Melbourne Music

I’m finally in Wellington, and soon this blog will become all New Zealand, all the time. Before that happens, I’d like to wrap up one last little thing about my time in Australia. Whether I’m in Chicago or abroad, I’m always on the lookout for a good concert. As it turns out, Melbourne is an incredible town for music. Take this as a “you should check this out” post, no more, no less.

After the march and rally I took part in on 1/26, I saw six different bands between the Share the Spirit Festival in Treasury Gardens and the GIVE IT BACK! Survival/Invasion Day Benefit Concert at The Tote. Now, I’m no music critic, but most of the bands I saw have limited exposure in the U.S., and they’re all worth a listen.

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The first song I heard wasn’t live, but rather blasted from a pair of speakers mounted in the back of the ute at the front of the march (you can see it way at the back of the above photo). Everyone knew it but me – Treaty by Yothu Yindi, a group made up of Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians.

Treaty was written to commemorate an unfulfilled promise. Unlike other first nations groups (most relevant to my current situation, the Maori in New Zealand), Aboriginal Australians do not have a treaty with their country’s government. Whether or not similar governments have followed the treaties they make, the call for a treaty in Australia was loud and clear during the march and rally on Invasion/Australia Day. In 1990, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised such a treaty, but one has yet to be ratified.

Yothu Yindi’s frontman, Mandawuy Yunupingu, was first and foremost a teacher. He served as Australia’s first Aboriginal school principal, and worked to develop a culturally-appropriate pedagogy for his students. Treaty, his most famous song, is the perfect mix of message and music, with the driving refrain breaking up lyrics in English and Gumatj, backed by guitar and didgeridoo. For me it was a history lesson.

I followed the ute to the Share the Spirit Festival, which served as a necessary come-down from the events of the march and rally. Chants and speeches were replaced with informational booths, food trucks, and musical acts, none of which disappointed.

The first act I saw live was Kaiit, who had a bit of a Lauryn Hill feel and idolized Amy Winehouse. Here’s her big song, Natural Woman, which is an ear-worm if I’ve ever heard one.

She’s got other songs worth checking out, including the subdued 2000 n somethin, a meditation the artist’s space in the world. In the video, Kaiit wears a Free West Papua shirt, a cause which she mentioned during the show.

I listened to a couple of songs by Dan Sultan, who played solo electric without a band. At the festival his voice was set to ballad and his guitar was set to crunchy. His stuff with a band – like the song Kingdom – may give a more complete understanding of what he’s about.

Closing out the Share the Spirit festival was a Philly, an Aboriginal Australian rapper from Mildura, 500 km northwest of Melbourne. He brought energy and political commentary to the stage, though he had to settle for “featured” in the most important song his group performed on the day – Australia Does Not Exist.

Philly stood on his own on tracks like Dreamchaser, which you can hear in a studio session here. Other tracks focused on themes far too familiar to Americans – police brutality and the struggle for equality in an unequal nation. Sadly, Black Lives Matter is as necessary a statement in Australia as it is in the United States.

After the festival ended, I had two options: find a way to watch the Australian Open, or head to the Tote for more music. I chose the latter. Though it’s late and I’m too tired to do them the justice I’ve tried to do the above musicians, each of the following is worth at least a few minutes of your time.

  • MoonloverMy notes from the night tell me they were something of an early-’90’s Radiohead mixed with Bowie. Thou Shall Be Free is a representative track with dreamy guitar and lazy layered vocals, though most of what they played at the concert was more up-tempo.
  • Dave Arden. A living history lesson, Arden actually took the stage twice (the second time when Philly didn’s show up for his evening set) with two different bands of Aboriginal Australian artists. He was at turns hilarious and thought-provoking. Listen to Kookatha/Gunditjamara Clan, in which he layers a story about his roots atop driving acoustic guitar.
  • Squid Nebula. Questionable name, good band. That’s their picture at the top of this post. Really enjoyed the singer’s mellow voice and the professional rhythm section. I was ready to ignore the two guitar players until each ripped off a more than serviceable solo. Try Ricochet.

If you’ve read this far, hope you found something you liked to listen to – I certainly did. If I had to pick two musicians to keep following from this group, it would be Philly and Kaiit. Each packs a vital energy and essential voice that I’d love to hear more of. More than anything else, my time in Melbourne reminded me that it’s always worth keeping your ears open for new music. You never know what you’ll find.

Invasion

“Remember that you are standing on the lands of the Kulin Nation.”

I heard this statement in a video near the end of my trip through the Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Center. The center is named for Bunjil – the creator deity of south-eastern Australia. Literally, it means “the place of Bunjil,” and is meant to emphasize the continued existence and evolution of Australia’s Aboriginal people. Throughout my four days in Melbourne, I observed the active nature of this existence, and the struggle Aboriginal people face every day just to have their rights recognized in their own land.

Among the most visible signs of that struggle is the fight over Australia Day. Australia’s official national holiday falls on January 26 every year and commemorates the 1788 arrival of the first British fleet in what would become Sidney. It has been a controversial holiday throughout its history, and in 1938 was accompanied for the first time by an organized Aboriginal Day of Mourning. To many Australians, it’s an excuse for a family barbecue. For Aboriginal Australians, it marks the invasion of their countries, and carries different names: Survival Day, and more prominently during my visit, Invasion Day.

As an American, the date brought to my mind the celebration of October 12 as Columbus Day in the United States, and the recent movement to rename it Indigenous Peoples Day. But even that is not quite right – our national holiday, after all, is Independence Day, July 4. Australia Day is a combination of the two, the celebration of a nation on the very date which saw its original people conquered.

In Melbourne, the holiday took three major public forms.

  • An official parade would start with a flag raising in front of the Melbourne Town Hall and continue down Swanston Street and St. Kilda Road
  • A “far-right beach party” run by organizations like the True Blue Crew, a self-professed Pro-Australian, anti-Islamization group.
  • The Invasion Day rally and march, starting on the steps of Parliament (which is in Wurundjeri Country) and continuing down Bourke Street to Town Hall.

After my visit to the Bunjilaka Center, I chose to attend the Invasion Day rally.

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It was peaceful, heartfelt, and huge. Official estimates place the crowd at 60,000 people, more than the other celebrations. At the end, we listened to speeches by Aboriginal Australian leaders, including Gary Foley, a former Australian Black Panther who follows in the footsteps of Marcus Garvey, and Jenny Munro, a Wiradjuri elder. You can see video I took of Foley’s speech here, and of Munro’s speech here (though sadly you won’t see much of her face due to my angle). Both activists helped found Aboriginal “tent embassies” in Canberra and Redfern to promote aboriginal rights.

Both speeches were full of equal parts optimism, humor, and anger. Munro spoke of voting for politicians who resist the “white virus” brought by European settlers who felt they had a right to land held by Aboriginal Australians.

And it is a virus,” she said, “and it was and is as insidious as the chicken pox they introduced to us here. It will kill you if you let it. The virus is called racism. The virus is a sickness that make people think they’re better than other people by virtue of money, stolen wealth, stolen gain. We all stand the same way, we all sit the same way, we all shite the same way. Nothing different about us.”

Overall, Munro struck a conciliatory tone. “The only way you can stand on your own true feet and be proud is to embrace the truth, and not deny history. Learn from the mistakes of history and then we can go on and build a land we can truly call our home for all of us.”

Foley emphasized the importance of studying the past. An activist for most of his life, Foley entered a degree program in history at the University of Melbourne when he was nearly fifty, “because that’s where I considered some of the worst of the academic historians who were distorting our history [were].” He worried that the work of Aboriginal Australian activists had been misrepresented, and perhaps worse, forgotten. By earning a degree, he hoped to share his history with younger people, something which he was able to do, first at Melbourne University and later at Victoria University.

Foley lectured like a historian, peppering his speech with colorful language to draw reactions from the crowd. “In 1972 with the Black Power movement and the Aboriginal Embassy, we had Australian politicians shitting themselves, running for cover. They feared the movement we had created. And the movement that we had created was like this – I can see it today. The government cannot ignore this sort of protest, cannot ignore this sort of movement.”

Both speakers made me think of my project – about ensuring that the history we teach in American high schools includes multiple perspectives, especially those outside the dominant culture. For many people at the protest, myself included, the history of the Aboriginal Rights movement in Australia was completely foreign. As Munro said, it is only by learning the history of a land that all people can come together and work for a better future. We ignore the stories and knowledge of those around us at our peril.

As Aboriginal Australian singer Dave Arden put it later that night, on stage at the gloriously grungy old music club The Tote, “Once you’ve eaten honey from the wild bee, then you can come talk to me.” Arden’s ancestors have lived in Australia for 60,000 years. The knowledge they passed down about the land should not be forgotten by its modern government. Eat the wild honey. Learn the history of the land and its people. By doing so we will better understand our space and our time, and make it better for all of us.

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