Baker Boy and beyond: the Aboriginal ‘Cultural Renaissance’ of the 1980s and Australia’s view of Indigenous music

Author: Ines Jahudka

Sub-editor: Vita Banducci

Music is both a celebration and reification of culture. Choices of tonality, form, and instrumentation play an integral part in forming cultural musical identities. Musical performance of culture therefore becomes a political act; particularly in settler colonies like Australia, with a complex history of violence and dispossession. When the 1988 bicentennial celebrations focussed Australian attention on history and nationalism, Aboriginal activists used this introspection to push for a new kind of recognition of its people and culture. They called for an ‘Aboriginal Renaissance,’ and demanded a space within the Australian arts industry. To celebrate Indigenous culture, and to perform Indigenous music, became a political act. This push for recognition and inclusion of Indigenous music impacted the wider music scene from the late 1980s onwards and provoked an ongoing dialogue about appropriation and cultural sensitivity.

1988 was a momentous year for Australians, marking the bicentenary of the arrival of Europeans. Aboriginal Australians, conversely, had unofficially marked 26 January as a Day of Mourning since 1938.  For them, the bicentennial was a celebration of violence, oppression and cultural diffusion, including the harmful stereotyping and appropriation of their music by non-Indigenous Australians. Amidst the ‘Tall Ships’ celebrations and flag-waving, civil rights activist Charles Perkins called for a ‘cultural renaissance’: a movement to reclaim Indigenous art forms from the non-Indigenous performing arts establishment. To perform Aboriginal music, and celebrate Aboriginal culture, became a political act. Mandawuy Yunapingu, front man and founder of Australian rock band Yothu Yindi, declared “our music has to be political because it tells our story and our story is one of survival.”

Performance in this period not only planted a musical flag, but also challenged the limited genres available to Indigenous performers.  Aboriginal musicians such as Jimmy Little and Dougie Young had been performing for several decades, using standard folk, blues or country styles. From the 1980s, however, Indigenous performers began to use the recognisable rock forms of mainstream Australian music and transform them into protest songs, using music as the vehicle to present their culture and challenge the celebratory nature of the upcoming Bicentennial. The Warumpi Band’s 1985 release, Black Fella/White Fella, highlighted racism faced by Aboriginal Australians. Artists like Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly combined rock and folk styles, releasing From Little Things, Big Things Grow, detailing the early land rights struggle, in 1991. The folk music protest tradition continued: Archie Roach first performed Took the Children Away in 1988, and released it as a single in 1990. The song was a deeply personal recollection of his experiences as a member of the Stolen Generation, a topic which had been minimised within the Australian national narrative until this time. The single went on to win Roach the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) award for Best Indigenous Release in 1991. Additionally, musicians used rock music to highlight the unique relationship between Indigenous people and their country: for example, The Warumpi Band’s 1988 release My Island Home. Others such as the band Coloured Stone incorporated traditional Aboriginal melodic forms and instrumentation.

Treaty, yeah! Treaty, now!

Arguably the best example of Aboriginal musician’s expansion into non-folk genres came from the highest profile Indigenous musicians of the era: Yothu Yindi. Their 1991 single Treaty was an international hit, and was the first song in an Aboriginal language to top the Billboard music charts. Yothu Yindi was comprised of Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians, and their music reflected the blending of cultures, combining standard rock forms and instrumentation with clapsticks and didgeridoo. Lyrics were in both English and Gumatj, a dialect of the Yolngu people in Arnhem Land, and the accompanying music video illustrated how traditional Yolngu dance forms were adapted to the new musical style. 

Treaty’s original release in early 1991 was a protest song in response to the (still unfulfilled) 1988 promise of Prime Minister Bob Hawke to conclude a treaty with Indigenous people before 1990. Terra nullius (literally: nobody’s land) was the legal principle used by the British to claim sovereignty over the Australian continent. By establishing the continent as ‘uninhabited’, the British avoided signing any formal treaties with its traditional owners which would significantly impact native title and the legal standing of Indigenous Australians. Treaty’s lyrics addressed the Indigenous desire for self-determination, as well as demanding an inclusion of an Aboriginal voice in the terra nullius discourse:  ‘This land was never given up / this land was never bought or sold / the planting of the Union Jack / doesn’t change our law at all.’ The original version was followed several months later with a remix, which removed the majority of the English language portions of the song while keeping the prominent didgeridoo solos and Gumatj language sections. It still retained the essential lyrics ‘treaty, yeah/treaty, now,’ however, significantly, the heart of the song was transformed; from the politics of institutional history, to the political act of portraying a strong and vibrant Indigenous culture.

Yothu Yindi. “Yothu Yindi Treaty – Original Version.” Directed by Stephen Johnson, released by Mushroom Records (1991). Published September 14, 2015. Music video, 3:39. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jf-jHCdafZY&list=PL6SBCQONJvr1q0C6hTxaa4TbbYSJ9pJEk&index=34.
The same singer in the remixed filmclip, with ochre paint and campfire, representative of traditional elements of Indigenous Australian culture. Yothu Yindi. “Yothu Yindi – Treaty (Radio Remix).” Directed by Stephen Johnson, released by Mushroom Records (1991). Published June 27, 2013. Music video, 4:07. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPmDLR_M50M&list=PL6SBCQONJvr1q0C6hTxaa4TbbYSJ9pJEk&index=35.

Reactions within the non-Indigenous Australian music scene

Indigenous Australians’ response to the 1988 bicentennial celebrations coincided with a global push for recognition of indigenous cultures. There was an explosion of interest in Indigenous artistic and musical tradition from non-Indigenous Australian cultural institutions, who increasingly engaged with Aboriginal artists to explore previously overlooked or stereotyped artforms. 1989 saw the formation of Indigenous dance company Bangarra; in the same year, the Gondwana Children’s choir was formed as an offshoot to the Sydney Children’s Choir. The world music festival WOMAD premiered in Adelaide in 1992, headlined by Archie Roach.

The WOMADelaide influence was something of a mixed blessing for Aboriginal musicians, providing a platform while simultaneously restricting that platform to the ‘world music’ category. In 2002, Aboriginal Australian visual artist Richard Bell released a manifesto announcing there was no Indigenous art movement, merely a space that had been created within the Australian art industry for Indigenous artists; a space, furthermore, which was heavily filtered through the white lens which constrained and curated the Aboriginal creative process. This sentiment was echoed among Aboriginal musicians across genres, from country to classical, who claimed the preference for ‘ochre and didgeridoos’ was a new way of exerting post-colonial power and control over Indigenous Australians. In a 2018 interview with Backyard Opera, vocalist and Wiradjuri woman Akala Newman complained of promoters categorising her music before they had listened to her performance, based on her ancestry. Furthermore, as documentary maker Lisa Nicol argued, the Indigenous artist was (and is) expected to represent pan-Aboriginality: an individual’s voice framed as representing an entire culture. This expectation was (nor is) never required of non-Indigenous performers.  For example, Yothu Yindi’s dance remix of Treaty, which minimised the English words of protest and celebrated Yolngu culture, was scrutinised and criticised by non-Indigenous music critics for “selling out” to mainstream Western music.

Long-term impact of the ‘cultural renaissance’

The Australian Council for the Arts estimated that between 2009-16, only 1 percent of music played across genres on Australian radio was made by Indigenous Australians, and mostly by artists Jessica Mauboy, Dan Sultan or Guy Sebastian. While that number is certainly very low, the statistics obscure the fact that these artists are extremely successful and high-profile: for example, both Mauboy and Sebastian have performed as the Australian entries at the Eurovision Song Contest. Additionally, since the publication of this report, Aboriginal musicians are finding success in genres across the spectrum, from rapper A.B. Original, hip-hop artist Baker Boy, or soprano and composer, Deborah Cheetham.

One of the implications of the Indigenous push for creative inclusion is the question of what is a genuinely Australian sound and who might be involved in its production. Awareness is growing in musicology about the ethics of composers ‘borrowing’ from cultures other than their own, particularly from those whose voices have historically been underrepresented. While classical composers such as Peter Sculthorpe were lionised by some for celebrating Indigenous forms in his music, others pointed out the similarities between celebrating and appropriation, or the difference between referencing and collaboration.  Interestingly, however, composer and Dharug-Eora man Christopher Sainsbury notes that in the 25 years he worked at the Eora Centre for Aboriginal Visual and Performing Arts in Sydney, no composer from the Sydney University Music Department, 300 meters away, had ever visited the centre.

Given the perceptions by many Indigenous performers that Aboriginal music is still constrained by the white gaze or appropriated by white artists, the Bicentennial ‘culture as politics’ push may appear in some respects to have merely replicated early patterns of exclusion or appropriation. However, the conflict has produced positive results. Certainly, funding and exposure to Indigenous artforms are still subject to institutional approval and therefore are largely being determined by non-Indigenous Australians. Yet according to a 2019 Arts Council participation survey, 32 percent of Australians attended some form of Indigenous music or art event in 2019, and 40 percent of respondents reported being interested in Indigenous music or other cultural performance.

The long-term impact of the demand for inclusion is still unrolling in the 2020s. Composers are displaying an increasing sensitivity surrounding the use of Aboriginal culture and awareness of musical appropriation. There is also an apparent willingness to include Indigenous music in the Australian music tradition, be that William Barton in the concert hall, or Mo’Ju on Triple J. The impact of the ‘Aboriginal Renaissance’ of the 1980s sparked an interrogation of the way Australia interacts with Indigenous culture: a conversation which is still continuing today as Australian musicians negotiate spaces with each other and within the cultural community.

Image credit

Yothu Yindi, “Yothu Yindi Treaty – Original Version,” directed by Stephen Johnson, released by Mushroom Records (1991), published September 14, 2015, music video still.

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Yothu Yindi. “Yothu Yindi – Treaty (Radio Remix).”  Directed by Stephen Johnson, released by Mushroom Records (1991). Published June 27, 2013. Music video, 4:07. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPmDLR_M50M&list=PL6SBCQONJvr1q0C6hTxaa4TbbYSJ9pJEk&index=35.

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