Indigenous music of Australia

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Performance of Aboriginal song and dance in the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.

Australian Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander music includes the music of Aboriginal Australians and social, cultural and ceremonial observances of these people, down through the millennia of their individual and collective histories to the present day, and has existed for 40,000 years.[1][2][3][4] The traditional forms include many aspects of performance and musical instrumentation which are unique to particular regions or Indigenous Australian groups; there are equally elements of musical tradition which are common or widespread through much of the Australian continent, and even beyond. The culture of the Torres Strait Islanders is related to that of adjacent parts of New Guinea and so their music is also related. Music is a vital part of Indigenous Australians' cultural maintenance.[5]

In addition to these Indigenous traditions and musical heritage, ever since the 18th-century European colonisation of Australia began Indigenous Australian musicians and performers have adopted and interpreted many of the imported Western musical styles, often informed by and in combination with traditional instruments and sensibilities. Similarly, non-Indigenous artists and performers have adapted, used and sampled Indigenous Australian styles and instruments in their works. Contemporary musical styles such as rock and roll, country, rap and reggae have all featured a variety of notable Indigenous Australian performers.

Traditional instruments


Buskers playing didgeridoos at Fremantle Markets, 2009

A didgeridoo is a type of musical instrument that, according to western musicological classification, falls into the category of aerophone. It is one of the oldest instruments to date. It consists of a long tube, without finger holes, through which the player blows. It is sometimes fitted with a mouthpiece of beeswax. Didgeridoos are traditionally made of eucalyptus, but contemporary materials such as PVC piping are used. In traditional situations it is played only by men, usually as an accompaniment to ceremonial or recreational singing, or, much more rarely, as a solo instrument. Skilled players use the technique of circular breathing to achieve a continuous sound, and also employ techniques for inducing multiple harmonic resonances. Although traditionally the instrument was not widespread around the country - it was only used by Aboriginal groups in the most northerly areas - today it is commonly considered the national instrument of the Australian Aborigines by southern peoples and is world-renowned as a unique and iconic instrument. However, many Northern Aboriginal people continue to strenuously object to its frequent, inappropriate, use by both uninitiated Indigenous people of either gender, and by non-Indigenous Australians. Famous players include Djalu Gurruwiwi, Mark Atkins, William Barton, David Hudson, Joe Geia and Shane Underwood as well as white virtuoso Charlie McMahon.


A clapstick is a type of musical instrument that, according to western musicological classification, falls into the category of percussion. Unlike drumsticks, which are generally used to strike a drum, clapsticks are intended for striking one stick on another, and people as well. They are of oval shape with paintings of snakes, lizards, birds and more.

Gum leaf

The leaf of the Eucalyptus gum tree is used as a hand-held free reed instrument. An example is the "Coo-ee" call seen in the opening credits of hit television series Skippy.[6][7][8][9]

Bull roarer

The bull roarer is an instrument used in ceremonial ritual. "Bull roarers" should not be used in any situations where traditionally oriented men or women of Central Australia may hear them, or be otherwise informed of their use, without explicit consent. Improper use of bullroarers has resulted in the unnecessary death of, or serious injury to, both men and women hearing them in Central Australia, within living memory.[10][11][12]

Traditional forms


Bunggul is a style of music that originated around the Mann River in central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. This style is known for its intense lyrics, often stories of epic journeys, which continue or repeat, unaccompanied, after the music has stopped.

Clan songs and songlines

In most of Australia these were not really "clan" songs. For "men's business" such traditional Indigenous music in Central Australia was very loosely said to be "owned" by male members of "patrilines" (such as the "Kirda" of the Warlpiri, who were called "clans" by some early anthropologists), but was fiercely "controlled" by the male descendants of female members of the group (Kurturngulu) (who were not members of the "clan" but whose presence was essential before such music could be performed). Similar joint interests appear to have existed for "women's business".

Songlines — called Yiri in the Warlpiri language, and other terms — relate to the Dreamtime, using oral lore and storytelling manifested as an intricate series of song cycles that identify landmarks and tracking mechanisms for navigation. These songs often describe how the features of the land were created and named during the Dreamtime. By singing the songs in the appropriate order, Indigenous Australians could navigate vast distances, often travelling through the deserts of Australia's interior. They relate the holder or the keeper of the song or Dreamtime story with an inherent obligation and reciprocity with the land.

IT is possible (though not confirmed) that particular Arnhem Land and North Queensland "clans' in Aboriginal culture may share songs, known variously as emeba (Groote Eylandt), fjatpangarri (Yirrkala), manikay (Arnhem Land) or different terms in other Aboriginal languages with others. These songs are about clan or family history and are frequently updated to take into account popular films and music, controversies and social relationships.


Kun-borrk originated around the Adelaide, Mann and Rose Rivers, distinguished by a didgeridoo introduction followed by percussion and vocals. These often include words, in contrast to many other syllabic styles of Aboriginal singing.


Wangga originated near the South Alligator River. An extremely high note starts the song, accompanied by rhythmic percussion, followed by a sudden shift to a low tone. Wangga is typically performed by one or two singers with clapsticks and one didgeridoo player. The occasion is usually a circumcision ceremony or a ceremony to purify a dead person's belongings with smoke.


Wajarra are non-sacred songs originating in the Gurindji region of the Northern Territory and performed for fun and entertainment.[13] During the twentieth century they spread great distances across northern and western Australia, including along the stock routes of the pastoral industry, as Aboriginal workers and their families travelled between stations. Wave Hill Station was the site of much of this exchange.[14]


Early visitors and settlers published a number of transcriptions of traditional Aboriginal music. [15] [16]

Contemporary trends

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was a contemporary Indigenous performer who sang in the Yolŋu Matha languages.

A number of Indigenous Australians have achieved mainstream prominence, such as Jimmy Little (pop), Yothu Yindi (Australian aboriginal rock), Troy Cassar-Daley (country), NoKTuRNL (rap metal) and the Warumpi Band (alternative or world music). Indigenous music has also gained broad exposure through the world music movement and in particular the WOMADelaide festivals. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, formerly of Yothu Yindi, attained international success singing contemporary music in English and in the language of the Yolngu.

Successful Torres Strait Islander musicians include Christine Anu (pop) and Seaman Dan.

Contemporary Indigenous music continues the earlier traditions and also represents a fusion with contemporary mainstream styles of music, such as rock and country music. The Deadlys provide an illustration of this with rock, country, pop among the styles played. Traditional instruments such as the didjeridu and clapsticks are commonly used, giving the music a distinctive feel.

Country music has remained particularly popular among the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for decades, as documented in Clinton Walker's seminal Buried Country. Dougie Young and Jimmy Little were pioneers and Troy Cassar-Daley is among Australia's successful contemporary Indigenous performers of country music. Aboriginal artists Kev Carmody and Archie Roach employ a combination of folk-rock and country music to sing about Aboriginal rights issues, using the song type called barnt[further explanation needed].[17] The documentary, book and soundtrack Buried Country showcases significant Indigenous musicians from the 1940s to the 1990s.[18]

The movie Wrong Side of the Road and its soundtrack (1981), highlighting Indigenous disadvantage in urban Australia, gave broad exposure to the bands Us Mob and No Fixed Address.

Australian hip hop music has a number of Aboriginal exponents.[19]

Training Institutions

In 1997 the State and Federal Governments set up the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA) as an elite National Institute to preserve and nurture aboriginal music and talent across all styles and genres from traditional to contemporary.

See also


  1. ^ Aboriginal Australia & the Torres Strait Islands: Guide to Indigenous Australia. Lonely Planet Publications. 2001. ISBN 978-1-86450-114-8. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  2. ^ Fiona Richards (2007). The Soundscapes of Australia: Music, Place And Spirituality. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7546-4072-1. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  3. ^ Newton, Janice (1990). "Becoming 'Authentic' Australians through Music". Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice. 27: 93–101. doi:10.2307/23164573. JSTOR 23164573.
  4. ^ Dunbar‐Hall, P.; Gibson, C. (2000). "Singing about nations within nations: Geopolitics and identity in Australian indigenous rock music". Popular Music and Society. 24 (2): 45. doi:10.1080/03007760008591767.
  5. ^ Wilurarra Creative (2010). Music Archived 11 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "FOR WOMEN". The Sydney Morning Herald (30, 507). New South Wales, Australia. 12 October 1935. p. 9. Retrieved 6 February 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  7. ^ "Abo. Music And Musicians". The Nowra Leader. New South Wales, Australia. 31 October 1930. p. 8. Retrieved 6 February 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  8. ^ "GUM LEAF MUSIC FOR FAMOUS COMPOSER". The Sydney Morning Herald (29, 375). New South Wales, Australia. 27 February 1932. p. 16. Retrieved 20 February 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Aboriginal music". Good Neighbour. , (41). Australian Capital Territory, Australia. 1 June 1957. p. 6. Retrieved 6 February 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  11. ^ "Wild and Wide". Smith's Weekly. XVIII, (1). New South Wales, Australia. 7 March 1936. p. 17. Retrieved 6 February 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  12. ^ "A PGGE for the BOYS". The Queenslander. Queensland, Australia. 26 February 1931. p. 52. Retrieved 6 February 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  13. ^ "The songs that went viral through the desert". National Indigenous Times. 14 May 2019. Retrieved 25 May 2019.
  14. ^ Turpin, Myfany, 1972-. Songs from the stations : Wajarra as sung by Ronnie Wavehill Wirrpnga, Topsy Dodd Ngarnjal and Dandy Danbayarri at Kalkaringi. Meakins, Felicity,. Sydney, NSW, Australia. ISBN 9781743325858. OCLC 1089228854.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Skinner, Graeme; Wafer, Jim. "A checklist of colonial era musical transcriptions of Australian Indigenous songs". PARADISEC Australharmony. Retrieved 19 February 2019.
  16. ^ Peron, Francois, 1775-1810; Freycinet, Louis Claude Desaulses de, 1779-1842; Lesueur, Charles Alexandre, 1778-1846 (1824), Voyage de decouvertes aux terres australes : fait par ordre du gouvernement, sur les corvettes le Geographe, le Naturaliste, et la goelette le Casuarina, pendant les annees 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803, et 1804 : historique / redige par Peron et continue par M. Louis de Freycinet (in French), Arthus BertrandCS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ (2 June 2008). Australian folk music Archived 17 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Commonwealth of Australia.
  18. ^ Clinton Walker. Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music.
  19. ^ George Stavrias, (2005) Droppin’ conscious beats and flows: Aboriginal hip hop and youth identity, Australian Aboriginal Studies, number 2

Further reading

External links

  • Manikay.Com - For the promotion and enjoyment of traditional Arnhem Land music.
  • - Dedicated to promoting and sharing the music and culture of Indigenous Australia.
  • Traditional music of the Torres Strait - audio and video highlights from the archives of the celebrated Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) . Released by Skinnyfish music - recorded in 1960 and 1961, with the support of the Department of Anthropology, Australian National University. (Commercial link).
  • CAAMA Music Myspace - For the promotion and enjoyment of Indigenous Music under the CAAMA Music Label. (Commercial link).
  • Wilurarra Creative, Music Development Western Desert Australia
  • Australian Music Office - Australian Government organisation aimed at promoting export initiatives for Australian artists and music companies
  • Listen to an excerpt of Indigenous tribal music from the Yirrkala district in far north-east Arnhem Land, recorded by AP Elkin on australianscreen online
  • For the Sake of a Song - audio recordings of wangga performances from the Daly region of northwestern Australia, with information about wangga.
  • Songs from the Stations - audio and video recordings of wajarra performances by Gurindji singers from the Northern Territory.
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