The music of the Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders is very much part of the social fabric of their life, their history and their culture. It has a haunting and mysterious quality that draws the listener into the history, culture and the ancient dreamtime of the Aboriginal people.
Among the earliest inhabitants of the Oceania region, it is generally accepted that the indigenous Australians - the Aboriginal people - entered Australia from the Indo-Malaysian mainland via New Guinea, taking advantage of the land bridges which stretched most of the way through Asia.
These land bridges were exposed during the ice ages, the Pleistocene epoch, when water levels dropped hundreds of metres. New Guinea and Cape York Peninsula were once joined by the Sahul Shelf.
The oldest settlement so far recorded in Australia is radiocarbon-dated to about 50,000 years ago. This settlement around Lake Mungo is where humans camped around inland lake shores and dined on fish, shellfish, emu eggs, small marsupials and - almost certainly - a range of wild seeds, roots and fruits. The first human remains found at Lake Mungo are all homo sapiens - the modern human type to which present-day black and white Australians all belong. More than this, the remains are among the oldest of this type in the world.
The first archaeological discovery at Mungo, in 1969, was a skeleton of a female who had been cremated and placed in a small pit. This cremation is dated to about 24,000 B.C. Other burials in the Mungo region are of bodies laid out flat and not burned, but all have some kind of goods with them in the grave. These goods include stone tools, shells and animal seeds. At this time, we do not know the beliefs of the mourners who made these offerings, however, their presence most probably recorded a complex set of beliefs about the spiritual world. It seems likely that aspects of the "Dreaming", the all-encompassing historical and cosmological structure that is a cornerstone of modern aboriginal life, were already present all those years ago.
Although there were variations in the customs and skills of the hundreds of different Aboriginal tribes across the vast continent of Australia, they all lived in equally close community with their environment. The Dreamtime, the Aborigine's spiritual guide, encouraged their intimate involvement with the landscape, whether their home was on the lush coastal plains or in the harsh interior. They knew what to eat, how to prepare it, where and when to find it and, most important, how to protect their resources for the future. What the elders knew about survival, they passed on by example, legend and ritual. Along with this, there were songs for every occasion - hunting songs, funeral songs, gossip songs and songs of ancestors, landscapes, animals, seasons, myths and Dreamtime legends.
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TRADITIONAL ABORIGINAL MUSIC
Indigenous Australian music, in this context, is taken to include the music of the Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who are collectively referred to as indigenous Australians. Music has formed an integral part of the social, cultural and ceremonial observances of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, down through the millennia of their individual and collective histories to the present day.
Aboriginal people throughout most of Australia believe that in the
beginning of time, in the Dreaming, there were no visible landmarks; the
world was flat. As time progressed, creatures emerged from the ground and
had the power to change at will from their animal to their human form.
The inseminating powers left by these ancestors are doubly important to the present people: firstly, because the propagation of their group is dependent on this power to create human offspring in the likeliness of the human elements of the ancestor; secondly, because the food source of the group is dependent on this power of each ancestor to ensure the plentiful supply of recreated forms of the animal or plant element of the ancestor's being. These powers become most accessible to the present inhabitants of the area on those occasions when the spirit of a particular ancestor is drawn towards his own identification marks of the song, acts and designs which he originally created and which have been meticulously preserved ever since.
SONGS OF THE DREAMTIME
A song is sung as a series
comprising many short verses, each of which tells about a particular event
or place associated with the ancestor; or the performance may be a full
ceremonial one which includes portrayal of relevant events in the
dances accompanied by the singing of the appropriate verses.
The Australian Aboriginal people developed a number of
rare, unique and interesting musical instruments. These include the didgeridoo,
the bullroarer, and the gum-leaf. Most well known is the didgeridoo, a simple
wooden tube blown with the lips like a trumpet, which gains its sonic
flexibility from controllable resonances of the player's vocal tract. The bull-roarer
is a simple wooden slat whirled in a circle on the end of a cord so that it
rotates about its axis and produces a pulsating low-pitched roar. The gum-leaf,
as the name suggests, is a tree leaf, held against the lips and blown so as to
act as a vibrating valve with "blown-open" configuration. Originally intended to
imitate bird-calls, the gum-leaf can also be used as a musical instrument.
The predominant sound of the didgeridoo is a
low-pitched drone with frequency around 70Hz, but depending significantly upon
the length of the instrument and the flare of its bore. In traditional use, the
didgeridoo, with clap-sticks for emphasis, accompanies songs or illustrates
traditional stories about ancestors and animals Recently, however, its use has
spread into the popular music domain and has had world-wide influence.
As in most cultures, the Aborigines also used percussive instruments in their
ceremonies. Often these were simply two boomerangs clashed together, but they
also made special shaped sticks for this purpose. Because the wood used is a
fine-grained hardwood, the clapsticks are physically long-lasting and produce a
sharp and well defined sound.
Yothu Yindi in concert
Mandawuy Yunupingu - soon after becoming 'Australian of the Year' 1993
The information on
this Web site has been extracted from Jane's Pacific Islands Radio
Newsletter (Island Music) Vol. 5, Edition No.5, May 2006
Archie Roach was born near a bend in the Goulburn River near Shepparton in central Victoria. In 1956, Archie Roach's family, along with the rest of the area's indigenous population, were re-housed on Rumbularah Mission. Subsequently, Roach and his family subsequently moved to Framlington.
When Archie was three or four years old, some people from the Aboriginal Protection Board came with a policeman and told his parents that they were taking their children away, so that they could be brought up properly by white families who would teach them how to be real Australians.
Archie has some memory of his father running from the fields to
protect them and of his cousins trying to hide him. But the white
people found him and told him that he was going on a picnic; his
mother wept when they took him away. They took all of his brothers
and sisters, too, except for the oldest, Johnni, who was so big that
the white people took him for an adult and let him stay. They sent
off his other brother and his two older sisters on their own and
took Archie and his two youngest sisters, Gladdie and Diana, to a
Salvation Army orphanage.
There and then, as the music gripped his imagination and warmly
touched and filled his heart, he knew this was what he wanted to do.
He started learning to play acoustic guitar with Mary, singing Hank
Williams and George Jones songs and any other country music Mary
could lay her hands on. So he might have continued for years, slowly
drifting away from his past, if it had not been for one of his older
sisters, Myrtle, who wrote him a letter. He was 14 or 15. She sent
it to his school in Lilydale, and they put out an announcement that
there was a letter for Archie Roach.
MORE ABOUT ARCHIE ROACH
Singer songwriter Archie Roach, 51, and his partner, singer and actor Ruby Hunter, 50, have five children, ranging in age from 18 to 32. roach performed with the Black Arm Band at the Sydney Festival on January 22 and 23.
He's inspired by ... Kids. 'I couldn't imagine my world without children running around my bloody knees. I think that's the part of me that wants to provide the childhood I never had. (Roach was removed from his family and placed in foster care when he was three years old. He left home at 14 and ended up on the streets.) My children are adults now but they still inspire me. My daughter, Chrissie is a mother bringing up children on her own and she also works in child care. My son Amos teaches didgeridoo to children and looks after his family. Mr. T (Terence) is now 18. His mother couldn't look after Terence when he was a baby so he came to us at 10 days old and he's been with us ever since. Of course, ruby Hunter has been a big inspiration in my life. I suppose it goes hand in hand: children and partner.'
He most admires... Jesus. 'I was a bit of wreck in my younger life. I was displaced and on the grog and the people - friends and family - who wee around me at the time wee a big inspiration to me. It might sound like a cliche but the idea of Jesus Christ, the story of a guy who didn't have much but endeared people to this idea of love and hope. You don't have to be a Christian to appreciate what he's got to say.'
His turning point... discovering his Aboriginal heritage at age 16. 'I was a boy. I'd hit the streets (of Melbourne) when I was 14 and I was drinking every day and I went to a place called Mareeba, up north of Cairns. It was there that I experienced a turnaround in my life. I got there and thought, 'Oh yeah, everybody's the same - they speak English, smoke, drink, whatever. They're just like city blackfellas.'
Then I was sitting down having a drink one night and suddenly the old fella got up and said something in his own language. I didn't understand what he said but he was speaking it fluently - not in broken English - and then everyone turned toward that man. They all got up, took off their boots, their shirts and all started dancing in their jeans - Aboriginal dancing in jeans - and it went all night! No more drinking, just dancing. And I asked the old man, 'Why do you still have this? We don't seem to have it down south.' And the old man looked at me and I saw true sadness in his eyes. He said, 'I'm sorry my boy.'
I realised then that he wasn't sorry for me, he was sorry that the whole thing was slowly being erased. he said, 'We can teach you stuff but what we show you up here you've got to take back with you.' It took a while but I learnt to do that. I realised there was something cheaper than boomerangs and spears, you know'? that's what I tapped into - you could be an urban Aboriginal or a bush Aboriginal and still tap into it.'
When he can't take any more ... 'I'm blessed that I have music. Some people don't have any outlet for life's knocks and they're the people my heart goes out to. Music - to me - is a medicine. If I'm feeling down, I'll listen to a bit of blues, a bit of soul or maybe some gospel - I'll pick me up a bit.'
The best advice he's received... 'The old golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I've always looked for goodness in situations, in life and in people because I'm not of the belief that we are irredeemable. I'm not a Christian but I'm not very critical of people. It's good to be that way.'
The worst advice... 'People think it's the best advice: 'Be a man! don't show your emotions and don't cry; don't care about anyone or anything, be a law unto yourself.' That's bad advice.'
Aboriginal Postcard 1904