Red Flag Music

Every time I think I’ve discovered a hot new band, I turn around and find out that they’ve been around for at least a couple of years. Such was the case with Yilila , who hail from Numbulwar and are making some of the most interesting music I’ve heard coming out of the Australian Indigenous scene in a while. Why didn’t someone turn me on to these guys back in 2005, when their music started getting released on CD and, even better, on iTunes? The influence of Macassan sailors on the culture of Australia’s northern coast has been well documented, and shows up in paintings from Elcho Island, in the tamarind trees on the coast of Arnhem Land, and now, in a big way, in the music of Yilila. The band’s most identifiable symbol is the triangular Macassan red flag, or jamajama, that features large in their songs and videos. Other versions exist, like the manilamanila, the same red flag with a blue stripe that gives its name to the band’s first full-length release. These blokes aren’t Yolngu, though. They come from farther south, on the coast opposite Groote Eylandt, and sing in a mixture of Nunggubuyu, Anindilyakwa, and English.

If the first song you hear from Yilila is the favorite “Dhararri,” you might be forgiven for suspecting them of being a Yothu Yindi clone. This slow, melancholy song, a lament for a faraway home, puts strong, sad vocal harmonies that are highly evocative of Yothu Yindi’s sound, over a familiar didjeridu growl. Likewise, their first release, Manila Manila, contains a few, short traditional songs. They seem to have learned some chops in stagecraft, as well, as have acts like Saltwater Band. Yilila, though, integrates the imagery of the red flag and the fascination of the dance in a way that makes for an expressive whole. (I base these comments on the photos and videos available on their website.) The Red Flag Dancers are a performance group in their own right, and look to be an exciting act. Certainly the short films (scroll all the way to the bottom of the page at that link) of members of the band and the dancers demonstrating traditional dances on the beach display an athleticism and excitement that’s beyond what you normally see on the confines of a rock ‘n’ roll stage.

But the band’s sound is uniquely their own, and this is due in large part to the skills of guitarist and bassist Rodrick Nundhirribala. On songs like “Rharrarharra” his acoustic Spanish guitar stylings give Yilila bragging rights to a new kind of “world music.” Instead of the usual formula of Western artists like David Byrne layering Afro-Luso-Caribe funk on top of rock ‘n’ roll basics, Yilila starts from the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, mixes the music up with Indonesian influences, and then brings the sparkle of flamenco to bear on the whole. It’s a dizzying mix, and it works in part because I don’t think anyone has ever tried to make the frenetic runs of Spanish guitar picking carry the job of adding shimmer and spin to the beat of the funk before.

The guitar works similarly to create a spinning rhythm, set atop singing drumbeats at the opening of “Dhamalu Lharrmani,” and when the vocals enter after a few bars, the liquid syllables of the lyrics swirl in a vortex that somehow manages to evoke the sounds of the Middle East in all its frenzy and languor. I was reminded of the truly international flavor of the Hispano-Iranian duo Strunz & Farah. And then the songs ends, and a bluesy guitar intro to the next tune, “Dhumbala” sails across the Atlantic, promising R&B for a moment before bubbling up into one of the band’s experiments with the bounce of reggae. And then, at the song’s conclusion, the reggae beat gives way suddenly to a final six-note descending figure that takes you right back into the realm of American soul. The next song is “Dhararri,” and we’re suddenly back in the land of Yolngu lament.

This adventuresome, around-the-world-in-180-seconds strategy goes into stratospheric orbit on the band’s EP, Aeroplane. The title track features a guest appearance by Fremantle slide guitar legend John Butler. But things start to get really interesting on the second track, “Manila.” It opens with a dreamy tambura prelude, foreshadowing the Indian classical vocals of Raka Mukherjee that steer the song’s path through a series of slow changes and add a deeper dimension to lead singer Grant Nundhirribala’s mournful, soulful exercises. The two singers trade licks, slowly, almost as if they were performing on separate stages, reaching out to one another across continents. In the song’s final minute the vocals fade into one another, and sink behind another repeating, irregular riff for acoustic guitar and congas.

“Mijiyanga (World Remix)” opens with more Spanish guitar, backed by a plaintive violin, before a bouncing duet for drums and–what is it? a concertina? a melodica?–picks up the beat; then the vocals, sung in English, evoke the return of the old sailing ship. This is a theme from the northern coast, for sure, the people waiting for the return of the monsoon and the Macassans: “I see the old sailing boat/In my dreams/It was floating towards me/Across the sea.” Before you can sort out the mixture, the whole ensemble stops on a dime as drums and didj duet at center stage for a few bars; vocals are backed by guitar and strings for a few more bars, and then the drum and didj theme comes back under classic call and response ceremonial singing from the Carpentaria sands–and that concertina slips in again underneath it all. At this point, the song isn’t even half over; yet what’s amazing is that it doesn’t come off as a self-conscious patchwork. The players somehow manage to craft enough connections in phrasing and instrumentation to take you through these changes without jarring your loose. 

In truth, they’d tried this before: the song appears on Manila Manila, but the different elements are somehow more homogenized, more tightly streamed into one another so that the exotic and the diverse are de-emphasized. The version on Aeroplane foregrounds the mash-up, to spectacular effect. They try the same strategy in the gentler “E Dhumbula,” letting the drone of the tambura weave together a different tapestry of instruments and electronic effects. 

Unfortunately, the rest of Aeroplane is mostly recycling: two tracks from the earlier album, re-released without modifications, and a “radio mix” version of “Mijiyanga” that adds no substance to the EP. If you already own Manila Manila, buy the new tracks from Aeroplane from iTunes individually and save a couple of dollars. But don’t miss those new tracks; they promise great things for the future.

The future should include a performance at this year’s Darwin Festival with Sanggar Bliran Sina, an Indonesian musical cooperative from Watublapi. According to a story in The Australian (“Neighbourly swapping of notes,” January 3, 2008), a CD born of the collaboration is due later this year as well. Who knows how this partnership will stretch the imaginations of Yilila? I’m eager to find out.

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