The Arts Issue

The October issue of The Monthly has hit the stands and the net, with Deborah Mailman on the cover, announcing “The Arts Issue.”  And there’s some good stuff here for fans of Indigenous performing arts, and desert music in particular.  (I have to confess that I let my subscription to The Monthly lapse a while back–too many books and magazines, too little time–so I can’t report on the Mailman story.)  In addition to noting Marcia Langton’s commentary “It’s a knockout: How the Aboriginal vote won the NT election” (yes, I know it’s not arty), I can report that the Pigram Brothers got the nod from Richard Guilliatt for “The Best of Australian Popular Music,” specifically for their “sun-kissed paean” “Nothing Really Matters” from the Mad Bastards soundtrack, available from iTunes.

But the best feature that you can find online is Paul Kelly’s history of Indigenous country and rock ‘n’ roll called “Desert Songs: Thirty Years of Australia’s Hidden Hit Parade.”  Kelly’s story starts a bit farther back than that, with Bob Randall’s “Brown Skin Baby,” which Kelly notes was written the same year that Jimmy Little released “The Royal Telephone.”  From there, Kelly describes touring the Territory with his own band and stopping in, every time they passed through Alice Springs, at the nascent studios of the Central Australian Aboriginal Music Association in the early 1980s.  The folks at CAAMA were always generous with cassettes of the music they were recording by the likes of the Areyonga Desert Tigers and Lajamanu Teenage Band.  The music was inspirational.

From there, Kelly begins his proper history of thirty years of desert music, loosely defined.  He starts with the seminal classics of the Indigenous genres: Adelaide reggae masters No Fixed Address and their awesome “We Have Survived,” the Warumpi Band’s Jailanguru Pakarnu,” the first single in an Aboriginal language and Goanna’s “Solid Rock,” the first rock recording to feature the didj, played by No Fixed Address’s Billy Inda.  Coloured Stone emerged in the 80s, too, with a string of hits starting with “Black Boy” and “Dancing in the Moonlight,” described lovingly by Kelly as “mutant ska heavy metal.”  And then there was the storied Blackfella/Whitefella tour in 1986, in which the Warumpi Band traveled the Territory with Midnight Oil, igniting kids in remote communities and shaping the Oil’s subsequent masterpiece, Diesel and Dust.

From these roots Kelly’s chronicle spreads out from the desert proper to take note of happenings in the Top End: Broken English, Wairuk Band, Mandawuy Yunupingu and (eventually) Yothu Yindi.  Out in Broome, Jimmy Chi wrote Bran Nue Dae and Scrap Metal started breaking up the scene with the tunes that eventually formed their legendary Pub, Sweat and Tears collection.  When Scrap Metal disbanded, it gave birth to the Pigram Brothers and another chapter in the history of Indigenous innovations.

Softer sounds came with Kev Carmody and Archie Roach in the 90s, along with the emergence of the first generation of popular female musicians: Tiddas, Ruby Hunter, Christine Anu.  At the turn of the century, the publication of Buried Country in multiple formats, book, DVD, and CD, offered a retrospective look at the persistence of country and western genres among Indigenous musicians. From there it now seems like a short hop to recent history with Shellie Morris, Jessica Mauboy, Dan Sultan, the Last Kinection, and Gurrumul.  And an even shorter hop to the latest innovations from Sky’High, the Medics, and Busby Marou.  And since 2006, Kelly notes, the shifting membership of the supergroup Black Arm Band has, through concerts of recordings, been actively defining the canon of contemporary Aboriginal popular music.

Kelly has his own version of the canon, a thirty-song mix tape that he put together years ago and has updated for this column in The Monthly.  In the internet age, the mix tape now takes the form of links to YouTube videos, and there are some real gems to be discovered here.

The best of this fabulous collection has got to be the video for No Fixed Address’s “We Have Survived.”  It’s a surreal, theatrical, beautifully choreographed, stunningly shot four-minute capsule of contact history from the arrival of the First Fleet to contemporary  cultural survival in the city and the bush.  In the video’s early sequences depicting the arrival of white men in Sydney Cove, the black actors portraying the British sailors costume themselves in a disguise of hard white face masks, white shirts and grey tights.  In a later sequence, set in modern times, the “pigs” (to invoke another great song by No Fixed Address) who pour out of a cruiser to assault a group of blackfellas wear only the white masks, their arms bear in singlets; the effect conjures up memories of Native Trackers whose trappings of white civilization did not disguise their racial traitorousness

There are plenty of classics to watch from Kelly’s list: Coloured Stone, the Warumpis, Jimmy Little and Kev Carmody live in concert, not to mention one of my favorite recent classics, Dan Sultan’s video for “Old Fitzroy.”  But I’ll leave off by linking to a few more videos that were new to me, in the hope that they’ll inspire you to check out Kelly’s story online.

First up, “Are We There Yet?” from the Last Kinection’s 2011 album Next of Kin.  This is another lush, gorgeous piece of video work, featuring a guest appearance by Simone Stacey, that alternates between sorrow and anger over the impossibility of closing the gap.

A new discovery for me was Sky’High, the Sydney rapper with international style to spare.  Intense, unrelenting, with a great strobing combination of guitar and image to keep the song on edge all the way.

And finally, the Medics.  The band owned the National Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin this past August, walking away with New Talent, Album, and Song of the Year Awards.  I’ll admit that I’ve been slow to warm to them, but the live version of “Griffin,” recorded in the Triple-J studios, might just make a believer of me.

If all that isn’t enough to sate you, check out the interview with Paul Kelly on SlowTV.

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