First Trip to Australia: Sights and Sounds

 I recently returned from a trip to New South Wales, Australia for preliminary fieldwork. During my short trip, I sought to broaden my studies of indigenous music and cultural appropriation to include the interaction of Aboriginal and majority culture in Australia. I spent my time in two urban areas where one perhaps would not normally go to find authentic Aboriginal culture, but intersections between modern and historical and between indigenous and settler were evident in these cityscapes. From art galleries and museums filled with Aboriginal art and artifacts, to street musicians playing didgeridoo and clapsticks, indigenous culture was present. Not only did I see that different aspects of Aboriginality are integrated into the physical space of cities, but I also noticed that mainstream (in appearance) Australians of European descent seemed to have a decent general knowledge about Aboriginal history and existence. As I gawked at the Sydney Opera House for the first time, I heard an Aboriginal guide ask a group of uniformed school children the name of the tribe that originally inhabited that specific area, and his question was met by an enthusiastic answer amidst a sea of raised hands. Many people I met in hostels seemed not only open to talking about positive and negative aspects of Aboriginal and settler history, but were knowledgeable about certain aspects of indigenous culture such as music, art forms, and spirituality. The conversations I held with locals made me wonder about my own knowledge of Native North Americans and how much knowledge by and about indigenous people is integrated into educational systems in Australia, specifically in comparison to the United States. This will certainly be a point of further study for me.

Perhaps some of you got a better general world education in school than I did, but Australia has always been this large and distant mystery to me. Before I began researching the continent, I could visualize and name “didgeridoo” but had never had the opportunity to study any aspects of Australia in an academic setting. If any of you are also interestd in looking into Australian Aboriginal music on your own, there are many places where you could start, but I recommend looking into an artist that in many ways has become the voice of the modern Aboriginal: Gurrumul.

Geoffery Gurrumul Yunupingu is an Aboriginal of Yolngu heritage and was formerly associated with Yothu Yindi, a world famous Aboriginal ensemble. He is a multi-instrumentalist with a golden voice who was born blind and starting teaching himself instruments from an early age. I was privileged to hear his clear singing style for myself at the Sydney Opera House during my trip. Gurrumul was joined by his own band, the Sydney Symphony, and members of the Cantillation choir, which created a unique and full sound led by his guitar playing and singing. Michael Hohnen plays the roles of both bass player and musical director and helps facilitate many things, from helping lead Gurrumul out onto the stage, to introducing pieces and musicians.  Interspersed between musical numbers were videos of Gurrumul’s homeland and extended family, from elders telling stories, to young men displaying the continuation of traditional dance and music. This performance was more than a concert; it was a way to experience a taste of Gurrumul’s cultural heritage by listening to his native tongue and watching footage of his family. These culturally specific aspects were set with a traditional orchestra and other Western instruments, creating a sort of bridge between cultures. The jokes about Australian football statistics that Hohnen and Gurrumul traded throughout the program, along with Gurrumul’s dress and choice of instrument (guitar) remind us that he is bicultural and chooses to share his heritage with those who are on the outside. Below he performs "Wiyathul"--a fantastic example of his musical style:



I hope to visit this vast country again soon, and this time extend my research into more rurul areas governed by Aboriginal tribes. Its exciting to visit somewhere entirely new, but often difficult to process all that you have seen and heard. Having music that is not only part of your research but also enjoyable to listen to is always a nice place to return to.

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