I wasn’t prepared at all for the emotional impact of Murandak: songs of freedom, the concert film and documentary tagged as “a journey to the heart of Aboriginal protest music with the Black Arm Band.”
I’d downloaded the album from iTunes months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the trip down memory lane, through Archie Roach’s “Took the Children Away,” Ruby Hunter’s “Down City Streets,” Bart Willoughby’s “We Have Survived” and Shane Howard’s “Solid Rock.” It was a good listen even if the sound quality wasn’t always the best. But these are giants in the earth, I told myself, and I want to see what the stage show looked like.
From the moment that Emma Donovan appears on the screen, singing a verse of “From Little Things Big Things Grow” on a red dirt crossroads out in the bush, I knew that I was in for something more than just a roadshow. Footage of the various band members leaving their homes–Stephen Pigram in Broome, Gapanbulu Yunupingu with his yidaki up north, Dan Sultan on the streets of Melbourne–is intercut with documentary footage from the land rights protests from decades ago, as the sound of the Band picking up the Gurindji land rights anthem swells. We see Kutcha Edwards approaching the steps of the Sydney Opera house and then we’re inside and the band is on stage belting it out with all their hearts and the audience is swaying and singing along and the magic doesn’t stop for another hour and a half. The sight of these giants lined up across the stage drove a tingling racing from the top of my neck down to my fingertips: Rachel Maza, Emma Donovan, Ursula Yovich, Shellie Morris cluster together doing backup vocals while Edwards, the Tiddas’ Lou Bennett, Jimmy Little, Hunter and Roach and Dan Sultan front the footlights. It’s more than awesome. And I don’t mean that in some slack slacker sense: I really felt awe in their presence on the screen.
The first half of the film is a history lesson for all of us, telling us stories we know but can’t be reminded of too often, providing a sense of the issues from which today’s vibrant Indigenous musical scene sprang. Starting off with Joe Geia’s “Yil Lull” followed by Bart Willoughby leading the Band through “We Have Survived,” we’re back almost at the dawn of popular protest music in the early 80s. More documentary footage is cut into the concert sequences, including clips of Willoughby pounding the drums when he and Geia played together in No Fixed Address. A note of melancholy creeps into my mind as well. The Warumpi Band were making musical history at the same time back in 1982; and G. R. Burrawanga, their lead singer, played some early gigs with the Black Arm Band before his untimely death in 2007.
There’s more sadness in the mix that follows and that highlights the contributions, achievements, and the lives of Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter. While Willoughby’s song sounded an important theme that persists throughout the film–“we have survived”–Roach and Hunter tell at what cost that survival has been gained. “Took the Children Away” is heartbreaking music at any time, but to hear its verses interspersed with Roach’s memory of being hidden, unsuccessfully, in the bush when the police and the welfare came to take him away is to feel the pain afresh. And it’s hard to watch him with Hunter, glowing, maternal, festooned with glittering finery, the two of them a family of their own in the modern century, and know that she is gone and that Roach has suffered another catastrophic loss. But for the moment, the affection between them on screen, and Ruby Hunter’s kindness to all the members of the band throughout the film, got me choked up with something that felt oddly like happiness. To see that followed by the images of people in Canberra watching Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, is to believe, if only for the moment, that there is hope, that healing is real.
About midway through the film, after footage shot at various major venues in the capital cities, we follow the Black Arm Band to London. There are shots of the Band perched overlooking the banks of the Thames whence the First Fleet departed, playing an impromptu, unplugged verse from Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty” cut with a clip of Burnum Burnum planting of the Aboriginal flag on the cliffs of Dover in 1988 and claiming England for Australia’s Indigenous people. They wonder if they will be able to connect with these London strangers who are ignorant of their history, and Roach delivers a stirring speech to build them up before they take the stage. Then Kutch Edwards delivers a stunning rendition of “Is This What We Deserve?” He caries photographs of his deceased parents and dedicates the song to them; in the end the audience delivers a standing ovation while the Band stands shoulder-to-shoulder, arms around each other as they take their bows.
The second half of the film takes us back to Australia with the band, flying over Broome’s coastline to the tune of Stephen Pigram’s guitar and harmonica in a plaintive version of “Going Back Home.” The footage from the Broome concert features Pigram, Roach, Sultan, and Howard performing Jimmy Chi’s “Nyul Nyul Girl,” reminding us again of the decades of musical history they carry with them. From here on, the film takes us out of the cities and onto Aboriginal land. The Band goes goose-hunting in Kakadu and Shellie Morris takes the stage to perform “Swept Away.”
Then its further into the bush, to Manyallaluk. On the road into the community, the Band’s bus is stopped by police, who are checking for alcohol in the wake of the NTER’s restrictions. It’s a painful moment in its recognition that the promises of the Labor government to effect reconciliation have yet to be honored. Emma Donovan muses on how this bunch of “strong blackfellas are singing that anger for the people” as the sound of a yidaki and clapsticks starts to swell in the background. As the sun sets like fire over the bush, the band rips into “Treaty,” fully amplified and roaring like fire, too. Morris takes vocals on the first verse and then that magic line-up, Edwards, Bennett, Hunter, Morris, Roach, and Sultan, fronting the stage monitors, shout “Treaty, yeah!” as Gapanbulu Yunupingu, Mandawuy’s grandson in full ceremonial paint and regalia, dances between them and the crowd before he takes the second verse in Yolngu Matha. Afterwards, Shellie Morris wipes away tears as she talks to the band and crew, and from this point on the emotional impact of the film never lets up.
The Band rolls on into Fitzroy Crossing. Even though they’re over a thousand kilometers west of Wattie Creek, the distance hardly seems to matter as the lilting rhythms of “From Little Things Big Things Grow” fill the air and the local mob lines up to smoke the Band members in welcome. On stage, Emma Donovan takes the lead at first while Archie Roach shadowboxes and talks, in a voiceover, about Vincent Lingiari and the emergence of a generation of Aboriginal heroes that people could look up to. There’s footage of Lingiari sitting down to be interviewed by media from the southern cities. As the singers continue to tell the story of the Wave Hill walkoff, we watch the events unfolding on the screen. Archie Roach growls through the verse:
Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting
Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land
And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony
And through Vincent’s fingers poured a handful of sand
We watch Gough Whitlam’s historic and symbolic action happening on screen, and then see Roach on stage miming the movement again and feel the continuing connection between then and now. There in Fitzroy it’s so powerful a moment that the crowd surges from the ground to the stage, a line forming as each member of the audience moves from one band member to the next, from Sultan to Roach to Morris to Hunter, each one reaching across the monitors at their feet to shake hands, one after another. The image lasts only a few seconds on screen, but I guarantee you will never hear the song again in the same way after watching this new generation of heroes inspire the people.
It is given to Dan Sultan to have the final word. The final stop on this tour is Alice Springs, and as Sultan sits on the rails of a corral picking at an acoustic guitar, he muses that the time has come to keep the momentum. We have survived, indeed, but as Rachel Maza says, “As we look forward to more hopeful future, the challenge is to wear neither the black arm band or the white blindfold.” The strings are playing pizzicato behind her on stage. “But,” she continues, “to have the wisdom and the courage to mark out a future that we can be proud to hand on to the next generation.” The drumbeat accelerates, the horns kick in, and Sultan shouts “Oh yeah!” as the Black Arm Band launches in to his “song of salvation,” “Your Love is Like a Song.” It’s classic Dan Sultan; he struts the stage with a move that’s equal parts Chuck Berry’s duck walk and a Yolngu bungul. Ursula Yovich, Emma Donovan, and Shellie Morris, the rest of the Band’s new generation, add to the soulful sound, Donovan looking serene, Morris unable to contain a smile as wide as the Heavitree Gap. I’m used to seeing Sultan on stage covered with sweat, but this time as he shouts out “We’ve only just begun to realize / It’s gonna be all right!” I’ll swear there are tears running down his cheeks.
I was sitting at home in front of the television as the credits rolled, but I don’t think I would have felt more drained, and at the same time overflowing, exhilarated, pulse racing, than I would have if I’d been in that crowd in Alice.
We have survived.
It’s gonna be all right.
In looking back now, I see that Murundak is more documentary than concert film. It’s about pressure and protest, about families sundered and lives saved, about the fight that never ends. But the film is so skillfully put together that I rarely noticed that songs were interrupted, overlaid by monologues from the singers about their experiences, or sometimes cut short. It wasn’t until I started clicking through the “extras” on the DVD–something I almost never do–that I realized that there were full, uninterrupted versions of many of the performances tucked away on the disc. There are also a few real bonuses, for example, a solo of Jimmy Little playing “Yorta Yorta Man” that doesn’t appear at all in the feature. There’s also a brilliant episode at Manyallaluk in which Lou Bennett and Shellie Morris take the little children of the community in hand and help them write a song. When the evening of the performance arrives, the kids are the opening act for the Black Arm Band, led by Kutcha Edwards in a charming composition about their daily lives. If you still have tears unshed after watching the film itself, they will be loosed by this tiny chorus.
The Black Arm Band, in various guises, has continued to tour and record new shows. First there was Hidden Republic, and now, Dirtsong. The latter is a collection of songs in language and the exciting news over here is that the Band is bringing Dirtsong to America next year. They’re already booked in at New York University on February 22, 2013 and there are rumors of more dates in the northeast to follow. I can’t wait.
There’s also a little bit of a reunion afoot in the new video that’s just been released by Archie Roach, “Song to Sing,” in support of his latest album, Into the Bloodstream. Featuring the granddaddy of modern Indigenous theater, Jack Charles, the video also boasts a choir directed by Lou Bennett in which Emma Donovan shines. It’s another spine-shaking musical tour de force, made all the more poignant by our knowledge that Roach has survived (again) Hunter’s death, a stroke, and an operation for cancer that took half of one of his lungs. Have a listen. Have a dance. Oh yeah. It’s gonna be all right.