Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The history of Australia Day

It’s Australia Day in Australia today. It’s a day in which a lot of Australians take enormous pride, and yet it commemorates an event that is perhaps one of the most shameful in our national history – the invasion of the land by white settlers in 1788.

So it seemed somehow appropriate that I marked the day by listening to the music of one of our most celebrated and exciting indigenous bands – Yothu Yindi, and their superb iconic album, Tribal Voice.

The defining song of this band and this album, and arguably of the whole indigenous struggle for rights and recognition, is ‘Treaty’, an amazing piece of music that brings together traditional aboriginal music and modern rock, a wonderful metaphor for the song’s plea for reconciliation between cultures. Its droning didgeridoo, underpinning modern keyboard and electric guitars, bear testimony to its proclamation, “This land was never given up/This land was never bought and sold/The planting of the Union Jack/Never changed our law at all”.

It’s this perennial connection with land and nature and people that dominates this music, just as it dominates the cultures of the people who create it; and its fusion of traditional and modern elements not only makes the music instantly accessible, but gives it the vibrant lifeblood of optimism, of hope, of belief in the day when cultures will thrive alongside one another, each learning from and growing from the other.

This fusion produces some arrestingly wonderful results, like the energy and vitality of ‘Maralitja’, or the way the traditional chants of ‘Dhum Dhum’ lead seamlessly into the upbeat call to “stand up for your rights” in the album’s title track, with some sensational pounding beats from the didgeridoo, like a primal animal singing modern rock.

It is a shame, in so many senses, that, in strolling down the streets of Australia’s towns and cities today, you are much, much more likely to see Australian flags fluttering in the wind than to hear the sounds of Yothu Yindi wafting through people’s open windows. But, even so, Tribal Voice is still a thrilling listen, and an enduring challenge to all of us. Just as John Lennon famously imagined that the world could one day live as one, so, too, does Yothu Yindi hold to its hope that “the waters will be one”. And it’s that hope, rather than the events of 26 January 1788, that makes Australia Day something worth marking, if not quite yet something worthy of celebration.


  1. I moved to Australia in 1987 and returned to London for a short visit in 1995. At that time, 'Tribal Voice' was a favourite album (it's still my favourite Yothu Yindi album). I was using it in my teaching and I listened to it several times on the flight.

    While I was in London, Yothu Yindi were playing at the Town & Country Club in Kentish Town, so I went to see them. I don't know the makeup of the crowd that night, but when the first notes of 'Treaty' rang out, the place erupted! It was an amazingly positive moment. Afterwards, I was in a nearby pub and some of the band came in. No-one spoke to them - a poignant contrast to the earlier apparent cameraderie.

  2. A poignant story indeed, Patrick ... and probably one which the members of Yothu Yindi have experienced time and time again, even here in Australia where, preumably, they would be more readily recognised.