A partial retraction

In one of several grumpy posts last week, I described indigenous music as:

… musicians with poor to mediocre instrumental skills, playing and singing boring, derivative songs out of tune.”

I stand by the comment as a broad generalisation, and I justify it on more than grounds of narrow personal prejudice. The politically correct luvvies who fawn reflexively over just about any indigenous rock band simply aren’t doing most of them any favours at all. Bands who lack musical skills and experience and who haven’t “paid their dues” are being given false hope by getting treated like legendary rock stars when they’re just musical beginners. The luvvies aren’t a large enough market on which to build a sustainable career, and the rest of the public isn’t going to support a dubiously-talented band just because its members are black.

However, the corollary of refusing to endorse the racist indulgence of the luvvies is that when you find an indigenous band that really does have what it takes, there’s a certain obligation to acknowledge and celebrate that fact, and even evangelise for them. I “discovered” a band like that at last night’s May Day Concert on Darwin’s Esplanade. They’re called Yugul, and they’re a bunch of old (mostly in their 50s and 60s) traditional men from Ngukurr in South-East Arnhemland. These guys (or at least original members Kevin Rogers and Danny Thompson) first started playing as Yugul way back in 1968. Apparently they regularly played at Katherine and right across the Top End through much of the 1970s, although I have to confess I’d never heard of them (quite possibly because I didn’t live here then). After the band split up, several of its members went on to form other fairly well-known NT-based bands, notably Broken English and NT Express.

Last year Yugul got back together and recorded a 12 song CD Blues Across the River with a rejigged lineup that still includes Kevin Rogers and Danny Thompson as well as 3 younger Ngukurr men.

Their avowed purpose in reforming is to help encourage and support young Yolngu Roper River mob musicians and serve as role models for them. Yugul are augmented, both on the CD and in live gigs like last night’s May Day Concert, by “balanda” musicians Chris Wilson (harp, mandolin and Les Paul), Stephen Teakle (keyboards) and Darwin blues guitar veteran Tony Joyce. This is raw, gutsy blackfella blues, and they’re even better live than on CD. These blokes have “paid their dues”; they don’t need the indulgent racism of the luvvies because their music stands on its own in any company. Do yourself a favour and buy the CD online from the Skinnyfish Music site, or listen to a couple of their songs via this ABC Dig page (uses Flash 6, and they’re fairly thin, poor quality recordings even in broadband format). Better still, enquire about booking them for a gig (email yugul@skinnyfishmusic.com.au). These guys deserve to be much better known, in fact they really should be doing a national tour, although I don’t know whether they’re too interested in rockstar fame and fortune.

However, despite my unqualified enthusiasm for Yugul, I’m forced to add a slightly grumpy post-script. Last night’s May Day Concert included a cameo appearance by the new Labor-appointed NT Administrator (equivalent of a State Governor) Ted Egan. I can’t help wondering whether Ted’s unaccompanied performance of the traditional shearers’ strike anthem The Union Way was entirely in accord with the carefully apolitical role expected of vice-regal officeholders in the Australian constitutional system. Ted’s moving rendition of his composition Gurindji Blues, accompanied only by Gondwana’s Charlie McMahon on didge, was probably on slightly safer ground, given that those events at least ostensibly enjoy bipartisan political acceptance. Still, I can’t bring myself to slag Ted aggressively. He’s a thoroughly good bloke, not a pompous, self-promoting wanker like Tasmanian Governor Richard Butler. But you certainly wouldn’t want to put money on the CLP extending Ted’s term of office if they happen to win the next Territory election.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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tim
tim
2022 years ago

The Warumpi Band’s “Jailanguru Pakarnu” — recorded about 20 years ago — is brilliant, as is the cover art for one of the band’s EPs, showing a ute bogged up to its axles in NT dust and a bloke with a T-shirt reading: “I hate Noosa Heads and surfing.”

chico o'farrill
chico o'farrill
2022 years ago

warumpis were incredible, agreed.

George Rrurrambu’s performances as singer/dancer/MC are well worth tracking down – he’s as incendiary as Iggy Pop in an outback style, one of the best showmen going around i reckon.

“Jailanguru Pakarnu” was the first rock song written in aboriginal language to get national exposure.

There’s bound to be a DVD somewhere of the Midnight Oil/Warumpis tour.

"B"
"B"
2022 years ago

Their avowed purpose in reforming is to help encourage and support young Yolngu musicians and serve as role models for them.

I got the impression he was referring primarily to the Roper River mob who are not Yolngu,(that lot is further north – Yothu Yindi territory) although he was no doubt talking about all young musicians in remote communities including the Yolngu lot- although from the little I saw of Roper/Ngukurr and the surrounding communities – the young people can use all the inspiration and direction they can get. It’s a wild, dull world out there.

Graham
2022 years ago

I mean, I like Slim Dusty, AC/DC and reggae too, but not _all at the same time_. But perhaps that’s because I actually come from a minority, the freshwater people.

Goetz von Berlichingen
Goetz von Berlichingen
2022 years ago

I always have a bit of a problem with rock music being called ‘indigenous’ – played by indigenous people perhaps.

If the Dublin Orchestra came here for classical concerts no-one would call it “irish” music.

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

The word “indigenous”, G.vonB., is a fine example of what postmodernist political correctness can do with the language. It’s far from alone, however, in this regard.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

OK I concede defeat. “B” has been browbeating me for using “Yolngu” to describe Aboriginal people from S-E Arnhemland when its actual derivation is N-E Arnhemland, and for failing instantly to accept that I was wrong. I reckon the word is increasingly used, at least by whitefellas, as shorthand for Top End Aboriginal people generally (a bit like “Koori” is used down south), and I was quite consciously using it in that borrowed sense. However, even then, its use wouldn’t be correct in the context I employed it, because it’s clear that the Yugul band members are aiming predominantly to support and serve as role models for young Aboriginal musicians in their own (Roper River) region rather than helping Aboriginal musicians generally. Consequently I’ve struck out “Yolngu” in the main text and substituted “Roper River mob. So “B” has a clear win on the board, and I’m happy to acknowledge it.

Incidentally, I don’t know what the S-E Arnhemland word for “us mob” is (which is why I didn’t use it). However, there are six or seven different dialects (if not separate languages) in that region, and conceivably each group may have a different word to describe themselves collectively. Maybe “Yugul” itself is one such word; that seemed to be suggested by some of the stuff I read about the Yugul band. If so, it seems likely that it and “Yolngu” share a common derivation. That wouldn’t be too surprising, given the relatively close proximity and longstanding trading and other linkages right across Arnhemland.

nardo
2022 years ago

Norman, “indigenous” can be equated with “folk” music, like reggae is, an expression of local culture… doesn’t matter if it has musical or mechanical influences mixed in… u picky bastard!

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

With regars to what “indigenous” can now mean, nardo, I’d suggest consulting the works of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, with particular emphasis on the seminal contribution of Mr Dumpty.