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Australian indigenous ceremony – song, music and dance

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

Ceremonial performances are seen as the core of cultural life. For example, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders these ceremonies bring together all aspects of their culture – song, dance, body decoration, sculpture and painting.

Aboriginal women performing a traditional dance

Ludo Kuipers, Anny Nungarrayi (centre) with other Warlpiri women perform a traditional dance during the 'Purlapa Wiri' Aboriginal dance festival in Alekarenge (Ali Curung or Warrabri), an Aboriginal community near Tennant Creek, 1976. Courtesy of OzOutback Internet Services.

Music, song, ceremony, performance and dance was and is still today a very important part of Aboriginal life and customs. There were songs for every occasion, some of which were expressed in special ceremonies.


Songs and dances were exchanged often at large ceremonial gatherings when many people gathered together and when trade goods were also exchanged. These gatherings often occurred at a time and place when there was plenty of food.

Ceremony is the underlying basis of Indigenous song, music, dance and visual arts. Ceremony contains many significant elements, some of which are specifically related to depicting Dreaming stories. Sometimes these expressions of music, art, song, dance and performance are seen as separate commodities in the Western world. However, from an Aboriginal perspective they are all part of a complex whole.


Senior artist and elder David Mowaljarlai OAM (1928–1997) once stated 'song was the first idea, the principle of sharing which underlies our system'. Each song, like each design or painting is part of a moment in a larger story. Songs make up a song series or a 'songline' which is a map of the country based on the travels of the Dreaming ancestors. To knowledgeable Aboriginal people, seeing a painting or a design will call to mind a song. Many senior painters sing as they paint the story of the song.

Indigenous popular musicians tend not to write straight love songs. They are more likely to write about subjects important to their communities, especially land and community issues as well as protest songs. Songs about land relate their love of and identification with country, loss of land and attempts to return to one's country. Community issues addressed in songs include alcohol and keeping culture.

Kev Carmody says that music is an expression of:

culture, and the reality of a certain place and time...I'd rather play around the campfire, do it like that. That's where the music's created.
From Little Things Big Things Grow, documentary film, 1993
Kev Carmody

Kev Carmody. Courtesy of Kev Carmody.

Despite the great variety of song types from different areas, there are some common underlying features. Traditional songs are usually specific to local areas, often referencing local geographic features particular local animal species, historical events or the social environment.

In a ceremonial context, songs are seen as having a non-human origin. Old songs, evoking powerful Dreaming stories, are said to be created by the Dreaming beings themselves as they created the country in its present form. New songs may also be dreamed by individuals. The song text can evoke a complex web of associations and meaning for people who have extensive and specific local knowledge of country.

Bearing in mind that a performance of a central Australian songline may consist of hundreds of different song texts, the depth of knowledge it embodies and that is required for its decipherment is staggering. Truly the long song series of Australia are among the most impressive monuments of human culture.
Linda Barwick, The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture



Aboriginal boys playing the didgeridoo and clap sticks at Dukaladjarranji, Northern Territory.

Penny Tweedie, Aboriginal boys with didgeridoo and clap sticks at Dukaladjarranj, an important Dreaming site in Rembarrnga country, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, 1999, colour transparency. Image courtesy of Penny Tweedie.

Today, didgeridoo, painting and video clips may be the first point of contact with Aboriginal culture for an international audience. The didgeridoo has became the major symbol of Aboriginal music. The popularity of the didgeridoo amongst alternative Western peoples has raised concerns that the didgeridoo has been taken out of its original music context. These issues are addressed by Top End, Northern Territory, Aboriginal people through different websites, publications and conferences.

However, not all Aboriginal groups had didgeridoos which were originally found in Arnhem Land, Northern Australia and known as 'yidaki'. The didgeridoo is possibly the world's oldest musical instrument and is made from limbs and tree trunks hollowed out by termites (insects) creating a wind instrument.

Torres Strait Islands and Christine Anu

In contrast, Torres Strait Islander music is predominantly vocal with percussion accompaniment. Island songs are performed in two or three-part harmony which are improvised by the singers. A beat is always maintained for the singers and dancers on a large, waisted drum. ARIA award-winning singer, Christine Anu, from the Torres Strait has made her signature song My Island Home, an anthem for reconciliation among younger Australians after singing it at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Indigenous rock and folk

Music is one of the primary means by which Indigenous Australians maintain their identity and culture. There are many music types which flourish across Australia including Aboriginal rock and folk music. Coloured Stone, a band from Koonibba, South Australia, who fuse reggae, country-western and rock genres while making use of didgeridoo and Indigenous language words, wrote the hit songs Black Boy and Kapi Pulka (Big Rain).The Pigram Brothers combine harmonies with layers of acoustic guitars, dobros, mandolins and slide guitars to tell tales of their Broome lifestyle and community. Archie Roach, from Warrnambool, Victoria is well known for his protest songs including Took the children away. Prominent Yolngu band Yothu Yindi, from north-east Arnhem Land, has found a position in mainstream music industry, believing that they are a stepping stone to reconciliation, writing the hit song Treaty.

In the early 1970s Jimmy Little was acknowledged as one of Australia's premier country music stars, having made a hit single with pop song Royal Telephone in 1963. Although mostly recognised for country musical style, Jimmy dabbled with orchestral sounds (1972), reggae (1983). Jimmy found wide recognition with Brendan Gallagher, a musician and producer, when they recorded, in 1999, an album of mainly alternative and classic Australian rock songs from the 1980s. The resulting album Messenger was an immediate success reaching the top ten of the alternative music charts in 1999, winning an ARIA award for Adult contemporary album.

Troy Cassar-Daley has won almost every award there is including 'Best Country Album', 'Best Male Vocal', 'Entertainer of the Year', 'Best Video' and an ARIA for 'Best Country Record'. Rolling Stone described Troy's style as 'quintessentially Australian while echoing the personal style of Bruce Springsteen [with] vivid images of country life and love'.

Indigenous communities and recording – Indigenous roots music

Although some bands aim for success, others are more interested in producing their own music primarily for their own communities.

Aboriginal broadcasting and media associations often consider the promotion of community and cultural development as their primary aim. The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) provides regular recording services for local community bands as well as conducting music workshops in local Indigenous communities, in a range of styles from country and western to rock and world music. Despite the high-quality material, CAAMA 'has found that mainstream broadcasters are reluctant to air or market its products'.

Nabarlek band

Sam Karanikos, Nabarlek band, 2001, medium format transparency film. Courtesy of Whitehouse Photography and Skinnyfish Music.

Another venture, Skinnyfish Music, in the Top End, aims to promote and market those local community bands that want to sell their music to a wider audience. For example, Nabarlek, a nine-piece Arnhem Land band, has travelled extensively in Australia and overseas. Nabarlek's songs are derived from traditional stories and songs and are sung in tribal language and English. Their style is influenced by rock, country and gospel and is known as Indigenous Roots music.


Crusoe Gurdal dancing

Ludo Kuipers, Crusoe Gurdal from Maningrida dances during the Barunga Cultural Festival, Northern Territory, 1987. Courtesy of OzOutback Internet Services.

Dance is a unique aspect of ceremonies which is learnt and passed down from one generation to another. To dance is to be knowledgeable about the stories of the ancestral heroes. Dancing, unlike painting and singing, is learnt at an early age. This allows large groups of people to demonstrate their clan rights in front of an audience. Dance is also seen as an occasion to entertain and to be entertained and through the work of dance to show their love for families and kin. It is for this reason that dance may be performed at the end of every day in some communities.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, 'urban Aboriginal people were looking at revitalising their culture' through the Yelang Dancers and the Torres Strait Island Dance Group in South Brisbane. A modern Afro-American dance company visiting from New York inspired a series of workshops in Redfern, Sydney, supported by the Aboriginal Arts Board. They arranged for David Gulpilil to teach traditional dance.

The concept of presenting and training in three styles – traditional Aboriginal, traditional Torres Strait Islander and contemporary modern dance – was begun as a means to ensure a comprehensive picture of Indigenous Australia.

The Aboriginal Arts Board funded this workshop structure, that started at the Black Theatre in 1975, which permitted urban Indigenous people to study traditional culture from traditional owners. Modern Indigenous dance companies have developed under the direction of dance elders from Maningrida, Yirrkala and Dhalinbuy in north-eastern Arnhem Land.

The desire by Indigenous people for training as professional dancers precipitated a three-year course. This later developed into the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) in 1988. Bangarra Dance Theatre, an offshoot of NAISDA, was established in 1989, and the Aboriginal/Islander Dance Theatre in 1992. All of these companies saw their creative leadership come from trained Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers.

Dances were disciplined and varied in both traditional and modern forms of dance, achieving excellence across a variety of styles. NAISDA's practices were seen as reconciliation in action. People from traditional communities participated fully and provided leadership at the same time as the Australian dance community, and international audiences interacted with the dancers.

Through dance, Indigenous Australians are recognised as providers. Their skill in fusing ancient and modern dance forms empowers them to lead in building a new, Australian, modern dance technique.
Carole Y. Johnson, The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture

Dance Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre

Shane Reid, Bangarra Dance Theatre 'Strings' from Unaipon, Courtesy of Adelaide Bank 2004 Festival of Arts and the Bangarra Dance Theatre.

The Bangarra Dance Theatre is best known for its fusion of traditional Aboriginal and contemporary Western dance movements, and receives international acclaim for its works. Its founders' goals were to create a distinct, professional performing body for Indigenous artists, and allow them to continue to work in the context of their own cultures. Significant early productions included Praying Mantis Dreaming (1992), Ochres (1995) and Fish (1997). Recent productions include Clan (2004), Boomerang (2005) and True Stories (2007).

True Stories is a double bill program, X300 and Emeret Lu. X300 In the 1950s a series of atomic explosions were conducted on Maralinga Tjarutja traditional lands. The code name of the test site was X300. Frances Rings's new work explores a landscape assumed vacant and cleared of occupation but which in reality became a contaminated desert which poisoned the people. Emeret Lu ('Very old things') – the passion and energy of the traditional people of the Torres Straits fuel this new work by choreographer Elma Kris. The dances 'celebrating rain, wind, the hunt, desire and pleasure mingle with the charm of the spiritual to create a work of lasting imagery'.

Indigenous theatre companies, like Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre, can combine theatre, music, song and dance as a forceful expression of ceremony in award winning performances. David Milroy of the Injibarnd and Palku people, a musician, writer and theatre director is the Artistic Director, of Yirra Yaakin. Milroy's music has featured in films (Blackfellas, Exile and the Kingdom). David has also provided the musical direction for Black Swan Theatre Company productions Sistergirl and Dead Heart as well as the Perth Theatre Company's production of Wild Cat Falling. David won the prestigious Patrick White Playwrights' Award in 2003 for Windmill Baby.

Useful links

Indigenous resources

Indigenous performers

Last updated: 4 June 2015

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