Music and Meaning: The Aboriginal Rock Album

By Dunbar-Hall, Peter | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Music and Meaning: The Aboriginal Rock Album


Dunbar-Hall, Peter, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Over the past two decades, rock music has become a conspicuous means through which Aborigines confront and raise awareness about issues affecting Indigenous Australians and seek to educate other Australians about Aboriginal cultures. Aboriginal rock music is a complex site with multiple meanings dependent on, among other factors, the perspective of the listener, changing attitudes to Aboriginal arts, and the representation of Aboriginality by performers, writers, and the record industry.(1) It is common, for example, to align Aboriginal rock music with other indigenous musics internationally and to present it as protest music from a reading of its topics at the level of the individual song. This approach is found in Breen (1994), Chi (1990), Streit-Warburton (1995) and Sweeney (1991), and song topics cited by these writers include black deaths in custody, the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents, Aboriginal prison experience, and land rights. Strengthening the view of the song as the unit of meaning is the practice of using it for spreading information about the dangers and consequences of AIDS (for example, `Inipanya AIDS Ngku' by Isaac Yamma and the Pitjantjatjara Country Band), alcohol abuse (for example, `Leave the Grog' by the Yartulu Yartulu Band) and petrol sniffing (for example, `Petrol Sniffing' by the Wedgetail Eagle Band) in Aboriginal communities, and for the expression of local identity (for example, `Ngura Panyatja Titjikalanya' by the Titjikala Desert Oaks Band; `Warumpinya' by the Warumpi Band).

It is not difficult to understand this level of interpretation of Aboriginal rock music, as relationships between song topics and historical situations' definable social and health problems, and symbols of identity can be readily established. This reads Aboriginal rock music from a non-aboriginal perspective as the response to events, and is at the expense of deeper and more complex uses of rock +music in Aboriginal communities. In place of the song as the unit of meaning, the reading of Aboriginal rock music presented here considers the album as a composite statement to which individual songs are contributing elements. This is a structuralist approach in which songs, while still capable of signifying at their own level, assume wider meanings from an understanding of their positions and roles in larger structures. At the same time, meanings of those larger structures are the results of the contributions of their contents and the relationships between those contents.

Three albums will be analysed to test this thesis. They are by Yothu Yindi, the Kulumindini Band,(2) and the Warumpi Band. To achieve the readings presented, it is necessary to view the albums from the perspectives of the communities in which the respective rock groups live and work. This is done by drawing parallels between album contents and their ordering, and either locally understood social organisation or factors of relevance to those communities. It is a process of potential methodological danger as any investigation of musical meaning is necessarily influenced by its author's viewpoint, and the discussion of Aboriginal cultures which is included here is based on the author's interpretation of available information. The readings of albums which are offered are only some of many possibilities; the intention is to investigate how an album can assume meaning as a whole, not to discover what an album means, though it will be necessary to consider possibilities for this. Examination of albums by other Aboriginal rock groups demonstrates that the practices of album design used by these three groups are also found among other Aboriginal performers, leading to the conclusion that meaning in Aboriginal rock music is not solely at the level of the song but, depending on the degree of knowledge of Aboriginal cultures possessed by a listener, can be interpreted at the level of the album. The implications of this may be significant in defining aspects of the aesthetics of Aboriginal rock music, in understanding something of the ways in which rock music is used in Aboriginal communities, and in appreciating the intrinsic qualities of rock music by Aboriginal bands. …

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