All musical styles covered with roots to the fore
Date: November 5 2012
Nick Galvin Indigenous artists are receiving more attention at home and abroad.
A new wave of indigenous musicians is receiving unprecedented attention from audiences in Australia and overseas, buoyed by a general upsurge of interest in Aboriginal artists.
Hit films such as Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires, the crossover popularity of veteran musicians including Gurrumul and Archie Roach, the television drama Redfern Now and even a coming production at the Belvoir St Theatre about Palm Island, Beautiful One Day, are all contributing to the buzz.
"There's been a wonderful surge of [Aboriginal] artists touring and releasing albums and creating a stronger profile," says Simon Raynor, director of the Australasian Worldwide Music Expo in Melbourne this month. It features many indigenous artists, including alt-country up-and-comer Sue Ray and the genre-defying trio OKA.
"I think it comes down to really great music,'' Raynor says. ''The quality is amazing and people are only just realising what a huge variety of music we have in Australia."
One of the bands attracting a lot of attention is the Medics, who formed about five years ago at a Cairns high school.
"We just got a group of friends together that we really liked, that's how we got started," says drummer Jhindu Lawrie. "We were doing covers and writing the odd song … and then we got a bit more confident and ventured out of school to play the pubs. There'd only be a handful of people in the bar but we just loved it."
After three or so years refining their craft in Cairns, they took the plunge and headed to Brisbane.
"When we first moved we played so many shows - every weekend, show after show, learning how to play well together," Lawrie says. ''We built something really nice.''
In 2010, the Medics were named band of the year in the Deadly Awards and took top honours in this year's National Indigenous Music Awards. On Saturday, they will top the bill in a gig of young Aboriginal artists - called Redfern Station - at Carriageworks, supported by Microwave Jenny and Jess Beck.
Lawrie says the Medics' "atmospheric rock" has evolved organically. "We all liked the same music but when it came to writing our songs we never really said anything about what kind of style they would be, we just knew what we wanted to make."
Seth Jordan, a long-time observer of the indigenous and world music scenes and author of World Music: Global Sounds in Australia, says Australian indigenous performers are benefiting from a general increase in interest in music from the region.
"In some ways, the Asia Pacific region has been the last area to be focused on in world music," he says. "There has always been a lot of attention on Africa and Latin America but the spotlight has finally fallen on music from this part of the world."
The international success of Gurrumul has done much to sharpen that focus, he says.
"He was the most successful Aboriginal act ever, really - surpassing Yothu Yindi in that regard," he says. "He created a buzz for Aboriginal music overseas. There have always been a lot of good performers here, it's just a matter of whether they have been given the attention."
The styles of music on offer from indigenous performers is strikingly varied, from the traditional sound of acts like Gurrumul and East Journey, who won two National Indigenous Music Awards this year, to the sweet-toned folk of singer-songwriter Thelma Plum and the blues, rock and country of Dan Sultan.
"It crosses over into all genres," Raynor says. " I think it is harder to classify indigenous music.
"The quality of the music should come first. There are great indigenous artists performing absolutely superb music in all genres."
Lawrie is wary of having labels attached to his music. "Both Kahl [Wallace, lead vocalist] and I definitely identify as indigenous people but when it comes to our music, it's its own entity," he says. "I don't want to have these labels. I want to say as an Aboriginal person we can write music the same as anyone else.
"The way we write with the band is its own thing and it's not labelled as anything. It's our pure emotions and how we feel. Being an Aboriginal person is who we are, it's not the band."
The Medics headline Redfern Station, Carriageworks, on Saturday. Dan Sultan is at Rock for Recognition at the Factory Theatre, Marrickville, on Friday.