This second edition of the Rough Guide to Australian Aboriginal Music starts with a few words in a language from the north of the country, spoken by a man named Alan Maralung. Maralung goes on to perform a song of his own composition in a classical wangga style, a tight combination of didjeridu, clapsticks, and chant that goes up and down and rolls around in peaks and troughs, a dry swirl of rhythmic repetition and subtle tonal changes. Australian listeners might think back to the last time they watched the opening of a festival or the launch of a new public building, that moment near the end of the ceremony when someone comes forward and makes a speech on behalf of “the traditional owners of the land.” “Welcome to Country,” they say. Maralung’s “New Song [Part 1]” is this album’s Welcome to Country. It ushers us in. At the conclusion of the album, we hear Part 2 of the same piece. It ends with a click of the clapsticks and a murmur from the singer. Goodbye from Country, goodbye.
The music that fills the hour between Maralung’s two Parts was all recorded within the last twenty years. There are good inclusions and puzzling exclusions. Alan Dargin’s “Hitchhiker’s Nightmare”, a live recording of the didjeridu player busking to a crowd, is one of the good inclusions. When non-Aboriginal musicians borrow the didjeridu for their compositions they typically use it for its drone. Dargin’s song is a reminder that the instrument can do more than that: he has it imitate heavy traffic, the honk of a truck horn, and a conversation between a truck driver and his hitchhiking passenger. He urbanises the didjeridu on its own terms, without remixes or any non-Aboriginal instruments. He has a performer’s sense of comic timing, too — you can hear the crowd laugh with recognition at the relentlessness of the oncoming cars. Compiler Bruce Elder has dedicated the album to Dargin’s memory, and there are worse ways to be remembered than this, as a clever musician and a talented showman.
Dargin appears again, buzzing and barking through a plastic pipe, on “Fantastic Plastic”, alternating noises until it sounds as if the instrument is talking to itself in two different voices, like those cartoons in which plasticine creatures discuss their problems in wordless yet expressive mews and hoots. There are other didjeridu tracks on the album as well, all of them different, smartly picked to show off the instrument’s versatility. In addition to Dargin’s busking and Maralung’s wangga, we’ve got Tjupurru and his pounding, electronic “Stompin’ Ground”, and an airy partnership between Matthew Doyle and the shakuhachi grand master Riley Lee. There’s soothing-didj, dance-didj, busking-didj, trad-didj, and plastic-didj, which is a nice haul for an album that isn’t solely about the didjeridu.
None of these didjeridus are played by women. The didjeridu is culturally a man’s instrument, and professional female Aboriginal musicians on the whole are outnumbered by men. This uneven divide carries through onto Elder’s compilation. All of the songs are performed by men, with two exceptions. The first of them is Tiddas’ “Inanay”, which is also the album’s only example of a capella singing. Vocal harmony is the one form of music that Aboriginal women excel in while Aboriginal men do not — purely as a matter of choice, it seems, since I’ve heard a good number of men singing to guitars, or in bands, but none even attempting the kind of humming lullabye-like group-song that the three members of Tiddas pull off here.
The other track is sung by outback teenage students from a travelling rap workshop. They call themselves the Pukatja Kungkas, the malleable furriness of their Pitjantjatjara/English flow distinct from the extroversion of an American rapper. Their message is one of civic responsibility. “Sniffing petrol? No way! Fighting? No way!” And that’s it for the women. We have a song from Archie Roach but nothing from his wife Ruby Hunter, and the Torres Strait is represented by the easy charisma of Seaman Dan, but not by the Mills Sisters or Christine Anu. It’s a shame.
There’s no rock music either, which is odd, because Elder alludes to its importance in the liner notes. It played a significant role in raising the profile of Aboriginal musicians in the 1980s, when groups like the Warumpi Band and Coloured Stone began using pub rock to carry the kind of messages that today can be carried by rap songs. Respect your culture, they said, stand up for yourself, push for social equality and justice. The Warumpi Band’s “Blackfella / Whitefella” lent its name to the group’s joint tour with Midnight Oil, and “My Island Home” turned into one of the nation’s unofficial national anthems when it was recorded in 1995 by Anu. There were video clips, there was recognition, there was an Aboriginal frontman on TV looking sexy, which was, and still is, an unusual thing to see. Aboriginals on Australian television get to be a number of things, but sexy is not often one of them.
Today we have other bands working the same vein of rock (Nabarlek, for instance, and NoKTurNL), but the album never comes closer to it than the Saltwater Band’s “Djilawurr”, the gentlest, nicest bit of reggae-folk-rock you could ever hope to meet. It’s a world away from “Blackfella / Whitefella”.
The back cover promises us rapping from the Wilcannia Mob but the promotional disc that I was sent had another group in its place. When I contacted World Music Network about it they said that there had been a mistake in the initial pressing of the album, and it would be corrected in the second pressing. If you’re thinking of buying this Rough Guide for the sake of the Wilcannia Mob then I’d suggest you ask the people behind the counter to play track 12 for you before you put down your money so that you know which version you’re getting. The substitute track is a traditional piece, didjeridu and clapsticks and chanting, reminiscent of Maralung’s music but not the same. The same problem seems to have hit the seventh track, which ought to be the easygoing jangle of the Pigram Brothers on their guitars. Instead it’s a jazz mixture of didjeridu and saxophone.
The Rough Guide to Australian Aboriginal Music is the best all-around single-disc introduction to Aboriginal music available at the moment. It’s the one that covers the widest spectrum of music and gives you the most diverse and interesting range of bands to explore further. In spite of my irritation at the absence of rock and women, this is still something to get excited about. If you’ve got preconceived ideas about Aboriginal music, if you think it’s all drone and chant, or all Yothu Yindi remixes, you should come away feeling that you’ve been fruitfully challenged.