What is Aboriginal music?
Aboriginal music is the music and songs of Australian Aboriginal people. To learn about the music, we first need to understand the people. Aboriginal people are the Indigenous or First Nations people of Australia, alongside the Torres Strait Islanders who are a Melanesian people from the islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people currently make up around 3% of the Australian population. Before the British colonisation of Australia in 1788, there were more than 500 different Indigenous peoples or nations across Australia with their own languages, cultures and beliefs. Evidence shows that Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for at least 60,000 years, AND we have the longest continuous culture in the world.
Since colonisation, many other cultural influences have been absorbed and adapted into modern Aboriginal music and culture. For the first three-quarters of the 20th century, government policies suppressed traditional Indigenous songs and ceremonies in many parts for Australia and, during this time, much traditional cultural knowledge was stifled.
Palm Island Brass Band conducted by Albie Geia
Yet Aboriginal people were often able to continue their song traditions, either covertly, or by adapting them to new introduced styles and English. By fusing their musical traditions with global pop, Indigenous musicians such as Yothu Yindi and Christine Anu showed how they could express their unique cultural identities in ways that were distinct from other Australian artists.
Aboriginal music is not a genre, but rather a cultural practice, and the role of music in our Aboriginal communities is very different to the role in the music industry. Our music expresses our identities, transmits our knowledge, and communicates social, environmental and cultural values for future generations. Cultural responsibilities and protocols are attached to singing Aboriginal songs, and most Aboriginal musicians still practice this today, even when performing in contemporary styles.
The Merindas – photo by Phill Walley-Stack
An example of this is the well-known Aboriginal song, ‘Yil Lull’,which is considered an Aboriginal anthem. But first, a bit of history …
Aboriginal Australians have a flag that was designed by Harold Thomas in 1971. This flag has three colours: black, representing the Aboriginal people; red, representing the land and blood, and yellow, representing the Sun. During the land rights movement at this time, this flag united the different Aboriginal peoples of Australia in common cause. It has become a symbol that represents our people ever since.
Joe Geia – photo by James Henry
My father’s name is Joe Geia. He is also a musician and is considered a pioneer in Aboriginal music. In 1976, he saw how the Aboriginal flag and its three colours had united our people. So, he wrote a song with the same intent to unite us.
This song is called ‘Yil Lull’, which means ‘to sing’ in the Kuku Yalanji language of North Queensland. This is the same language that the word ‘kangaroo’ comes from. This song has now been sung by many different artists from across Australia and the world to reflect Aboriginal identity and pride.
Joe Geia – Yil Lull
And, finally, here is the original music-video of Joe Geia singing his Aboriginal anthem, ‘Yil Lull’. You can find more of his music Spotify and iTunes, or at joegeia.com
This blog series is supported by the Center for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) at The University of Adelaide