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Indigenous music – saltwater freshwater

Yothu Yindi

Yothu Yindi, promotional image for their song, Treaty (1989)

Saltwater Freshwater music describes the Indigenous music in the saltwater and freshwater communities, from the Torres Strait via the tidal mangrove delta and river areas of the Northern Territory, to the west Kimberley and Broome.

This is often a mix of contemporary music styles along with Yolngu and other traditional song and music traditions. At times, saltwater freshwater music is deliberately presented as a mix of different peoples’ music in the coming together of different cultures to create a common understanding about Indigenous culture.

Early on, in Arnhem Land, from Elcho Island, there was Soft Sands, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu formed the Saltwater Band and then Yothu Yindi formed.The lead singer of Yothu Yindi, Mandawuy Yunupingu was a Gumatj man who grew up at Yirrkala, explains the significance of this mix of music

This is Yirrkala, which means 'fresh water meets the salt water'. The brackish water – the mixture of the salt and the fresh water – is where the philosophy and the way in which Aboriginal people – Yolngu people – of this country understand the mixture of life.
Mandawuy Yunupingu, interview on George Negus Tonight, ABC Television, 8 July 2004

After sitting around a campfire at Barunga Festival in 1988 with then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, discussing the idea of a treaty with Indigenous Australians, Mandawuy Yunupingu was playing chords on his guitar and started to write the song Treaty. The song Treaty (1989) became a world-wide hit, creating an understanding of Aboriginal music, language and thinking for different nationalities as well as the Australian music public. For many Australians, in this new music language,

…there was a profound thrill in hearing the freshly constituted sounds of new Indigenous music in coexistence with the ancient.
Marcus Breen, Our Place. Our Music. Aboriginal music: Australian Popular Music, AIATSIS Press, 1989, 2007
Pigram Brothers on the sands

Pigram Brothers on the sands at Roebuck Bay, 2012

As more Indigenous people record music about their stories and experiences in their own languages as well as English, they reaffirm their relationships to that place and their belonging to country as well as their identity.

As a statement in claiming her identity (after she was removed from her family), Shellie Morris, working with fellow Yanawa women, has produced a body of work of traditional Yanawa songs as well as recording in Marra, Garrwa and Gurdanji languages. The award winning material has been performed at the Sydney Opera House and in London.

By creating a body of songs over a period of time, places and histories have been re-made and become known again by their original names and stories. The histories and experiences of those places are re-told and become known to a wide audience. This is as true for the song Arnhem Land Lullaby performed by Soft Sands, Yolngu Boy and Djapana from Yothu Yindi, as it is for Kerrianne Cox singing Beagle Bay Dreaming and the Pigrim Brothers of Broome who found fame with their albums Saltwater Country (1997) as well as Under The Mango Tree (2006).

Yanawa Songwomen

Yanawa Songwomen, promotional image

If you were to travel across northern Australia listening to Indigenous music you would be able to recognise the change in style and sound from one area to another.Each place has its own distinct music tradition – whether the vocal traditions and drums of the Torres Strait through to the distinct sound of the didgeridoo in Arnhem Land. The sound of this instrument was brought to the world’s attention in the 1960s by David Blanasi from south-west Arnhem Land and used by Yothu Yindi to great effect.The sounds change as you move through the Kimberley song traditions to the swaying rhythms and sunny saltwater sounds of Broome vocals.

In other areas of Australia, local Aboriginal styles have been fused with many contemporary music types such as rock, roots, hip hop, jazz, and indie music. This fusion has created new fresh sounds and styles such as desert rock, Indigenous country music, jazz, soul and blues crossed with island sounds and survival swing bands and the survival ballads of the south, born from both Negro plantation songs and Indigenous traditional song structures.

The success of Saltwater Freshwater music has influenced the development of Indigenous festivals such as the Thursday Island Cultural Festival 2010 Winds of Zanadth and the annual Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures at Yirrkala which highlight the sources from which Indigenous culture is drawn. Both the Buranga Festival at Bamyili, south of Katherine, and the Stompen Ground Festival, Broome promote the diversity of Indigenous music. Festivals are part of a connected geography which exposes musicians to different audiences, and commercial interests. Festivals reinforce the tradition of gathering for music as part of ceremony, to eat, dance and exchange songs.

Aboriginal traditional music – early recordings

Songs of the Tiwi album cover

Songs of the Tiwi, Aboriginal Artists Agency, 1978, album cover

Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander music was and is defined by the essential role it plays within the life of the community. In Arnhem Land for instance, Manikay is the traditional music song form of the Yolgnu people and is related to the telling of stories of Ancestral spirits which teaches and informs the communities about such things as social law, history, plants, and animals.

Different styles of Indigenous music emerged from particular places and histories. Distinctive ancestral instruments included the didgeridoo and clap sticks, played in Arnhem Land and across to the Kimberley. In central Australia mulga boomerangs were clapped. In the southern states rolled up possum drums created sensuous sounds that became adaptable to soul.

Other distinct musical traditions include the Tiwi Islanders’ lack of didgeridoo or clap sticks use, being distinct from the mainland traditions. The Torres Strait Islanders tradition had three-part harmony vocals with beats added by the use of the hour glass or waisted drum as in use in parts of Melanesia, whose rhythms and sounds were later reflected in jazz and blues singing.

Traditional music recordings with record sales 1960s – 1970s

David Blanasi and Djoli Laiwanga, Bamyili Corroboree: Songs of Djoli Laiwanga, Grevillea Records, 1976, album cover

The first commercially available long playing (LP) recording of Australian Aboriginal music, Tribal Music of Australia was recorded with notes by AP Elkin and released by Folkways Records in 1953. It consists of field recordings made from 1949 to 1952. Songs from the Northern Territory Volume 5 from EMI Australia (1964) were field recordings by Alice Moyle of ‘camp and corroboree singing by Aboriginal men, women and children’ made in 1962 and 1963 at Roper River, Rose River, Beswick, Milingimbi, and Darwin.

This was followed by a second album from Folkways, Songs of the Aborigines (1963–64). Other publishers released recordings including Native chants, songs and dances recorded in Arnhem Land from Capitol Records, and Bamyili Corroboree: Songs of Djoli Laiwanga from Grevillea Records. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies released Songs From Arnhem Land in 1966, recorded by Les Hiatt in 1958-1960.

The first recordings of traditional music in the 1960s that were available on commercial record labels found an audience fascinated and drawn to listen to these new but ancient sounds. To those hearing traditional Indigenous music for the first time it became a transcendent experience. Listeners allowed their senses to be washed over by the rhythm and vocal choruses of this music and found it mesmerising.

In the late 1960s, W & G Records released Elcho Island Junior Choir, which had formed in 1965 and performed in eisteddfods in Darwin and also toured to WA. One song in the Gupapuyngu language is recorded. George Rrurrambu, later of Warumpi band fame and other musicians can be seen on the front cover.

In 1973, Ure Smith released two LP records of Aboriginal songs recorded in the field. They included recordings by Trevor Jones, Ronald Berndt and Alice Moyle. Field recording locations include Yirrkala, Elcho Island, Goulburn Island, Bamyili, Groote Eylandt and Rose River. The album was issued with a book of the same title and a folder of 25 colour slides. Larrikin Records released Wandjuk Marika in Port Moresby - Didjeridu Solo in 1977. The Songs of the Tiwi was released in 1978.

Land of the Morning Star album cover

The Land of the Morning Star, HMV, c. 1963, album cover

The Land of the Morning Star

The Land of the Morning Star: Songs and Music of Arnhem Land was released by His Master's Voice in around 1963. In 1962, Sandra LeBrun Holmes and her husband, filmmaker Cecil Holmes, travelled to Milingimbi to film and record. 

More than a decade later, American astronomer Carl Sagan was instrumental in selecting these songs to be recorded on a golden record and placed on the NASA spacecraft Voyager. 

Holmes noted how people would come to visit her after the day’s work was over

During such evenings … I recorded a number of beautiful songs, didjeridu solos and stories from the men. One man named Mudpo was a virtuoso on the didjeridu, able to make the sounds of birds at the same time as the wonderful resonant music rolled on uninterrupted. There were fast songs and slow, ghostly music about morkois (ghosts). These men were masters of the instrument. It was the best music I had ever heard, in the true classical, ceremonial tradition.
Alice Gorman, Beyond the morning star: the real tale of Voyagers' Aboriginal ;music, The Conversation, 3 October 2013

Morning Star is described as a clan song (manikay) relating to the Barnumbirr morning star ceremonies. Such songs were not unlike title deeds, expressing the relationship of families or clans to areas of land through the ancestral spirits. The ceremonies are about the journey of the souls of the dead to the land of the morning star.

David Blanasi and the White Cockatoo Performing Group

David Blanasi

David Blanasi Touring, arriving in London, 1967, still

David Blanasi, a Mialli man from south-east Arnhem Land, a great master of the didgeridoo, had his first television appearance in London in 1967. Blanasi toured internationally as part of a traditional dance troupe which variously included Djoli Laiwanga (a talented Aboriginal songman), and David Gulpilil (an Aboriginal dancer and actor).

David Blanasi (derived from Bylanadji) (c. 1930-c.2010) lived in south-central Arnhem Land at Wugularr and nearby Bamyili (Barunga). Blanasi and a troupe of didgeridoo players and songmen were recorded in 1961–62 by a US linguistic Dr. La Mont West. These recordings were released commercially in 1963 on a LP record Arnhem Land Popular Classics. Blanasi and his music partner, songmaster Djoli Laiwanga later co-founded the White Cockatoo Performing Group.

In 2002, the David Blanasi Tribute Album 1998–2001 was released with the White Cockatoo Performing Group with David Blanasi and Darryl Dikarrna on mago (didgeridoo) and Jack Nawilill and David Yirindilli as songmen. In 2006, Darryl Dikarrna, Blanasi's grandson, carried on this tradition with White Cockatoo, releasing a CD which offers tuition and rich listening.

Saltwater music in the Torres Strait Islands

The Mills Sisters (Thursday Island)

Mills Sisters

Rita, Ina and Cessa Mills performing as the Mills Sisters, courtesy of the ABC

The Mills Sisters is a group of three sisters from the Torres Strait Islands, Rita and twins Cessa and Ina, born on Cognet Island. Their mother was born on Mabiek. All three sang and Rita played guitar, Cessa the ukulele and Ina the tambourine. Cessa and Ina retired in 1996 and Rita continued on a solo career. Their style of music and dance is known as hula.

They started singing in the 1950s and in the 80s started to tour outside the Torres Strait performing at festivals across Australia. They performed all over the Pacific and in Europe. They recorded an album Frangipani Land in 1993. Their version of TI Blues, a song written by Seaman Dan, has been called ‘a signature tune for the Torres Strait’. They won the Red Ochre Award in 1995.

Seaman Dan – multi-cultural maritime fusion music and hula-jazz

Seaman Dan

Seaman Dan with ARIA Award 2005, courtesy of the ABC

Henry Gibson ‘Seaman’ Dan (born 1929), known universally as Seaman Dan, is a Torres Strait Islander singer-songwriter with a national and international reputation. His first recording was released in 2000 and Dan became an ARIA award winner at the age of 70. He describes his music as ‘hula-jazz’.

From when he was 16 years old, Dan worked on a trochus lugger. Seaman Dan's singing came from family, friends and associating with natural musicians in his multi-cultural maritime working life, playing in different ports. Dan’s great grandfather was from Jamaica. Dan has created a fusion of music from his own background as well as from Melanesia, North America, Africa and Polynesia based on the Thursday Island 'hula' style. He has been a regular performer at Thursday Island's local hotels with the Mills Sisters and a community musician for many years.

His album Perfect Pearl won him an ARIA Award for Best World Music Album in 2004 and in 2009, Dan won again with Sailing Home. In 2005 Dan was described as

A charismatic and consummate performer, Seaman Dan blends traditional Torres Strait Islander and pearling songs with jazz, hula and blues.
Australia Council for the Arts' 2005 Red Ochre Award Media Release

Wantok Musik Foundation

Dan’s music is produced by the Wantok Musik Foundation which aims to generate and foster various cultural exchanges between Australia and Oceania representing Indigenous and world music groups. The two artistic directors who founded Wantok in 2006 are David Bridie, seven time ARIA award winning songwriter and composer and Airileke Ingram, a Papuan Australian and one of the leading figures in Pacific music.

Other Indigenous Australians represented by the label include Frank Yamma, playing Indigenous country music. Albert David from the Torres Strait as well as Vika and Linda Bull tour with Wantok as part of Sing Sing.

Arnhem Rock Pop with some ‘sweet country’ gospel

As early as 1970, senior ceremonial leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu recorded an EP with RCA Records – The Gurindji Blues written by Ted Egan and Vincent Lingiari with an introduction by Lingiari and with The Tribal Landon as the B Side. Wandjuk Marika featured on the compilation Fourth National Aboriginal Country Music Festival in 1979.

Gurindji Blues album cover

Gurindji Blues, 1970, album cover

Contemporary music from Arnhem Land has a distinct sound as it is defined by the drone of the yirdaki (didgeridoo) that vibrates the ground underneath people’s feet, ironwood clapsticks, male voices with a mix of ‘sweet country’, gospel from the mission churches and clan music in language.

In the 1980s this was combined with rock ‘n’ roll, popular music, African American rhythm and blues, and the sounds of desert rock bands. By the 1990s, female voices could be heard on their own in acoustic folk ballads. In the 2000s jazz styles were adopted. All are underpinned by clan music and often accompanied by traditional dancing. Each clan has their hereditary song cycle, dances and designs.

Soft Sands

From Galiwinku (Elcho Island), Soft Sands was a seven member family band with electric instruments, formed in 1975. It was headed by Frank Djirrimbilbiwuy on keyboards and vocals. The band sang country, gospel and western in English and Gupapuyungi. The lead songwriter was Dick Mununggu, a senior tribal songman who wrote more than 40 original country songs. One of them was the famous Arnhem Land Lullaby, co-authored and recorded by Ted Egan. The band won awards in Tamworth, toured for years to Central Australia, and were the first Aboriginal band to tour overseas — to the USA and Canada. They recorded a self-titled album in 1990.

The cassette Soft Sands (CAAMA) ends with two songs written and sung by Mununggu, in country-gospel form but with his vocal line and style strikingly reminiscent of Arnhem Land tribal singing, a unique sound.
Marcus Breen, p. 50

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu – singing in language, fused with gospel, soul and folk

Gurrumul Yunupingu

Gurrumul Yunupingu, courtesy of NIMA

Gurrumul of the Gumatj clan of the Yolgnu people was born blind in 1970 and lives on Galiwinku (Elcho Island), off shore from Arnhem Land. He was part of Yothu Yindi early in his career as well as the Saltwater Band. In 2008 his captivating first solo release Gurrumul was released to rave reviews.

I write songs that are part of my clan or my name, my country, my totem or traditional stories that are connected to me. I like singing about the story properly, singing all the right names of land, and ancestors, because I have to give out the right story. It is like a celebration.

In 2008 Gurrumul won numerous awards, such as the ARIA award for Best Independent Artist and Best World Music Release and also three Deadly Awards. In 2012 he sang for the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee concert in London. His recent album, RRAKALA won the 2011 Best Roots and Blues Independent Album for the Australian Independent Record Label Association.

Yothu Yindi – rock with manikay vocals, dance, clapsticks and yirdaki

Yothu Yindi with lead singer Mandawuy Yunupingu

Yothu Yindi with lead singer Mandawuy Yunupingu in concert, courtesy of Yothu Yindi Foundation, published with permission from his family

Yothu Yindi (meaning the child mother relationship underpinning clan structure) is a prominent band from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. It formed in 1986 with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal (Ballanda) band members.

Yolngu members including Mandawuy Yunipingu, his nephew Gurrumul Yunupingu and Milkayngu Mununggurr on yidaki, joined with the Swamp Jockeys: Stuart Kellaway and Cal Williams (guitars), and Andrew Belletty on drums as Yothu Yindi. By 1988 they had toured Australia and the USA with Midnight Oil.

At the encouragement of Soft Sands, the single Djapana (Sunset Dreaming), written by the lead singer Mandawuy Yunupingu (1956–2013), was recorded as part of an album Homeland Movement, when they signed to Mushroom Records in 1989. In 1992, their album Tribal Voice peaked at Number 3 on the Billboard Top World Music Albums chart.

The hit song Treaty was released in the USA and then in Australia, peaking at Number 11 on the ARIA singles charts and staying in the top 50 for 20 weeks. Treaty was Song of the Year and in May 2001 it was listed in the APRA (Australasian Performing Right Association) Top 30 Australian songs of all time. Treaty is listed in the National Registry of Recorded Sound collection.

Tribal Voice album cover

Yothu Yindi. Tribal Voice, 1992, album cover

Yothu Yindi captivated audiences worldwide with a mix of contemporary styles, especially rock music, and rare Yolngu traditions in song and dance for over two decades. Three yirdaki players and ironwood clap sticks, along with guitar, keyboard and traditional vocals created a fresh sound. Overall there were six studio albums, around 80 songs and 13 music videos. They toured Australia, North America, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong.

Yothu Yindi performed a wonderfully exciting and visceral blend of rock, pop and traditional music that provided brilliant and profound anthems of their times.

Members have included leader Mandawuy Yunupingu (Australian of the Year in 1993), song writer, guitar and vocals; Stuart Kellaway and Cal Williams – guitars,and Andrew Belletty then Ben Haikalitz on drums. Yirdaki, bilma (ironwood clapsticks), manikay traditional vocals and dance are provided variously by Witiyana Marika, Milkayngu Mununggurr, Nicky Yunupingu and Gapanbulu Yunupingu.

Mandawuy Yunupingu AC

Mandawuy Yunupingu at GARMA

Mandawuy Yunupingu and Yothu Yindi Band, Garma Festival, c 2009, courtesy or the YothuYindi Foundation, published with permission from his family

Mandawuy Yunupingu was a member of the Gumatj clan, speaking the Dhuwa language, which is one of the 16 language-speaking clan groups in the Yirrkala area, a descendent of tribal leaders who were artists, political leaders, singers and dancers. In the 1960s, the elders sent a Bark Petition to the Federal Government about the proposed bauxite mining at Gove which precipitated a Royal Commission and eventually, the formulation of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976.

In 1985, while studying education, Mandawuy Yunupingu wrote the songs Mainstream, Yolngu Boy and Djapana (Sunset Dreaming), making a decision to combine western contemporary music, especially rock, with the Yolngu traditions, reflecting his experience in ‘two ways’ education. In an interview, he reflected that both freshwater and saltwater have their knowledge factors but are joined together to create an understanding

we join these two together. And the knowledge factors that we sing about is also law, is also our basis in religion, is also our basis in art and music and dance. So these two elements come together. They form that oneness. The ebb and flow comes together.
Mandawuy Yunupingu, interview on George Negus Tonight, ABC Television, 8 July 2004
Mandawuy Yunupingu

Mandawuy Yunupingu, courtesy of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, published with permission from his family

In 1986, Mandawuy Yunupingu completed his training in education through Batchelor College and Deakin University to become principal of Yirrkala school in 1987, implementing and influencing education practice to adopt ‘two ways’ education. Singer songwriter Paul Kelly described him as the symbol of balance, like freshwater saltwater, the duality of Australia.

In 1990, Mandawuy Yunupingu helped established the Yothu Yindi Foundation to promote Yolngu cultural development, including from 1999 producing the annual Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures featuring large ceremonial song and dance performances and, from May 2007 running the Dilthan Yolngunha (Healing Place).

In 2014 he was recognised as a Companion of the Order of Australia for ‘for eminent service to the performing arts as a musician and songwriter, to the advancement of education and social justice for Indigenous people, and as an advocate for cultural exchange and understanding’.

Shellie Morris, a singer – songwriter working with Yanuwa Songwomen

Shellie Morris

Shellie Morris at the Deadly Awards 2012, still, courtesy of the Deadly Awards

Shellie Morris is a contemporary singer/musician based in the Northern Territory whose grandmother was taken away from her Yanuwa family in Borroloola, south east of Arnhem Land. Morris plays a mix of contemporary folk music and contemporary acoustic ballads fused with her traditional Indigenous song structures.

Morris works with Indigenous communities and youth throughout Australia to write music about their stories and experiences. In 2011, Morris worked with Yanuwa Songwomen on the west side of the Gulf of Carpentaria, to record traditional Yanuwa songs. The project won the 2012 National Indigenous Music Award for Traditional Music, and the Yanuwa women were the opening act for the Deadly Awards at the Sydney Opera House. In the same year Morris toured to London with the Black Arm Band for the Cultural Olympiad.

In 2013, she released a song album NgambalaWiji Li-Wunungu — Together We are Strong, on ABC music with songs in several indigenous languages: Yanyuwa, Marra, Garrwa and Gurdanji.

Recording studios

Since the 1980s, these distinct styles of music have become accessible to a wide music audience due to the development of sound recording studios established by Indigenous organisations. Studios such as Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) in Adelaide, Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) in Alice Springs, Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Media Association (TAIMA) and 4K1G in Cairns, Goolarri Media Enterprises in Broome, Skinnyfish Music in Darwin and the Wantok Musik Foundation started releasing recordings of Indigenous music to mainstream outlets.

These studios, along with Larrikin Records, one of the few recording companies who have maintained a separate Indigenous catalogue as part of their commercial output, have nourished the local sounds through support for the local music, musicians and cultural practice.

Michael Hohnen producer and Skinnyfish Music, Darwin

Barunga Festival

Barunga Festival, promotional image

None of the Arnhem sound would have been heard without Michael Hohnen who visited Elcho Island in 1996 to run a music course. He encouraged the Yolngu musicians to be serious about their music and to think more like serious musicians. Hohnen went on to produce Yunupingu's extraordinary album, Gurrumul.

In 1995 Hohnen established Skinnyfish Music with Mark Grose in Darwin to promote and advance Indigenous music and creativity. They helped to produce such artists as Gurrumul, The Saltwater Band, Wildflower, Nabarlek and Ali Mills to name just a few. They also run the Buranga Festival at Bamyili, south of Katherine each year for Indigenous musicians.

Broome sound – red dirt country meets cockle shells

Pigram Brothers

Pigram Brothers, promotional image

Broome, Western Australia is a hub for Aboriginal music and culture in the West Kimberley. Broome sound has been described as

a bright and breezy mixture of styles with a little bit of reggae, a lot of sunny sounds that seem to echo the music of the Caribbean, some hints of country anda little bit of pure West Kimberley Indigenous.
Bruce Elder, Saltwater soundtrack, The Age, 8 March 2008

Jimmy Chi, who was responsible for the hit musical Bran Nue Dae, the Pigram Brothers and Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert, who played in a band in the 1960s called the Broome Beats, promote Indigenous music from the area through a range of concerts and festivals, such as Stompen Ground. Bran Nue Dae won the prestigious Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards in 1990. Jimmy Chi has been recognised as a Living Treasure.

Goolarri Media recording music

Since the 1980s there have been music recording facilities in Broome. Today, a local Aboriginal initiative Goolarri Media Enterprises, which started as Goolarri Radio in 1991, provides world-class recording and broadcasting facilities. In a quiet backstreet of Broome, Pearl Shell Studios, put together by the Pigrim Brothers, supports Goolarri’s music strategy and program that offers resources and distribution opportunities for local musicians.

Kuckles Band - Milliya Rumarra - Brand New Day

Jimmy Chi and Kuckles Band

Jimmy Chi and members of the Kuckles Band, still, The Story of Bran NueDae, ABC

Kuckles (Broome kriol for cockles or clam shells) were Steve Pigrim (vocals, guitar), Gary Gower (drums), Jimmy Chi (vocals and songwriter), Mick Manolis (vocals, guitar) and Patrick Bin Amat (vocals and bass guitar). They arrived as a band from Broome at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music in Adelaide in 1981.

They wrote songs about Broome lifestyle, celebrating the coastal bush tucker in Fishing and the confusion of life in Adelaide with Traffic Lights. In 1980 their songs got political with Noonkanbah Blues. Jimmy Chi’s Brand New Day was used by the Noonkanbah protestors as their theme song.

Their music moved from acoustic calypso toward an electric reggae rock style, although Jimmy Chi declares this an Aboriginal sound and not reggae. Kuckles music sound was characterised by driving rhythms and sharp guitar riffs with a distinctive light touch on drums and melody as well as some Aboriginal words in their lyrics.

Mick and Steve have picked up somewhere a melody-chord approach to fingering which is usually associated with classical and jazz stylings, rather than the open chord folk or bar chord rock fingerings which are usual with players not trained. The result is a richer harmonic texture…

They recorded Milliya Rumarra (1981) which won them a trip to Germany to the Third Annual International Cologne Song Festival before they disbanded in 1982. It was distributed by CAAMA in Alice Springs. Kuckles’ songs feature in Chi's musicals Bran Nue Dae and in Corrugation Road.

Milliya Rumarra – A brand new day (1984) was also the name of a 47 minute film that captures traditional dance and song, including performers from the West Kimberley, with the activities of urban Aboriginal performers Maureen Watson, Jack Davis and Vic Hunter at the Aboriginal Arts in Perth 83 Festival.

Scrap Metal

Scrap Metal album cover

Scrap Metal, promotional image for Broken Down Man

Scrap Metal (1983-1988) were a rock country reggae band made up of the Pigrim Brothers. The band toured nationally as part of the Bran Nue Dae musical and with Midnight Oil. Scrap Metal were the first Aboriginal band to sign an international publishing deal. They recorded four albums. An ABC TV documentary From Broome to the Big Smoke was made about them.

Their well-known uplifting ballad Broken Down Man sings of leaving home for the city life, losing your money and your woman and becoming a broken-down man. Never-the-less, the song invokes soul awakening memories of old Broome town with red dust storms and azure seas, warm smiles and bare feet, the salt air and sweet smelling frangipani flowers, a song of hope, symbolising a return to country.

Pigram Brothers – folk rock and swaying rhythms with male harmonies

Eight years later the Pigram Brothers reformed as a seven-piece folk rock country group in 1996. They call their music saltwater music. Their music evokes the sun, red dirt and the saltwater of their home town of Broome. The distinctive sound derives from the lead vocals and male harmonies.

There's no other music in the world that sounds like the Pigram Brothers - seven brothers who have been playing music together since they were children.
Richard Fidler, Pigrim Brothers, Conversations, ABC, 7 November 2013

Pigram Brothers, promotional image

The Pigrim Brothers music is made up of hypnotic swaying rhythms, eclectic instrumental dialogues and the beautiful male harmonies – contributing to a rich Broome west coast Kimberley sound.

Their first instruments were fashioned by their father. Since they formed the band they use various instruments such as a selection of various acoustic guitars, harmonica, ukulele, dulcimer, mandolin, percussion and bass. The brothers are Alan, Colin (vocals), David (vocals), Gavin, Peter, Philip (vocals) and Steven Pigram (vocals).

Their albums include Saltwater Country (1997) produced by Shane Howard of Goanna in the Pearl Shell Studio followed by Jir (2001), Under The Mango Tree (2006), as well as featuring in a DVD called Live at the Pearl Luggers, Broome (2007).

The Kimberley – saltwater freshwater

Fitzroy Xpress – a freshwater sound from the mighty Fitzroy River

Fitzroy Xpress

Fitzroy Xpress at the Karratha Studio minus band member Darren Keogh, 2013, image Andrew Collin, courtesy of the ABC

Kimberley country–rock band, Fitzroy Xpress have been playing for over 30 years from their home town of Fitzroy Crossing, with songs about life in the Kimberley. Fronted by singer songwriter Danny Marr, with family members Victor Marr and Waylon Marr and friends Alan McCarty and Daron Keogh, the music is an infectious mix of country rock-pop sometimes with a swing feel.

Fitzroy Xpress reflects the pace and lifestyle of their home community and life by the Fitzroy River, known as Mardoowarra – 'River of life'. The Fitzroy River catchment was heritage listed in 2011, in part for its unique wildlife, stunning landscape, Indigenous traditions and the significant pastoral industry history.

Their song Bunuba Girl has a languid feel, with words in English about a young woman dancing along the river, singing a tribal song about belonging to the mighty Fitzroy ranges and the river, hearing the voices of her ancestors calling her name, asking her to look after the country. Then with a choir of language in women’s voices, the song changes to bring an Indigenous tradition of country into the country song.

Home Sweet Home album cover

Fitzroy Xpress, Home Sweet Home (2005), album cover

The band’s third album Home Sweet Home won the Best Album category at the 2005 Deadly Awards. Their song and album titles offer a perspective on life in Fitzroy Crossing. Home Sweet Home reflects on how a life in the city invokes a nostalgia returning to the banks of the mighty Fitzroy River.

However, it is not all nostalgia and love of country; it is also about hard times. Their hit song Rodeo Road is loved by audiences across the state - whenever it is performed. The song has a swing country feel and talks of hitting the saddle in country where you belong, living the life of a cowboy but it is a hard life for the hero, whenever he goes on the long rodeo road, rain or shine.

Their fourth album Hard Times (2013) offers an insight into the hard work and lack of opportunity in Fitzroy Crossing. Danny Marr says the album looks at the lives of

a lot of Aboriginal people in communities, how they're all struggling and a lack of education for some of them.
Hilary Smale, Fitzroy Xpress back with a new album, ABC, 13 May, 2013

Kerrianne Cox – the sound of the sea and the red dirt at Beagle Bay

Kerrianne Cox, 2000

Kerrianne Cox, 2000, image by Penny Tweedie, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Singer songwriter Kerrianne Cox has a generous and authentic voice that draws on country, rock, soul, blues and a vocal technique that has been compared to African American singer Tracey Chapman, as she accompanies herself on guitar.

Singing about love, life and her heritage of the West Kimberley, she passes on stories and traditions from her home at Beagle Bay, north of Broome on the Dampier Peninsular. Cox's first two CDs were Just Wanna Move (1999) and Opening (2001).

From 1997 to 2003 Cox won multiple awards in Australia. From 2000 to 2003, Cox toured the United States and Canada, performing at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, the Lincoln Centre in New York, then in Portland, St. Louis and Seattle, and appearing at the Detroit Festival and the NEMO Conference in Boston. On her return she played WOMADelaide 2003.

Cox toured twice to South Africa where she performed at the Awesome Africa Festival in Durban in 2003 and in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria in 2004. She is the subject of a documentary, Trancing in Dreamtime (Fineline Productions) with the San Bushmen from the Kalahari in Botswana that was released at the Durban International Film Festival in June 2004.

Kerrianne Cox, 2013

Kerrianne Cox, 2013, courtesy of Deadly Vibe

In 2004, Cox was elected Chairperson of Beagle Bay Community and began aprogram of systemic reform after a decade of neglect. Her work in Beagle Bay has received wide recognition including a shortlisting for the National 2005 Human Rights Community (Individual) Award. In 2006 her third CD, Return to Country – about what it means to live and work from her home in the Kimberley – was released at the International Dreaming Festival in 2006.

During 2007 to 2008 Cox performed at major festivals throughout Australia and abroad and continues to perform.

Fusion and collaboration

Yothu Yindi with Paul Kelly

Yothu Yindi with Paul Kelly, Jessica Mauboy, Dan Sultan, Andrew Farriss and Peter Garrett at the ARIA Awards at the Sydney Entertainment Centre

Since 2006, fusion and collaboration between Indigenous musicians from the traditions of the mix of saltwater freshwater music have developed on a national and international scale to promote the common language of music to communicate across different cultures. The Wantok Music Foundation states

There may be different sounds, different beats, different instruments, but we are singing the same things, we are talking with a common language – with one talk.

Wantok promotes and facilitates various cultural exchanges and a greater level of economic empowerment for Melanesian and Indigenous artists and their communities.

The Black Arm Band is a collaboration of Australia’s top Indigenous artists who come from all over the country and have diverse musical backgrounds including performers Shellie Morris, Steve Pigrim and Gurrumul Yunupingu.

The Black Arm Band debuted at the 2006 Melbourne International Arts Festival and has since played around Australia and internationally in London. The Black Arm Band is a national based music organisation dedicated to Aboriginal contemporary music in all its forms. It promotes this through large-scale music theatre productions and collaborations and ongoing workshop programs in communities to use the power of music to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

The saltwater freshwater music reflects not only a musical relationship to country, spirit and identity but also the musicians’ history, education, suffering, joys, injustices, struggles, loves and their hopes for the future as part of an experience of musical fusion and collaboration. This has contributed to the unique vocal lines and styles developed by saltwater freshwater musicians appreciated the world over.

Useful Links

Look listen play


Festivals, awards, foundations and recording studios

Print references

  • Jimmy Chi, Bran NueDae, Currency Press, 1991
  • Kleinert, S.& Neale, M. (2000) Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Oxford University Press
  • Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia, UNSW Press, 2004
  • Marcus Breen, Our Place. Our Music. Aboriginal music: Australian Popular Music, AIATSIS Press, 1989, 2007
  • Brian Syron with Briann Kearney, Kicking Down the Doors: A History of Australian Indigenous Filmmakers from 1968–1993, 2007
  • Clinton Walker, Buried Country, The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Pluto Press, 2000

Creators: Kathryn Wells
Last Updated: April 2014

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