“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain
Indigenous readers are advised that the following blog contains images of deceased people.
One of the things I love about travel is that it opens your eyes to different cultures. It teaches you tolerance and acceptance of people different to yourself. And, if you stay in a place long enough, you might also learn something about the politics and history of the country that you may otherwise have missed if you were relying on the daily news bulletin.
But sometimes you can also increase your knowledge without leaving your hometown – by reading a book or watching a great piece of theatre or listening to music. Over the last couple of years I’ve taken a journey with The Black Arm Band – by going to their concerts and listening to their music – and, as a result, I’ve learnt more about the history of my own country than I ever learnt in school.
“From little things, big things grow.” Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody
I first saw The Black Arm Band perform at the Myer Music Bowl as part of the 2010 Melbourne Arts Festival. The show, Seven Songs to Leave Behind, was a particularly moving event bringing together artists from across the globe (including Sinead O’Connor, Rickie Lee Jones, Gurrumul Yunupingu and John Cale) to share songs that held special meaning to each of them. This included their first song, a song from Leonard Cohen and a song that they would like to leave behind for future generations.
Over the years I have seen hundreds of concerts, as I used to work at some of Melbourne’s entertainment venues, and this night was up there with the best of them. The concert showcased a special group of performers with an amazing selection of songs, but more importantly, it introduced me to some of Australia’s most talented Indigenous artists – including Leah Flanagan, Shellie Morris, Dan Sultan and Ursula Yovich.
That night I also caught up with my cousin and his partner, filmmakers Rhys Graham and Natasha Gadd, who had put together the film footage featured in the concert. They told me about their latest project, working with The Black Arm Band on a documentary called murundak: songs of freedom, and, a year later, I was invited to attend the premiere.
“Like the songs of the civil rights movement in the US and the anti-apartheid songs of South Africa, our songs sing of anger and pride, of political protest and of the profound optimism of our people.” Rachel Maza Long
murundak: songs of freedom journeys into the heart of Aboriginal protest music following The Black Arm Band as they take to the road with their songs of resistance and freedom. They travelled from the concert halls of the Sydney Opera House to the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, and then to remote Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory. The film included rare archival footage of Indigenous political protests in the 1970s and was filmed against the backdrop of Australia’s changing political landscape, including Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about the Stolen Generations until I began travelling overseas in the early 90s. I can vividly remember a late-night conversation about politics with a group of university students in South Africa. This was about a year before Nelson Mandela was elected as President and they were understandably anxious about the political climate of their own country. But then the conversation turned and I was horrified to hear Australia being compared to South Africa in terms of civil rights – and to be honest, I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. But rather than seem ignorant, I just shut my mouth and listened. I mean, who was I to make any comment whatsoever about apartheid when I didn’t even know what was happening in my own country?
Later on, I realised I was not alone in my ignorance. I picked up a book by historian Henry Reynolds titled Why weren’t we told? It was written after Reynolds realised that he, and generations of Australians, had grown up with a distorted and idealised version of our history – and it was here that my real education of Indigenous Australia began.
“At the end of a decade of conservative government, some of Aboriginal Australia’s finest singers came together to shape their anthems, their stories, their laments…”
The Black Arm Band’s inaugural show in 2006 was murundak – meaning ‘alive’ in the Woirurrung language – and the artists hoped that they could raise their voices in song to remind all Australians of our bloodied past and the ongoing fight for freedom and equality.
The name The Black Arm Band was a cheeky gibe at the then Prime Minister, John Howard, for his comments: “The black arm band view of our country reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. I take a very different view.”
At this time, many Australians, including myself, were hoping that the government would issue an official apology to the Stolen Generations, and there was a lot of anger at grassroots level towards John Howard’s view. Friends and I took part in several reconciliation protests in Melbourne, hoping to be part of a better future. But, even though I was somewhat involved, I don’t think I truly grasped the pain and the sorrow of the Indigenous people until I began following The Black Arm Band.
In murundak: songs of freedom I saw Archie Roach singing Took the children away, about the day he was taken from his parents, and Kutcha Edwards, ‘the big man’, breaking into tears after singing Is this what we deserve? Ruby Hunter sang about her life on the streets. She was taken from her family when she was eight and ended up in foster homes, as a ward of the state.
“I’ve been asked to explain my aboriginality all my life… now when people ask, I’ll say ‘Just look at that film and it’ll explain everything’.” Dan Sultan
As a nation, we seem to take two steps forward and one step backwards. The apology to the Stolen Generation, when it finally came, was a great day, but only recently the Australia Government has extended key elements of the Northern Territory Intervention until 2022. Appallingly, this decision was passed quickly and quietly while most of the Australian media was, quite stupidly, in my opinion, jumping up and down about the Carbon Tax. As a result, there has been little publicity, despite the fact that this decision is widely opposed by Aboriginal people across the Northern Territory and has been condemned by the United Nations as racially discriminatory.
I have travelled widely across this great continent, visiting some of Australia’s most beautiful and remote places – the Pilbara, Broome, the Kimberley, Kakadu National Park, Katherine Gorge and Uluru. I’ve listened to stories of the Dreamtime, gazed at ancient rock art, and learnt to respect the land (even more than I already did). I love this country, but I’m ashamed of our past and angry about some of the decisions that are still being made. I also feel helpless and don’t really know what I can do other than express my opinion in this blog and support movements such as Stand for Freedom.
I can also sing the praises of The Black Arm Band, who, hopefully, will continue to inspire and educate people through their beautiful music.
“We are made the same, you and I.” Alexis Wright, dirtsong
In early September, I went to see The Black Arm Band perform dirtsong and many people in the crowd were moved to tears even before the first notes of music filled the Melbourne Recital Centre. Gail Mabo opened the show and spoke about her father, Eddie Mabo, on the 20th anniversary of both his passing and the landmark Mabo court decision, which established that Indigenous people had rights and title to their land in Australia.
The show, which evokes spirit of country through the combination of words, music, and black and white film footage, was also about preserving language and featured songs in 11 different Indigenous dialects. I feel incredibly privileged to have seen The Black Arm Band perform… and I doubt anyone could go to one of their shows and not come away with a little bit more understanding.
dirtsong will have its US premiere in New York on Friday 22 February 2013 at the NYU SKirball Center for the Performing Arts.
Photos: Rhys Graham, Daybreak Films