Indigenous Australian music

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

Australian Indigenous music includes the music of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, who are collectively called Indigenous Australians; it incorporates a variety of distinctive traditional music styles practiced by Indigenous Australian peoples, as well as a range of contemporary musical styles of and fusion with European traditions as interpreted and performed by Indigenous Australian artists.[1] Music has formed an integral part of the 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.[2][3][4][5] 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.[6]

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
Main article: Didgeridoo

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 and is world-renowned as a unique and iconic instrument. Famous players include Djalu Gurruwiwi, Mark Atkins, William Barton, David Hudson, Joe Geia and Shane Underwood as well as white virtuoso Charlie McMahon.


Main article: Clapstick

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. They are of oval shape with paintings of snakes, lizards, birds and more.

Traditional forms


Bunggul is a stylemusic that came into being around the Mann River and is known for its intense lyrics, which are often stories of epic journeys and continue, or repeat, unaccompanied after the music has stopped.

Clan songs and songlines

Main articles: Clan song and Songlines

A particular clan in Aboriginal culture may share songs, known as emeba (Groote Eylandt), fjatpangarri (Yirrkala), manikay (Arnhem Land) or other native terms. Songs are about clan or family history and are frequently updated to take into account popular films and music, controversies and social relationships.

Songlines ("Yiri" in the Walpiri language) relate to Dreamtime, with oral lore and storytelling manifested in an intricate series of song cycles that identified landmarks and other items and tracking (hunting) mechanisms for navigation. These songs often described 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 traveling 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.


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


Main article: Wangga

Wangga came into being near the South Alligator River and is distinguished by an extremely high note to commence the song, accompanied by rhythmic percussion and followed by a sudden shift to a low tone. It is typically performed by one or two singers with clapsticks and one didgeridoo player. It is most often performed at circumcision ceremonies and at ceremonies in which a dead person's belongings are purified with smoke.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is a contemporary Indigenous performer who sings in the Yolŋu Matha languages.
Main article: Aboriginal rock

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

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 being found among the styles played. Common traditional instrumentation used are the didjeridu and clapsticks being used to give a different feel to the music.

Country music has been particularly popular among the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, 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. Aboriginal artists Kev Carmody and Archie Roach employ a combination of folk-rock and country music to sing about Aboriginal rights issues.[7] The song type falls under the category of barnt. The documentary, book and soundtrack Buried Country showcases significant Indigenous musicians from the 1940s to the 1990s.[8]

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

There are a number of Aboriginal exponents of Australian hip hop music.[9]

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. "Australian Indigenous ceremony - song, music and dance". Retrieved 16 February 2013.
  2. Aboriginal Australia & the Torres Strait Islands: Guide to Indigenous Australia. Lonely Planet Publications. 2001. ISBN 978-1-86450-114-8. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  3. Fiona Richards (2007). The Soundscapes of Australia: Music, Place And Spirituality. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7546-4072-1. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Wilurarra Creative (2010). Music Archived 11 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. (2 June 2008). Australian folk music. Commonwealth of Australia.
  8. Clinton Walker. Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music.
  9. George Stavrias, (2005) Droppin’ conscious beats and flows: Aboriginal hip hop and youth identity, Australian Aboriginal Studies, number 2

Further reading

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