother not mess with his older brother’s wife. “Najorrkon” opens both of the first two albums, and the different arrangements show the band’s increasing sophistication–the first version relies heavily on the margoh and percussion; the second uses the band’s electric guitars to create a denser sound and to add to the rhythmic variety of the arrangement. Other songs address more contemporary themes, like “Namayamayameh (I Am Lost),” which tells the story of a man ejected from a club for “being drunk and causing humbug.” “Wonderer” from Munwurrk reminds me that the band owes a debt to Coloured Stone, as so many others do. But overall, I think that Nabarlek is making some of the most unusual and original music around these days. Almost every other band could be slotted comfortably into one or another (and sometimes a third) genre, be it reggae, country, hard rock, or folk. Nabarlek’s sound is most often all their own.

Nabarlek recently released a third recording, Live, in conjunction with a DVD called Nabarlek on Tour. The CD shows off the band’s chops, as the best live recordings should. Most of the songs on Live appeared on one of the two previous albums, but the treatments are often quite different, and surprisingly, sometimes gentler, performed on acoustic instruments and showing off the vocal harmonies to greater advantage: “Bushfire” is a standout in this regard. Live also shows the growing influence of reggae on the band in recent years. Given the dance party atmosphere of much of this album, I was a bit disappointed by the Nabarlek on Tour DVD. It’s aptly titled, as much of the film chronicles the band’s tour around Western Australia, but personally I was disappointed that far more time was given over to the story of life on the road and, for my money, far too little to footage of the actual performances. I don’t think you get to see a single song performed in its entirety, and in the end the DVD left me longing to spend a few hours in Nabarlek’s garage.

If your tastes run to genuine, no-frills, guitar-bass-and-drums three-man garage bands, then you can’t do much better than Onslaught‘s 4 Real. The band came out of Adelaide in 2001, and their music is all gritty urban defiance (“There’s something wrong with the program/There’s nothing wrong with me”). Musically, the songs are simple and short, the guitar is heavy on fuzz, the vocal styles stay just on the rock ‘n’ roll side of rap, and the drumming often sounds like machine guns in slow motion. It’s great stuff.

Lajamanu Teenage Band released their first album, Dreamtime Hero, shortly after their blowout performance at the 1996 at the Barunga Festival, and followed up a couple of years later with Vision. What I like best about these two recordings is the fact that I can’t really pigeonhole the music. When I’ve got my iPod on shuffle and a tune comes up that I can’t immediately place, odds are it’s going to turn out to be the Teenage Band. There’s reggae bounce in “Echo Voices” and “Wiyappa Wanti Jula,” their bilingual warning against drinking and driving, while “Please Come Home,” despite its English-language title, is Warlpiri gospel styling. Many of the other songs are pure pop–the closest thing to 1960s-inspired British larking, feel-good tunes that I’ve ever heard from an indigenous band. Like Nabarlek, they showed a great deal of musical growth between the first album and the second. I haven’t heard last year’s Prisoner yet; but the CAAMA site says that it is dedicated to the memory of Darren Penn, the band’s original bassist, so I expect there will be changes to discover.

Despite the incredible variety in indigenous popular music these days, reggae seems to be the lingua franca that can be heard in almost any band’s repertoire. Among the pioneers who brought the black Caribbean rhythms to Australian shores a quarter century ago was No Fixed Address, whose “We Have Survived” is still an anthem to be reckoned with. Chris Jones was guitarist for the band in the those days and one of his songs from the film Wrong Side of the Road (which featured No Fixed Address and Us Mob) appeared in a new version on the CAAMA 25th anthology: “Get A Grip.” It has been years since I saw the film, and I didn’t remember the song at all, which is pretty amazing, because once I heard the version on the CAAMA set, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Incredibly, the new album it appears on, Lake Victoria, is available on the American iTunes store. Or maybe it’s not so incredible, because the Lake Victoria is one hell of an album. From the opening track, “Vision,” with its spooky devil-devil imagery, through the mining protest song “Stand Up” and the spinning, inescapable rhythm riff of “Pigs” (“You gotta watch yourself/You gotta protect yourself”), right up through the bouncy, unstoppable “Get A Grip,” every song is the work of a master. The concluding track, “Dope Blues” is a classic twelve-bar that any American white-boy blues band would kill to have written: it’s funny and desperate at the same time.

The reggae backbeat is the backbone of the Tjupi Band‘s Kuunyi (Poor Thing), yet another album that demonstrates that Sammy Butcher, one of the founders of the Warumpi Band, ought to be presiding as the patron saint of the Indigenous Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, were such a thing to exist. Butcher’s solo instrumental album, Desert Surf Guitar is one of my all time favorites. It’s an album that captures just about every mood a guitar is capable of, whether it’s the 1950s ballroom slow dance rock ‘n’ roll of “Dry River Waltz” or the country stomp of “Footy Fever,” the wistful elegance of “Misty Morning Rain” or the electric glide of “Dancing Brumbies.” Kuunyi is more of an ensemble effort, but Butcher’s brilliance is the only explanation for its subtle eclecticism: take for instance how the sweet, dreamy reggae seduction of “Ngayulu Nyinanyi (I Was Sitting Alone)” is suddenly graced by Butcher’s country-picking guitar solo. Indeed, many of the songs on Kuunyi would be undistinguished, even bland, were it not for the sweetness of the guitar bridges. The standout tune is the lead-off “Petola Wanti (Leave Petrola Alone),” which is by turns plaintive and insistent; “Kungkangkuni Wanikatingu (My Girl Left Me)” is lovely and plaintive, and Butcher’s genius shines–listen to the single, ringing note that punctuates the end of each chorus.

I’m not much of a country fan; the closest I come to it in indigenous music today are the Pigram Brothers, whose credits include being the backup band for the musical Bran Nue Dae. Maybe it’s because lead vocalist Steve Pigram’s voice reminds me a bit of Arlo Guthrie’s timbre, or because the toe-tapping rhythms and the occasional mandolin give the music a bit of a bluegrass feel that I find their songs enjoyable. Maybe it’s that they bring back memories of Broome and Roy Wiggan’s diatribes against the Brothers for selling out and selling their spiritual health to the devils of whitefella’s instruments. The simple nostalgia for childhood of a song like “Poinciana Sword Fight” from Saltwater Countryplays off against the longing for lost country on Jiir‘s “Where I B’long.” And there’s something lazy and wonderful about watching the constellations whirl across the sky in the chorus of “Maysong.” The Brothers have recently released their own concert DVD, Live at the Pearl Lugger’s, Broome, but I haven’t had the pleasure yet.

If there’s a theme that underlies all of the diversity in this music, I don’t think anything sums it up better than the words that appear to be painted across a sheet of corrugated iron on the inside of the jewel box lay-in for Onslaught’s 4 Real: Hope, Strength, Survival. What amazes me is all the various ways these artists find to express those themes. The recordings I’ve chosen to highlight here are just a sample of what I’ve collected so far. New (at least to me) albums from the Late Lazy Boys, Blackstorm, and Rising Wind Band are still working themselves into my mental repertoire, and I’m giving Arnhem Land classics Wirrinyga Band, Letterstick Band, and Blekbala Mujik a bit of a rest these days. But if you’ve got recommendations for me, or tips about where to find stuff out of CAAMA’s back catalog or the latest releases from bands I haven’t heard about yet, please let me hear from you.

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