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Indigenous music – jazz and blues crossings with island soul

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.

Australian Indigenous jazz, blues and soul has a sound and groove of its own. In Australia, Indigenous singers who developed jazz, blues and soul did so in combination with their own lyrics, intonations and rhythms that reflected where they were from. Music remains one of the primary means by which Indigenous Australians maintain and communicate their identity and culture.

Christine Anu performing in Rewind (The Aretha Franklin Songbook), 2013, promotional image

Renowned Indigenous jazz and soul singers have mostly originated in Queensland, the Torres Strait Islands, Gulf of Carpentaria, Arnhem and Darwin.Indigenous singers adopted the jazz and blues styles played by the visiting African American servicemen stationed in Far North Queensland during the Second World War. This has been part of the communication between African American and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musicians.

The influence of African American sounds extended south to The Sapphires, the soul sisters of Cummeragunja in Victoria. Their early influences were visiting African American entertainers throughout the 1950s until 1960, in combination with the strong tradition of YortaYorta harmonies and choirs – both of whom performed in the local church. The Sapphires toured with a Maori soul band in the 1960s which included an African American singer. Negro ‘plantation songs’ had been borrowed and adapted early, from around the 1860s in southern Australia as part of ‘survival’ swingballads.

Harmony vocals associated with soul music crossed over with both the distinct Torres Strait Islands (TSI) tradition of three-part harmony vocals and the YortaYorta vocal tradition. In the TSI and Far North Queensland, the Indigenous soundstructure was characterised by a shuffle beat as well as missing triplet beats creating polyrhythms. The Indigenous polyrhythms together with three part song structures fed into the adoption of jazz, blues and soul.

Two members of The Sapphires, 1960s, promotional image

Jazz, blues and soul were some of the first recorded and publicly distributed music by Indigenous performers and was seen as world class. Opera singer Harold Blair, who grew up in Ipswich Queensland, recorded Indigenous lullabies in 1950, studied and performed in New York in the 1950s and then, recorded Aboriginal Songs in 1956 with a long playing (LP) album. The Indigenous Maranoa Lullaby(1950) is sung like a sweet blues.

In the 1960s, Georgia Lee, from Cairns is credited as the first Indigenous female singer (and the second female artist in Australia) to release an LP record – Lee sung the blues. Her niece, jazz singer Wilma Reading toured extensively overseas including with jazz great Duke Ellington. The Sapphires soul band toured Vietnam and other countries in south-east Asia. In the 1970s, jazz singer Johnny Nicol had returned to Australia and was a star attraction in jazz clubs for the next two decades.

Indigenous world class jazz, blues and soul performers have continued with Christine Anu from the 1990s through to Crossing Roper Bar in the 2000s and Jessica Mauboy from 2010 to the Barefoot Divas since 2012.

Wilma Reading, promotional image, courtesy of the ABC

Indigenous jazz, blues and soul and songwriting become part of a conscious public process in claiming Indigenous identities. In addition, the sound of Harold Blair’s lullabies, Georgia Lee’s Yarra River Blues and Christine Anu’s My Island Home were a profound thrill for many Australians to hear the Australian sounds and lyrics. This has been reflected across Australia when other music types have all been fused with local Aboriginal styles. This has created new forms such as desert rock, Indigenous country, saltwater – freshwater music and survival swing ballads and swing dance bands.

Indigenous music and other festivals across Australia celebrate Indigenous music, culture and identity. In the Torres Strait Islands the Thursday Island Cultural Festival Winds of Zanadth is held every two years and brings together performers from the 18 inhabited islands. Dance groups that include singers and drummers perform and compete across the four-day festival.

The Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, (CIAF) is host to the unique sounds of the Torres Strait and Far North Queensland and leading performances have included Christine Anu (2009), Wilma Reading (2011), the Briscoe Sisters singing with the Torres Strait Islands Choir, Johnny Nicol (2012), and many others.

Torres Strait Island sounds, Cairns jazz and blues across the Pacific

In 1898 a singer, Maino of Yam Island, recorded a traditional song entitled Yamaz Sibarud. He sang ‘acappella’, without accompaniment. The song is a syncopated shuffle, with an emphasis on long notes in the first bars and then staccato – fast sharp notes as the tune progresses. It is characterised by missing triplet notes – with a similar structure but a different beat to jazz.

Georgia Lee, courtesy of Karl Neuenfeldtand the NFSA

In the Torres Strait and Queensland, families are recognised for producing exceptional singers and song-makers. Jazz, blues and soul singers include the Harmony Sisters with Georgia Lee, her niece Wilma Reading, Christine Anu and sister Helen Anu with their mother composer Zipporah Whap, Casey and Emma Donovan and the Briscoe Sisters. Fellow soul sisters were The Sapphires who were sisters and cousins.

The adoption and adaption of jazz, blues and soul styles is also about the co-existence of shared experiences. Indigenous performers share the experiences with the origins of this mainly African American music as peoples who have lived without civil rights, were dispossessed of land, often segregated and worked without wages. The lack of civil rights for Indigenous peoples in Australia until 1968 and the forced removal of children from Indigenous families meant that Indigenous singers were sometimes promoted as Jamaican, Polynesian or Maori.

Georgia Lee – Queen of Jazz and the blues down under

Georgia Lee performing with dance band, 1950s, possibly at Ciro’s Theatre-Restaurant, Melbourne, promotional image

Georgia Lee (1922–2010) started her singing career as Dulcie Pitt, one of the Pitt sisters – Dulcie, Sophie and Heather – who toured Queensland as The Harmony Sisters in the 1930s and made it to radio. In the 1940s, the Harmony Sisters performed in the Red Cross Jazz Unit and the John Wayne unit, entertaining US troops. The enthusiasm for jazz and blues rubbed off, and they combined their harmonies with the jazz and blue sounds. In addition, Dulcie Pitt had her original hula dance band which enjoyed a successful season in Sydney.

After the war, Dulcie Pitt started a solo career as Georgia Lee. Lee moved south and became prominent with lengthy engagements at the Tivoli theatre, with ABC Jazz Productions, and Gleneagles nightclub as well as the Colgate Palmolive Show variety extravaganzas on radio, headed by the outrageously funny Australian comic Mo (Roy Rene). Georgia Lee was one of the most accomplished, exciting and versatile singer of her generation, equally at home with Torres Strait Islander songs, blues, popular ballads, jazz and show tunes.

Not only could Lee sing the blues with strength and resonance, she was famed as a jazz vocalist of ‘superb, distinctive quality’. In doing so, Lee drew on the tradition of harmonies, Negro jazz and blues structures, sung ‘a cappella’ and addressed the subject matter of race relations. In 1949, Lee introduced the song Strange Fruit to white audiences in Sydney. The song condemned the racist murder of African American men in the United States.

Performing and recording on the national scene

Georgie Lee performed and recorded with many artists and bands in Australia especially some of the leading jazz bands including Graeme Bell from 1949. Sharing the bill with Bell, Lee was presented as the ‘Jamaican Blues Singer Georgia Lee’. Lee went on to perform with Bruce Clarke, the Port Jackson Jazz Band, the Quintones and George Trevare, establishing herself on the national scene.

From opera through soul to jazz, Aboriginal musicians who had the opportunity to record were seen as world class. In the 1950s, opera singer Harold Blair was studying and performing in New York as well as recording a long playing (LP) album Australian Aboriginal Songs (1956).

An Aboriginal Moomba: Out of the Dark, 1951

Georgia Lee on stage in Moomba – An Aboriginal Production, Out of the Dark, 1951

In 1951, Blair and Lee performed in the all Aboriginal production, An Aboriginal Moomba: Out of the Dark, scripted by Jean Campbell and produced by Irene Mitchell, organised by Pastor Doug Nicolls. The aim was to promote full citizen rights for Aborigines as part of the 50th anniversary of Federation in Australia. The anniversary was being celebrated in Melbourne with an arts festival but without any Indigenous Australian content.

This was the most unexpected success of the year. It hit town as gently as a Guy Fawkes Day squib, and overnight assumed the vigor and blast of an atom bomb … The scenery, the unbelievable talent for mime shown by the cast, the skill … made it an outstanding event
Frank Doherty, Stage, The Argus. 22 December 1951, p 14

Bill Onus was credited with naming the production Moomba, with the word ‘moom’ meaning ‘bottom’, and translating as bottoms up or, the obverse. Bill Onus recommended that the city adopt this for the name of an arts festival that was to be held on Labour Day, creating the Moomba arts festival in Melbourne in 1955.

In the early 1950s Lee toured Queensland and NSW with the St Louis Vanities, a reference to St Louis Blues, a classic jazz repertoire, based on the Negro melodies and lyrics from St. Louis, Missouri. Lee was one of the headline acts at Ciro’s Theatre-Restaurant in Melbourne from 1951-53. In 1953, in a newspaper article, Lee was described as the number one female singer in Melbourne.

International contracts: Max Widman’s Quintet, Geraldo’s and Nat King Cole

In 1953, Lee left Melbourne for London, stopping over in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for a few months to sing with Max Widman’s Quintet. In London Lee impressed band leader Ted Heath and won a contract with Geraldo and his light orchestra as the featured vocalist. Lee became well known in Britain; she made the cover of the UK broadsheet New Musical Express (now NME) in February 1954, the same edition that announced Billie Holiday’s tour to the UK and was part of a weekly radio broadcast.

Georgia Lee on tour with Nat King Cole, 1957, promotional image, courtesy of Dulcie Pitt, Karl Neuenfeldt and the ABC

Georgia Lee returned to Australia and toured Australia with Nat King Cole in 1956-57. The music of Nat King Cole was extraordinarily popular; by 1954 he had sold 19 million records. Cole first toured Australia in January 1955. His second tour to Australia in 1956 was at a time in his career which was marked by racist incidents which were widely reported in the press at the time.

Cole opened in Sydney on 8 February 1956. On tour to Perth, Nat King Cole met with the Coolbaroo Club, an Aboriginal dance club in East Perth, the venue for Aboriginal swing dance band and the singer Glenys Bropho. His next contract, to tour Cuba was marked by the refusal of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba to allow him to stay because of his colour. Never-the-less, >on his return to New York, in October 1956, Cole started his own TV show and in his own words ‘was the only Negro on network television with his own show’. Unfortunately national sponsors could not be found and the show was dropped after four months. Georgia Lee toured with Cole for his third tour in 1957.

First album in stereo with Australian compositions – a new Australian sound

Georgia Lee sings the Blues Down Under, 1962, album cover

Lee recorded Georgia Lee Sings the Blues Down Under in 1962. It was noted for two Australian compositions, Yarra River Blues and Down Under Blues by Robert King Crawford. This was also the first Australian album to be recorded in stereo. Yarra River Blues deals with the loss of a child to the river, swept out to sea. The lyrics of Down Under Blues, reference an Indigenous Australian sound with singing the wail of a dingo and aligning this with the traditional sorrow of Negro blues.

Georgia Lee’s voice on Yarra River Blues is sublime; it is sweet, rich, mellow and warm. It ‘showcases Georgia’s crystal-clear voice, individual phrasing and haunting style’ (Brenda Gifford, Georgia Lee, Curator’s Notes, NFSA). At the time, Lee was labeled the ‘Original Diva of Jazz and Blues Down Under’.

In 1982 Lee was belatedly acknowledged as the Queen of Jazz by Graeme Bell. In 1999 the album was re-released. Georgia Lee’s album is listed in the National Registry of Recorded Sound.

Wilma Reading, early 1960s. Courtesy of the ABC

Wilma Reading – ‘splendid resonance tempered by rare sensitivity’

Wilma Reading is a singer from Cairns, Queensland with English, Irish, Torres Strait Islander, Jamaican, Afghan, Scottish, and Aboriginal ancestry. She is the daughter of Heather Pitt and niece of singer Georgia Lee.

Reading grew up in a large family where singing was part of the evening activities,

we'd sit around and talk and eventually one of the uncles, Uncle Wally, most of the time, would bring out his guitar and we'd start singing. My aunts and uncles, they'd start harmonising. And they'd always say to the kids, 'Come on, kids, joins us. Come on, help us sing, help us sing.'
The Wilma Reading Story

Reading began her singing career in 1959 after singing for friends in a Brisbane jazz club where she was noticed by Brisbane bandleader Lali Hegiand. Reading was invited to Sydney, where she played at the Latin Quarter, and recorded with Festival Records. She then became a regular on Bandstand where Reading was recorded singing If I Were A Bell in 1961.

I was inspired by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and other American jazz singers. I didn’t have mentors but worked every job I could and observed.
Queensland Indigenous Art Fair, Q&A with Wilma Reading, July 2011

In an era when Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were not citizens (until 1968) and were under curfew after sunset in most states, Reading was often described as Polynesian.

Wilma Reading on stage with Duke Ellington, mid-1960s, promotional image.

Never-the-less, Reading toured to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo and Manila, where she met her husband Ray Lehr, a member of an old American circus family, who was a show-business agent. ABC Agency in America then picked her up to perform her show in Los Vegas alongside Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Dean Martin. Reading had a residency at New York's Copacabana nightclub, and toured with Duke Ellington as well as performing for US troops in Vietnam.

In London, in 1973, she took over from Cleo Lane in a West End production of Showboat (begun in 1971) about a mixed-race singer who is sacked because of her race. The musical Showboat was originally a Broadway hit in 1927, with one of its signature tunes and finale Ol' Man River made famous by Paul Robeson in 1936.

A voice that leapt vertically

Reading’s voice and stage presence had to be commanding; she had to standout from 56 other actors, singers and dancers on stage and a 28-piece orchestra. When she auditioned for Showboat, Reading recalled

I took it on the full throat without the mike and let the balcony bounce it back. I gave it my full range.

Wilma Reading, album cover. Courtesy of the ABC.

Reading’s unique voice not only has range but is elastic, buoyant, full of life and with an ability to scat over and above the show tunes. These qualities are shown to effect singing To the ends of the Earth, If Ever You're Lonely, and We two can have a party. In 1973 her voice was described as

Three ‘normal’ octaves from mid-contralto up through the mezzo range into soprano, and on top of that a freakish falsetto octave that leaps vertically, dizzily, like a lark released from a cage. It is a voice of splendid resonance tempered by rare sensitivity ... Wilma brings the house down.
Larry Boys, Can’t Help Loving that Gal from Cairns, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 6 June 1973

Reading recorded an LP at the EMI studios on Abbey Road, a self-titled album in 1976 and another, On Fire as well as released numerous singles. Reading performed with the national orchestras of Belgium, Holland, Iceland, and Germany and toured with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, before returning to teach music in Cairns. In 2007 she released the album Now You See Me.

Johnny Nicol – smooth jazz, soul sound and funk feel

Johnny Nicol (b. 1938) is recognised as one of the finest jazz singer-guitarists in Australia. Nicol was born in Ayr, Far North Queensland as one of nine children where music was part of family gatherings, around an upright piano played by his sisters.

Johnny Nicol, promotional image. Courtesy of Deadly Vibe.

Nicol was influenced by the African American soldiers that the family hosted during the Second World War, who would play ‘boogie woogie'. Nicol escaped his first job shovelling salt when he left for Sydney and met fellow musicians at Bill McConnell's boxing gym in Redfern.

Nicol first played and recorded with a group called the Māori Troubadours, beginning in 1958 and continuing well into the 1960s with Nicol performing as Johnny Kealoah. It was during this time that he learned the craft of entertaining.

Following this Nicol played overseas in Las Vegas,Miami, the Bahamas and throughout Europe and the UK before returning to Australia in 1969. Nicol described some of his experiences:

Working in Vegas was absolutely a highlight because that’s the entertainment capital of the world. You’re out amongst the best, and mixing with the top entertainers. I recall once hearing Sarah Vaughn warming up before a show. Meeting Bob Hope at Pips International in Woolloomooloo was another great moment and opening a show for Benny Goodman, at the Hordern Pavilion in the 70’s was fantastic.
Johnny Nicol in An Australian jazz legend’s journey, Deadly Vibe, 24 May 2013.

Johnny Nicol, Touch of Blue album cover, 1975.

Solo albums and original compositions – Australian jazz gems

Nicol composed the tune What's The Use, on an album by Col Nolan's Soul Syndicate. The song was released as a single and reissued in the same format by Melbourne's Votary record label. Nicol’s first solo album Touch Of Blue (Philips, 1975) is regarded as an underrated Australian jazz gem. A quintet of Nicol (vocals and guitar), Don Burrows (flute), Chuck Yates (electric piano), Ed Gaston (bass) and Laurie Thompson (drums), play some covers as well as Nicol original compositions.

Nicol's sultry tones… a vocal lounge jazz… style with seeming effortlessness…The scatting vocals on the album's title number are reminiscent of Nicol's recordings with Col Nolan. A nice warm bass sound and funky drums provide a great foundation for Nicol's floating voice and Yates' Rhodes soloing. ….Time Is Running Out opens with flourishes of Rhodes and the warmth of Gaston's Fender Bass…the bridge brings it back to the mysteriousness of the opening sequence throughout the song.

Traces (Hunter, 1979), which includes the tune Regrets, has a soul sound with a funk feel.

The other Nicol-penned tune on here is an instrumental. Goin' My Way is a laid-back breezy Latin-jazz number that allows the guitar playing to shine as it well should.
D J Kinetic, Johnny Nicol,2012

Since his two vinyl records, Nicol has recorded four solo albums, two CDs and a DVD. In the 1980s Nicol was one of the star attractions at the Don Burrows Supper Club at the Regent Hotel Sydney. In 1989 Nicol was nominated for the Mo Award as an entertainer, the inaugural Ricky May Jazz Award, and the Artists and Performing Rights Award for the best Australian composition for his song on the album of the same name, Where the Love Is (1987) with Larrikin Records.

In 1990 Nicol returned to far north Queensland to host The Johnny Nicol Supper Club at the Radisson Plaza Hotel, Cairns.

The Sapphires – soul music from Cummeragunja to Saigon

The Sapphires original line-up with Laurel Robinson, left, Naomi Mayers and Beverley Briggs, 1960s, image by Adam Hollingworth.

The Sapphires were the first popular Aboriginal all-female group who began public performances in the 1960s around Melbourne playing cabaret clubs and other venues doing soul songs from the Supremes. The group consisted of Laurel Robinson, Beverly Briggs, Naomi Mayer (all cousins), with Laurel’s sister Lois Peeler joining later. Known for their exceptionally rich soul like harmonies, the Sapphires charmed and sung their way to the heart of Australian popular music history.

They were from Cummeragunja Mission, (like singer Jimmy Little, athletic star, theatre producer and advocate Doug Nichols) and inherited the YortaYorta vocal tradition. Robinson's church group in Fitzroy, Melbourne with Pastor Uncle Doug Nicol at the helm, would invite African American musicians who were visiting Australia to play for them at the church. The Sapphires early inspirations were from performers Like Winifred Atwell, Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte.

An international dialogue

They found soul music from a Māori band they backed in St Kilda

We were taught by the New Zealand Māori band that we went over with to Vietnam. They taught us how to sing and the breathing ... and they loved our harmonies.
Laurel Robinson in Maori-Mentored, Soul-Singing Mom Inspired The Sapphires, NPR, 23 March 2013)

The Sapphires members Laurel Robinson, left and her sister Lois Peeler as part of The Sapphires in the mid-1960s ready to tour South East Asia, promotional image

Two of the members, Robinson and Peeler, went to Vietnam to perform for the troops during the Vietnam War (1962-1975). They sometimes had to sleep on the stage when they were refused accommodation because of their colour. They not only went to Vietnam but to the Philippines and Singapore. In the 1970s they performed around Melbourne. The three original members, Robinson, Briggs and Mayer, now work at the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, Sydney.

Their combined experiences of performing in Vietnam and South East Asia were the basis of the play, The Sapphires (2004) which picked up a Helpmann award in 2005 for Best Play, initially with Ursula Yovich in the cast and then with a production by the Black Swan Theatre Company in 2010, starring Deborah Mailman, Christine Anu and Casey Donovan. The script by Tony Briggs became the basis for the movie The Sapphires filmed by cinematographer Warick Thornton.

The US distribution has created controversy as the film is promoted with an image of the fictional white band manager singing and the Sapphires blended into the background, which is not representative of the movie or their experiences.

Christine Anu – pop diva with soul and effervescence

Christine Anu performing in Rewind (The Aretha Franklin Songbook), 2012, promotional image.

The pop artist Christine Anu was swept into the limelight with the hit anthem single >My Island Home in 1995, penned by Neil Murray of Warumpi Band when Anu was performing with the Warumpi as a backing singer. Since then, Anu has become one of Australia’s most popular recording artists across a variety of music.

Anu was born in Cairns, Queensland to Torres Strait Islander parents from Saibai and Mabuiag Islands. As she was growing up, she lived with her five brothers and sisters and seventeen cousins in one house before moving to Sydney.

Originally Anu started as a backing dancer and singer with the band Rainmakers in 1992–93. Her album Stylin Up, which featured her slightly changed version of My Island Home, went to Platinum status in 1995. Anu won the ARIA for Best Female Recording Artist and a Deadly Award for Best Female Artist in 1996. She has gone on to release eight albums with Warner and sang My Island Home at the closing of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. An ABC documentary, Salt Water Soul was made about her life.

Immediately recognisable for her smooth sweet luscious voice, Christine Anu makes any pop song shine with soul and effervescence. Anu sings KulbaYaday in language with sister Helen Anu on her album Intimate and Deadly (2010) and this is also featured on Party. Anu’s resonance invites you to share in the calming, healing and proud reclamation of her language as well as enjoy the surging harmonies rising above the light step of the guitar.

In 2009 Anu toured with soul sister Deni Hines. Since 2012 she has performed to rave reviews as a solo act with a tribute to Aretha Franklin, regarded as the Queen of Soul. Anu released these songs as an album Rewind (The Aretha Franklin Songbook).

Christine conjures soulful interpretations of Aretha’s most memorable songs including the signature tunes Respect and Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel), as well as Chain of Fools and many other legendary classics like Today I Sing the Blues. Fans ... will enjoy seeing Christine perform songs that made her the diva that she is today.
Christine Any presents Rewind: the Aretha Franklin Songbook, Monthly Imag, Central Coast, 23 January 2014

Emma Donovan – a rich and nurturing sound from the ground

Emma Donovan with Black Arm Band, London, promotional image by Claudia Sangiorgi.

Emma Donovan (born 1981) is a member of a musical family from northern NSW. She started her singing career at age seven with her uncle's band, The Donovans. In 2000, she became a founding member of Stiff Gins, leaving the band three years later to release the solo album Changes in 2004.

Although she has stated she is proud of her Naaguja, Yamatji, and Danggali tribal heritage, Donovan most frequently expresses her Gumbaynggirr heritage from her mother, Agnes Donovan, in her music, often singing in the traditional language. This language area centres around the mid north coast of NSW, north of the Nambucca River to the Clarence.

Donovan performed at the opening of the 2004 Olympic Torch Relay and was the subject of the 2005 SBS TV documentary Emma Donovan: Gumbainggir Lady. She performs with The Black Arm Band, and released a solo EP, Ngaaraanga, in 2009. In 2013, Donovan joined the Barefoot Divas.

The Briscoe Sisters – roots soul-funk, R&B and gospel

The Briscoe Sisters are a very talented group of three sisters who sing three part harmonies and write their own songs. From their country of KukiYalanji in Far North Queensland, the sisters sang around the piano, in chapel and then went on to perform across Australia.

The Briscoe Sisters, promotional image for EP Check it Out

The Briscoe Sisters' original music is engaging rootsy soul-funk, R&B and gospel tinged with heavenly harmonies. Their song, Lonely Souls tells of broken hearts as well as the heartening rhythm of their lives. Their song Wanju, sung with language words has breathy scatting that merges with gospel. The harmonies transcend and float above the rootsyfolk feel of the guitar. Their debut EP, Check it Out, with its signature song, laments in high contralto about the doubtful and dumped lover they don’t need any more.

The Briscoe Sisters were voted Most Promising New Talent at the Deadly Awards in 2004, and the following year received the Port Fairy Folk Festival award for Maton’s Young Talent of the Year. In 2006 they recorded Live @ The Tanks, and went on to play before reggae artist Jimmy Cliff at WOMADelaide.

Deline Briscoe - roots, soul, gospel and tear-jerking ballads

Deline Briscoe is a singer-songwriter, a member of the Briscoe Sisters, who now calls Melbourne home. Her songs are a mix of roots, soul, gospel and tear-jerking ballads.

She collaborated with producer Airileke Ingram (Drum Drum, co-founder of the WantokMusik Foundation with David Bridie, and Grrilla Step) for her latest album and sang harmonies with Emma Donavon as part of the Bart Willoughby Band for his album Proud (2013), also produced by Airi Ingram. Deline Briscoe performs with the Black Arm Band and sings harmonies with Sol Nation, which mixes reggae, samba, funk, salsa, East Timorese folksong and African dance music with Cairns tropical rhythm, and tours internationally.

Crossing Roper Bar – jazz + traditional song cycles

Crossing Roper Bar, album cover

Crossing Roper Bar is an endeavor between Young Wagilak Group (comprising Benjamin, Daniel and Roy Wilfred from Ngukurr in Arnhem Land) and the Australian Art Orchestra (AAO) to bring together traditional Aboriginal music (Manikay Song Cycles) and Western Art music. There has been a regular exchange of ideas, from the old to the new, between the participants since 2005, when Paul Grabowski and other members of the AAO visited Ngukurr.

From the primordial songs coming from the earth itself, to the abstract versatility of a jazz ensemble, the Crossing Roper Bar project weaves together these traditions in a sublime auditory fashion.

After extensive national tours, they toured Europe in 2012, playing at the London Jazz Festival, Cambridge in the UK and in Paris at the >Musee De Quai, Branly.

the indigenous singing is awash with throaty overtones and fluttering harmonics that are like electronica freed from the rigidity of fixed keys and pre-set loops. Furthermore the bilma – clapstick – has a percussive sharpness that progressive dance music producers would die for.
Kevin Le Gendre, Jazzwise Magazine, 2012

Crossing Roper Bar won one of the 2011 Bell Jazz Awards and continues to tour nationally.

Jessica Mauboy – pop, R&B and hip hop but born to sing soul

Jessica Mauboy on stage at the Deadly Awards, 2012, Courtesy of Deadly Vibe

Jessica Mauboy is a brilliant young singer from Darwin. Mauboy's debut album, Been Waiting, was described as ‘a blend of electro beats, heartfelt pop tunes and R&B bass lines’. Her topics are mainly about family issues, love and friendship as well as the empowerment of women.

Mauboy grew up singing in a church choir, and was surrounded by her mother singing and her Timorese father playing guitar. After she won first prize at the Tamworth Country Music Festival in 2004 at the age of 14 years old, Mauboy won a trip to Sydney to record with Sony. Two years later Mauboy was runner up in the national Australian Idol competition and signed again with Sony.

Mauboy has gone on to achieve six Platinum and three Gold record awards. Her debut album Been Waiting (2008) was given rave reviews and was followed by Get ‘Em Girls in 2010. She starred in the movies The Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae.

Singing What a Man, I Can’t Help Myself or Gotcha, Mauboy is seen as a young diva with unique vocal quality and range. She sings with soul, warmth, feeling and beauty in her voice. After the movie premiere of The Sapphires, commentators wrote that she was born to sing soul.

Ursula Yovich – the Magpie Blues

Ursula Yovich was born in north west Arnhem Land. Since 2008, she has performed her own cabaret show, the Magpie Blues, singing pop, blues and soul, and singing songs like Over the Rainbow in language and English.

Yovich has a glorious voice - rich, clear and genuinely soulful … As a singer, Yovich is captivating in ballad mode, her emotions so real and present that they occasionally fill her eyes. She is also a gifted songwriter…., the classic Over the Rainbow is a perfect choice for the show's conclusion, echoing both the yearning that defined much of Yovich's childhood, and the promise that dreams can come true.
Jessica Nicholas, Ursula Yovich: Magpie Blues, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 October 13, 2010

Fusion and collaboration

The Black Arm Band

The Black Arm Band is a collaboration of Australia’s top Indigenous and other jazz musicians, amongst others. Members come from all over the country and have diverse musical backgrounds.

Black Arm Band members, Deline Briscoe, Emma Donovan, and Lou Bennett performing Dirtsong at the 2013 Art Music Awards.

The Black Arm Band debuted at the 2006 Melbourne International Arts Festival and has since played around Australia and internationally in the USA and London. Musical director is Steven Richardson and vocals direction is from Lou Bennett. In 2009, a collection of songs from Ruby Hunter, Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody, Neil Murray, and Shane Howard were melded with original compositions by the featured female vocalists Lou Bennett, Shellie Morris, Emma Donovan and Deline Briscoe and presented as 'Dirtsong'.

One of their latest projects ‘Ngangwurra Means Heart’ is done in collaboration with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Some of the emerging performers featured are singers Lou Bennett, Deline Briscoe, Emma Donovan and Mindy Kwanten, internationally recognised Yidaki player Mark Atkins, contemporary dancer and violinist Eric Avery, and country and blues guitarist Lee Morgan.

The Barefoot Divas

The Barefoot Divas from left, Merenia, Whirimako Black, Emma Donovan, Ursula Yovich, Maisey Rika and Ngaiire, promotional image for USA tour, image by Bindi Cole.

The Barefoot Divas members Ursula Yovich (Serbia/Burarra), Emma Donovan (Gumbaynggirr NSW), Whirimako Black (Māori), Maisey Rika (Māori), Merenia (Māori/Roma/Gypsy) and Ngaiire (Papua New Guinea) perform together in a powerful symbolic musical collaboration.

The Divas perform a combination of original compositions in Aboriginal language and a fusion of English and Māori (Te Reo) lyrics. Styles swing between reggae, roots, jazz, R&B and Latin infused soul. Their songs showcase six part harmonies and the remarkable voices of the troupe.

Since their performance of Walk A Mile In My Shoes (written by Alanah Valentine) at the Sydney Festival in 2012, the Barefoot Divas have played to packed houses in North America and Canada on their 2014 tour where they received standing ovations for every single performance.

Barefoot Divas is a truly illuminating, heart-warming, spine-tingling experience that will resonate for audiences of all walks of life. The voices are exquisite and the unique qualities all six women possess are powerfully combined in performances that are a tour de force.
Miriam Corowra, ABC TV NEWS 24 in Barefoot Divas, Reviews

In all its expressions, Indigenous jazz, blues and soul has captured the heart, challenged the mind, and enraptured audiences. It has taken courage, vision and belief in Indigenous identity and culture and has taken audiences to mysterious places, as well as nurtured and given balm to the soul from the earth from whence the singers came.

Useful Links

Look, Listen and Play

Singers and musicians

Listings of Indigenous performers

Awards, foundations and distribution

Indigenous and other select festivals

Print References for further reading

  • Marcus Breen, Our Place Our Music, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989
  • Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia, UNSW Press, 2004
  • C J Ellis, M Brunton and L M Barwick, 'From Dreaming Rock to Reggae Rock', in McCredie, A.D (ed), From Colonel Light into the Footlights, 1988
  • Jeremy Beckett, Torres Strait Island Music in S. Kleinert and M Neale, Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Oxford University Press, 2000
  • John Ramsland and Christopher Gerald Mooney, Remembering Aboriginal Heroes; Struggle, Identity and the Media, 2006
  • Clinton Walker, Country Man. Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Pluto Press, 2000

Creators: Kathryn Wells
Last Updated: April 2014

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