Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that the following post may contain images and sound of people who have died.
1988 was an incredibly political year of division, protest and action in response to Australia’s bicentenary. Community action took place in support of Aboriginal history and land rights and in protest against a celebration that positioned Australia as being only ‘200 years young’. Aboriginal people’s long history of existence in Australia – dating back 65000 years – was ignored. Thus, slogans such as ‘White Australia has a Black history’, ‘Treaty’, ‘88’ and ‘Cook Who, Cook-oo’ were seen in huge numbers at protest marches across Australia. At the Sydney Invasion Day march on 26 January, Brenda L Croft, then working for Radio Redfern, spent her day recording interviews with some of the tens of thousands protest marchers.
Radio Redfern was considered the heart of protest action in Sydney during the bicentenary. From 12.01am on 1 January, Radio Redfern moved from broadcasting a few hours each week to 24 hours a day. Playing only Aboriginal music, Radio Redfern aimed at informing and educating the general Sydney public about Aboriginal perspectives. Set up in an old terrace house on Cope Street, Redfern in 1984 by Maureen Watson and her son, Tiga Bayles, Radio Redfern was initially conceived with the idea of bringing radio into the Redfern community and getting the people more involved. The influence of the radio station on the community can also been seen in their rallying together for the 1988 protest march calling for an end to Black deaths in custody.
Several weeks ago, the Art Gallery of NSW invited Gurindji, Malngin, Mudburra artist and curator Brenda L Croft, who also has Anglo-Australian, Chinese, German and Irish heritage, to guest-write a playlist marking that remarkable moment, as part of our focus on the power of music and on ‘songs of spirit and survival’. Her reflections resonate anew amidst current protests against racism and violence against people of colour in the USA and around the world.
Read on for Brenda’s reflections, through music, on the politics and music of a moment that still reverberates.
– Erin Vink, assistant curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art
Artist: No Fixed Address
Track: ‘We have survived’ (1981)
‘You can’t change the rhythm of my soul, woah-oh-oh, you can’t tell me what to do…’ Written by Pitjantjatjara musician Bart Willoughby when he was 18, ‘We have survived’ was performed by First Nations reggae rock band No Fixed Address for the soundtrack of Wrong side of the road, which has been described as ‘a road movie, a protest film, a political film, a rock film’. No Fixed Address was formed by students, including Willoughby, attending the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) in Adelaide (other members included Ricky Harrison, Leslie Lovegrove Freeman and John Miller). ‘We have survived’ is one of our community’s anthems and it was played on high rotation by broadcasters, including myself, at Radio Redfern/Radio Skid Row, 88.9FM, during January 1988 in the lead-up to the bicentennial.
Artist: Warumpi Band
Track: ‘Blackfella, whitefella’ (1985)
‘Blackfella, whitefella, it doesn’t matter what your colour, as long as you’re a real fella, as long as you’re a true fella’. From the song’s opening, with pounding drumbeats by Papunya-based Gordon Butcher Tjapanangka, twanging guitar by Neil Murray and Sammy Butcher Tjapanangka and vocals by one of the best frontpeople this country’s ever known, the mighty, late, great Yolŋu man, GR Burarrwaŋa (brother-in-law of the Butcher brothers), Warumpi Band shook up the Australian music scene. In 1983 they were the first band to record and release a song in a First Nations language, Luritja – ‘Jailangura Pakarnu (Out of jail)’. I will never forget a gig in Garrmalang (Darwin) in 1989 at the old Dolphin Hotel in Parap. It was like being in a Blues Brothers out-take as the band, led by GR Burarrwanga’s mighty vocals, blew the roof off the joint, playing from behind chicken wire in front of the stage. ‘Blackfella, whitefella’ rings true 35 years later; my eight-year-old son loves to sing it while strumming his three-quarter guitar.
Artist: Archie Roach
Track: ‘Took the children away’ (1990)
‘This story’s right, this story’s true, I would not tell lies to you’. Hard to beat Archie Roach’s (Bundjalung, Yorta Yorta peoples) debut album, Charcoal Lane. So many timeless songs packed into one album, based around a lifetime’s pain and a determination to tell true stories. While it’s difficult to go past ‘Took the children away’ for evocative, gut-wrenching emotion, ‘Munjana’ equally chokes me up every time I hear it. The album contains another of my favourite songs – ‘Down city streets’ – by the equally great, late Ruby Hunter (Ngarrindjeri, Pitjantjarra, Kookatha peoples), who was the first Indigenous woman to record a solo album. What a team they were. One of our most significant Indigenous storyworkers, Archie is also one of this country’s senior poet laureates. This heart-rending song is a memorial to all children who were removed from their families and communities since the earliest days of contact and never fails to move me intensely when I hear it.
Artist: Kev Carmody
Track: ‘Droving woman’ (1991)
‘She buried him down on the edge of town, Where the brigalow suckers on the cemetery creep… For what I’ve just lost can seldom be found, I was blessed with the gentlest of men…’ Murri songman Kev Carmody is another of this country’s First Nations poet laureates, but equally a working-class comrade, troubadour, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, whose lyrics and music gripped the imagination from the moment his debut album, Pillars of society, was released during the bicentennial year. A scathing indictment of the state of race relations in Australia, Pillars was described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia’. Kev’s skill in telling our stories so vividly is beautifully rendered in ‘Droving woman’ from his 1991 album Eulogy for a black man. A haunting, eight-minute-long song which conjures up so much in the tale of a bush woman who loses her husband, a gun stockman, in a tragic accident involving a wild horse that cannot be broken. The 2007 cover by Augie March, Missy Higgins and Paul Kelly on the Kev Carmody tribute Cannot buy my soul is equally captivating.
Artist: Kev Carmody, Paul Kelly
Track: ‘From little things, big things grow’ (1991)
‘Gather round people I’ll tell you a story, An eight-year-long story of power and pride, ’Bout British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiari, They were opposite men on opposite sides.’ 1991 was a killer year in Australian and First Nations music collaborations. Kev and Paul wrote this song together sitting around a campfire while Kev related the story of the Gurindji peoples (with Bilinara, Malngin, Mudburra, Nyarinyman and Warlpiri compatriots) fight for land rights. This hymn for social justice and equality is one of my all-time favourites. It was played as a song of celebration in my exhibition The big deal is black, shown at the Australian Centre for Photography in Paddington, Sydney, in 1993. Selected by my dear friend/sister Hetti Perkins as the soundtrack to accompany images I had taken of her and her two eldest children, Tyson and Thea, it’s since become a song from the soundtrack of significant moments in my life, including the tragic death of my brother Lindsay in 1994 and my father Joseph’s passing in 1996.
Artist: Yothu Yindi
Track: ‘Treaty’ (1991)
‘Well I heard it on the radio, And I saw it on the television, Back in 1988…’ My playlist tells you I came of age during the 1980s and ’90s, fortunate to live in a time of true community engagement and activism with our own soundtrack. Yothu Yindi picked up the baton from Warumpi Band, in a great melding of language with political and social action, wrapped up in dancefloor-enticing beats. Led by the late Gumatj educator, knowledge holder, school principal and musician Dr M Yunupiŋu, the song was created by a remarkable group of musicians and activists: M Yunupiŋu, Stuart Kellaway, Cal Williams, the late Dr G Yunupiŋu, Milkayngu Munuŋgurr and Witiyana Marika, with non-Indigenous musicians Peter Garrett and Paul Kelly. This song still gets me on my feet, even though I and so many other First Nations peoples are frustrated and angry at the lack of engagement from so-called political leaders in the decades since this call to arms was released. We believed that change was gonna come, but it’s coming still and often feels like it will never happen in my lifetime. ‘…All those talking politicians, Words are easy, words are cheap, Much cheaper than our priceless land, But promises can disappear, Just like writing in the sand, Treaty yeh, Treaty now, Treaty yeh, Treaty now…’
Track: ‘Anthem’ (1996)
Ahead of the call to discard an anthem that nobody knows the words to anyway, this call-and-response dismissal of an absurd, exclusionary, divisive, White Australian/Federalist refrain captures perfectly the purity, integrity and clarity in the trio that was Tiddas. First Nations women Amy Saunders (Gunditjmara) and Lou Bennett (Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung) and non-Indigenous woman Sally Dastey (from West Heidelberg) shone brightly, all too briefly, but those of us who were lucky enough to hear them live won’t forget them. All three went on to perform with the Black Arm Band, alongside a collective of some of Australia’s most renowned musicians, Black and White, whose songs challenge the status quo of inequality and injustice. ‘Don’t sing me an anthem, ’Cause you don’t know the words, Words are hard to remember, When they mean nothing at all, To the hordes who’re still waiting, For their voice to be heard, Don’t sing me your anthem, When your anthem’s absurd…’
Artist: Joe Geia, Jessie Lloyd, Deline Briscoe, Emma Donovan, Jessica Hitchcock
Track: ‘Yil Lull’ (2017)
A lilting, uplifting tribute to the Aboriginal flag, this song was written by Gugu Yimithirr/Kuku Yalanji musician Joe Geia in 1976, five years after the flag’s creation by Luritja artist Harold Thomas and others. The flag was first flown in Adelaide during NAIDOC Week in 1971, before it became nationally known after being raised at the newly established Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972. Geia released the song in 1988 as a response to the bicentennial celebrations which largely overlooked First Nations’ history. Almost three decades later, it was covered by Geia’s daughter, Jessie Lloyd, with other First Nations musicians – Deline Briscoe, Emma Donovan and Jessica Hitchcock – as part of The Mission Songs Project, which covered significant historical First Nations songs from around the country. Joe Geia was a member of No Fixed Address and a fellow CASM student, and has played yidaki on significant songs, including Shane Howard and Goanna’s ‘Solid rock’, another deadly land rights anthem.
Artist: Mo’Ju (FKA MOJU JUJU), featuring Pasefika Vitoria Choir and Djuki Mala
Track: ‘Native tongue’ (2018)
Mixed-race (Filipino and Wiradjuri peoples), queer singer-songwriter Mo’Ju, when asked what percentage of either ethnicity they are, describes themselves thus: ‘I’m 100% of everything’. Their debut single and video clip is mind-blowing; I play it for students as an introduction to my course, ‘Australian First Nations art and culture’, at the Australian National University. ‘Native tongue’ is a declaration: ethnic identity is not in the eye of the beholder — it’s what you make it. ‘I don’t speak my father’s native tongue, I was born under a southern sun, I don’t know where I belong, I don’t know where I belong…’ I was lucky enough to see a spine-tingling performance by Mo’Ju at the Spiegeltent in Canberra in 2019, as well as a performance by Archie Roach – both inspirational.
Artist: Paul Kelly and Dan Sultan
Track: ‘Every day my mother’s voice’ (2019)
Adam Goodes, a proud Adnyamathanha man, is a hero to so many of our people, and many in the wider community too, for standing staunch in the face of the unbridled bigotry that seemed to infect a nation that prides and markets itself on sportsmanship and ‘a fair go’ – but only for certain sectors of the community. For First Nations peoples it was sickening to see the increasing, apparently sanctioned racist vitriol Goodes had to endure following his 2014 Australian of the Year acceptance speech. An entreaty to Australian society to stand up against racism in sport – something he had experienced first-hand, along with so many First Nations sportsmen and women – the speech unleashed a backlash against him for daring to speak out, for not ‘knowing his place’. You can be Australian when we let you, but if you challenge injustice, you are just an ungrateful Blackfella. Despite the inner turmoil he had to deal with, which was revealed in two documentaries released in 2019 – The final quarter, for which this song was written, and The Australian dream – Adam always projected such grace and integrity. This song – a tribute to his mother, a member of the Stolen Generations – is incredibly moving when sung by the great singer-songwriter and activist Paul Kelly with Gurindji rock and roller/R’n’B singer-songwriter Dan Sultan: ‘…She taught me to be strong, Well, I guess I got lucky, Now I’ve got a dance and I’ve got a song, They can’t take that away from me… Every day, I hear my mother’s voice, Every day’.