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Indigenous music – survival ballads and swing tunes of the south

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New music styles emerged from Aboriginal musicians in south eastern Australia from the 1860s. Traditional Aboriginal music fused with other music types, especially Negro spirituals and ‘plantation songs’. Aboriginal choirs and individual singers, accompanied by string and brass instruments, as well as gum leaf players who fused jazz styles, and swing bands, created fresh new sounds. In addition, the ballad form was adapted. Survival ballads can be characterised by an Aboriginal groove, with distinct intonation, creating a unique feel. Most recently this sound has also had a folk, roots, soul or rock swing feel.

Portrait of Archie Roach

Archie Roach, portrait by Terry Milligan, c. 1999, courtesy of National Library of Australia an21531384

Aboriginal protest songs,especially laments, songs about survival in and love for their own land, can be described as survival ballads. They are distinct from other ballad types in Australia such as convict, bush or folk ballads. They are sometimes sung in language, often with changes to the time and key signatures, and are sometimes syncopated.

Yesterday and today, the singing of survival ballads is often about country, as well as cultural identity and events. Singing about country and sites affirms identity. The places become the song, like The Coorong Song. Singing in language reaffirms the singers’ relationships to that place and their belonging. Singing about events also reflects on those events – whether the small pox epidemic in South Australia, the arrival of Afghan cameleers or the personal experience of racism.

Indigenous survival ballads have been an important part of reconciliation and their songwriting has become part of a healing process for all Australians. Since the 1950s, these distinct styles of Indigenous music in southern Australia have become accessible to a wide music audience due to sound recordings and commercial releases.

It has been said that the voices and music of Aboriginal singers, who recorded and toured nationally in the 1950s and 60s kept much of Australia entertained. This included Indigenous country singers like Harry Williams, Wilga Munro and Col Hardy, balladeer Jimmy Little (who recorded 30 albums), and swing rocker Vic Simms.

In this period, the southern capitals were alive with Indigenous music of many forms from George Bracken with Bruce Clarke and his Rockers in Melbourne to the regular Indigenous fund-raising concerts in Sydney from 1963 onwards.

Indigenous entertainers, NADOC celebrations, 1961

A McLeod and Jimmy Little Senior on gum leaf, accompanied by Margaret Williams on guitar in Martin Place for NADOC celebrations, 1961.

All of these singers continued to be part of fund-raising concerts for the establishment of health, welfare, medical and legal services run by their own community members. In the 1960s, this music was part of a wider national campaign for a referendum for Aborigines to be recognised as citizens in their own country. This reflected their personal experiences of growing up in sub-standard housing on missions, reserves or in shacks on the fringes of settlements.

Music was a means to not only reflect upon their life but was the means by which people could travel, tell stories and celebrate their culture. Indigenous music festivals reinforce the relationship between Indigenous music, their culture and a wide audience.

Festival circuits, like songlines, are part of a connected geography and are a connection between the two worlds. Festivals reinforce the tradition of gathering for a musical event for ceremony, to eat, dance and exchange songs.

Ballads from Ngarrindjeri to Warudjuri country – folk roots music

Photo of Jimmy Little

Jimmy Little, c. 1960

The well-known balladeer of the 1950s, Jimmy Little sang the traditional and adapted music of his father, Old Jimmy Little,and the songs of his mother, a YortaYorta woman from the Murray River. The early style of balladeering represented by Old Jimmy Little had a great deal of influence on Australian country music.

A Ngarrindjeri song women, Leila Rankine, recalled that some of this older style balladising was adopted by Slim Dusty, Reg Lindsay, Ted Egan and Chad Morgan who toured with Aboriginal singers, before the country and western ballad form became popular.

The adaption of Negro plantation songs

Aboriginal family, 1875

Ngarrindjeri fisherman and family at Point McLeay, 1875, courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

Aboriginal ballads sung by the old people in the 1940s–50s, and learnt by them as children in the 1880s and 1890s onwards, owed something to Negro ‘plantation songs’ which were adopted and adapted. Some songs were parodied and in other songs the words as well as time signatures were changed.

Some of these were handed down by Old Jimmy Little, a vaudeville entertainer who knew hundreds of songs: hymns, hillbilly songs, Tin Pan Alley, music-hall, bush ballads, Negro spirituals and traditional tribal songs.

Sometimes the Negro ballads lasted. In 1937, the Cummeragunja Choir performed the BurraPhara, the Bora Pharoah being a hymn based on an African American spiritual translated into YortaYorta in the late 1800s. Songs like Old Black Joe and Ol' Man River were recorded by Jimmy Little in 1959 on his EP Jimmy Little Sings Ballads with a Beat. These songs were widely adopted by Aboriginal communities, and were felt to be 'speaking to their hearts from the hearts of another displaced people'.

Recording and singing Ngarrindjeri songs

Photo of Milerum

Milerum known as Clarence Long, rear and H K Fry in a vehicle out on field work with Tindale, 1937, courtesy of South Australian Museum

The vocal quality of Ngarrindjeri singing was renowned. The Ngarrindjeri singers toured to Tasmania in 1910 with Dan Wilson and David Unaipon in the party. Ngarrindjeri music has always been primarily vocal with soft drums, clubs, boomerangs and lap claps providing accompaniment.

In the 1930s, renowned song man Milerum (known as Clarence Long), recorded many songs and stories on wax cylinders and flat discs with anthropologist and later Museum Director, Norman B Tindale. The two men went on many site and sound-recording expeditions together.

Point Macleay Mission choir

Point Macleay Mission choir, c1880. Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

A recurring theme in the Ngarrindjeri songs recorded from the 1930s was yearning for country and the loss of so many countrymen and women. The song Pata Winema, composed in the 1930s, sung to deal with troubled times, tells the story of the small-pox epidemic a hundred years earlier. George Spender singing his Song of the Murray Bridge in 1941, laments the bridge pylons disturbing the sacred site associated with a powerful being 'Mulyewongk '.

Some of this musical skill was transferred to gospel, glee clubs and guitars where talented people played by ear. Bessie Karpany played swing piano. In the early 1960s, Olga Fudge sang the Pelican Love Song in Ngarrindjeri. As well as singing and playing the trombone weekly in the church, Leila Rankine wrote many poems and songs including The Coorong, used by the Sydney Theatre Company in their production of Storm Boy, and was a founding member of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM), Adelaide.

Singing the land

Ngarrindjeri Language Choir

The Ngarrindjeri Language Choir singing hymns in Ngarrindjeri at the launch of the Ngarrindjeri dictionary. Source Mary-Ann Gale

It was thought that it was only when the songs were sung that the places and stories were secure. New songs such as Dorothy Shaw’s The Dreaming of a Ngarrindjeri Memini, sometimes known as the Kumarangk song, and others, have become community staples performed in land rights hearings and at inquiries.

Victor Wilson’s 1996 song Pakari Nganawi Ruwi is a prayer song for the country in a form similar to the Pekeri song, concerning totems and dreams. Since 2008, The Rritjarukar (Willy Wagtails) Choir has been active in their singing to preserve and share Ngarrindjeri language through song and dance.

James Oswald ‘Jimmy’ Little AO - country crooning gospel singer

Jimmy Little was born at Cummeragunja in 1937, the son of Old Jimmy Little, a Yuin man from the Wallaga Lake Gum Leaf Band, and a YortaYorta woman. Little learnt guitar at 13 years of age. In an interview, Jimmy Little recalled

It was a cultural tradition to excel at what your parents did because they taught you to do it. If you showed talent in other areas you could follow that as well. I did both [but] I couldn’t survive doing the kind of music my father did.
Jimmy Little – A Little Bit of Love Goes A Long, Long Way, Deadly Vibe, 30 November, 2007

Jimmy was first heard by a large audience on the Australia’s Amateur hour in 1953 before he returned to Nowra to pick beans. Two years later he returned to Sydney and started playing, releasing two recordings in October 1956. In 1957 Little sang on television station ATN when he was applauded by thousands. Soon after, an American recording company bought the rights for two of his compositions. However Jimmy Little did record many of his father’s songs.

Jimmy Little and singer Marge

Jimmy Little and singer Marge Peters in a Redfern backyard in 1957

In the early 1960s Little performed with the popular travelling Col Joye Show, touring NSW. In 1963 Little won national recognition for his religious country gospel hit Royal Telephone and went on to make over 30 albums; nearly 20 EPs and 40 singles in a career that stretched over 60 years. He cited Nat King Cole and Jim Reeves as major influences on the soft and gentle singing style that became his hallmark.

Jimmy Little’s smooth deep tenor vocals had the ability to bridge the racial divides and became legendary in uniting Australians during his life.

In 1995 he released the album YortaYorta Man, with the title track proclaiming his birth on the banks of the Murray. Little described this recording as ‘a great leap of faith’ from his first hit to returning to the songs of his father. The passing on of songs and musical tradition has extended to Jimmy Little’s niece, Deborah Cheetham, the opera singer. Cheetham has created an opera about historical incidents at Cummeragunja mission featuring the vocal tradition in chorus and stories in her work Pecan Summer.

Ballads with a Beat album cover

Jimmy Little album cover for Ballads with a Beat (1959)

Although mostly recognised for his country musical style, Little dabbled with orchestral sounds (1972) and reggae (1983). In 1999 Jimmy found wide recognition with Brendan Gallagher who produced the album Messenger, an ARIA award winning album.

With his success, he set up the Jimmy Little Foundation. As part of the Foundation’s work, Shellie Morris and a team of musicians visit remote communities and conduct music workshops with children.

Olive McGuiness and Eva Bell – harmony with original soprano ballads

Eva Bell, aged 16 years around the time of her arrival in Sydney, courtesy of the ABC and Maisie Cavanagh.

Cousins Olive McGuiness and Eva Bell were from an extended musical family on Erambie Mission in Cowra, New South Wales, where in 1937 there were musicians playing guitars, banjo, accordion, and violin. Their families left Cowra seeking employment, education and a life off the mission. They arrived in Sydney separately in their childhood and teenage years and sang together at Sunday night sing-songs.

McGuiness and Bell went on to be celebrated for their recordings and performances of original ballads composed by Grace O’Clerkin. Their beautiful harmonies complemented their individual abilities and soprano voices, which ranged over different styles.

Newtown sing-songs – Negro songs, dance tunes and original ballads, 1940s

Poet, composer and musician, Grace O’Clerkin hosted concert evenings from 1943 to 1950 at 83 Union Street, Newtown Indigenous musician friends which inspired and complemented ‘sing-songs’ in Redfern and Alexandria. Usually it was standing room only, albeit with people sitting on floors and couches, with an overflow of people listening outside the house and neighbours leaning over the fences.

For Olive and Eva, as well as others, this led to connections with musically talented Aboriginal families from Cummeragunja (on the Murray River in Victoria) to Walgett (in northern NSW) as well as a core group from Cowra.

Photo of Olive McGuiness

Olive McGuiness, around the time of her beginning to sing in Sydney. Courtesy of the ABC and Maisie Cavanagh

The musical gatherings of families in Newtown on Sundays also included Alan Saunders, from Redfern, along with brothers Claude and Harry Williams from Cowra, who sang and played guitar. Harry Williams started public performances in 1947, which was the prelude to the iconic touring group the Country Outcasts with Wilga Munroe. Alan’s sister Joan had won the Australian Amateur Hour on the 2HD radio in 1940.

Claude ‘Candy’ Williams went on to play also in the Country Outcasts, became a well-known performer in the 1960s and won a ‘Deadly’ award in 2002 for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Aboriginal Music’. Other Cowra singers included Gordon and Ted Bell.

Like the communities along the Murray River, the singers at the Newtown gatherings adapted Negro song ballads and Albert Hill performed with his ragtime band.

At the Newtown Sunday evening sing-songs, dance tunes were popular from the Cakewalk through ragtime to Irving Berlin tunes. The Cakewalk song structure ‘was the first American dance to cross over from black to white society’. By the 1890's the widely popular cakewalk, with its simple syncopation, with its emphasis on off beats, was seen as the forerunner of ragtime and jazz.

Jimmy Little signs autographs in
Martin Place

Jimmy Little signs autographs in Martin Place,1962 after his performance as part of the NADOC demonstration. Courtesy of NSW Government

Ronnie Maher (Marr) harmonised ‘with his gumleaf music rare’. The effect, according to Grace O’Clerkin was that You’d think the Ink Spots were in town’. The Ink Spots were an African American group famous for singing in a ‘catchy hotcha style’ in the 1930s. The lead singer Bill Kenny was regarded as the godfather of Doo-Wop.

In Newtown, catchy tunes and ballads like those performed by the Ink Spots were balanced with country rhythm and blues songs, and Negro blues. Cedric Nicol strummed his guitar with an ‘oom-pah-pah’ feel in 3/4 time and softly crooned Old Shep (1941), a country classic soon after performed by a young Elvis Presley.

At the same time, Merv Williams performed the Saint Louis Blues. This jazz classic has verses in the twelve-bar blues form but the bridge has a Cuban rhythm identified as tango with eighth and quarter notes, giving the song contrasting strains, similar to ragtime with a melody in the Negro spiritual tradition. Paul Robeson recorded a blues version in 1934 and Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb a swing version from the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, 1939.

La Perouse concerts, recordings and large public performances 1950s

Photo of concert at Yarra Bay

Concert at Yarra Bay in the early 1920s. Courtesy of Mrs Howe and Randwick City Council.

In the 1950s, the O’Clerkins moved to La Perouse on Yarra Bay where they held regular gatherings for informal musical concerts. There were also performances at Yarra Bay itself.

Grace O’Clerkin was a talented guitarist, poet and songwriter and she began to teach Olive McGuiness and Eva Bell a small selection of songs of her own composition, focused around belonging to country. O’Clerkin’s lyrics and compositions were supported by her extraordinary ability on steel guitar. Eva’s sister Maisie Cavanagh remembers

‘Most of La Perouse would be there – joined by the Redfern families who travelled over by tram. It was a real event.
Interview with Maisie Cavanagh, ABC Radio National, audio

Eva Bell’s repertoire included her favourite popular songs from the Ink Spots or Ella Fitzgerald, who first toured Australia as part of Lee Gordon’s The Big Show in July 1954. Ella Fitzgerald toured Australia in 1960 including a television performance on The BP Super Show, hosted by musician and entertainer Horrie Dargie in Melbourne. Fitzgerald's song style varied from ballads to swinging bebop.

Photo of Eva Bell

Eva Bell in Alexandria Park, Sydney mid-1950s. Courtesy of the ABC and Maisie Cavanagh.

In 1955 Olive McGuiness and Eva Bell performed as a duo, harmonising their sweet rich soprano voices, and made it to the 1955 national final of the Australian Amateur Hour radio show. They specialised in singing original ballads composed by Grace O'Clerkin.

Their popularity nationally and their performances around Sydney drew them to the attention of Reginald (Rex) Shaw of Prestophone Records. In 1956, McGuiness and Bell recorded with a quartet, possibly led by Horrie Dargie. They soon became celebrities in Sydney singing O’Clerkin’s compositions.

The duo sang across a range of styles; traditional songs like Maranoa Moon, the salutary Old Rugged Hills [of Australia], Rhythm of Corroboree and Homeland Calling (all composed by O'Clerkin). The recordings were among the first commercially available records released by Indigenous singers.

In the 1960s, other musician families from mission stations in NSW such as Purfleet, Murrin Bridge, Brewarrina, Coonamble, Gulargambone and Burra Bee Dee participated in teenage cabarets, NADOC and other talent quests, radio amateur hours, church conferences as well as playing at local and regional dances.

As it was for skilled Aboriginal athletes, footballers and boxing champions, music skills offered an opportunity to leave the mission, travel, earn money and further the family’s chances of a better life. Many took the plunge and left the mission stations with their instruments and families to make a life in Sydney. They joined relations living in Redfern, Alexandria and Newtown, creating a crying need for social infrastructure.

Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs concerts and Eva Bell Mumbler 1960s

Photo of Eva Mumbler

Eva Mumbler, sings to a crowd at Martin Place, 1962.

As part of a demonstration organised by the National Aborigines’ Day Organising Committee (NADOC) in Sydney in 1962, Eva Mumbler sang in front of a 3000-strong crowd at Martin Place. Mumbler was joined by singer-actor Jimmy Little, vocalist Col Hardy, professional soccer star Charlie Perkins, and singer-actor Candy Williams, with mezzo-soprano Lorna Beulah topping the bill for the NADOC celebrations.

Eva Mumbler stayed in Sydney and continued performing publicly for more than a decade, becoming part of the regular performances of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs band the Silver Linings and activities organised by the Aborigines Advancement League. The Foundation, established in 1963 in Sydney, agitated for political and social change and supported Aboriginal people – particularly young rural people moving to Sydney – with accommodation, bedding and meals, out of which came the Aboriginal Legal and Medical Services. This was the same year that the Bark Petitions were presented to the Australian Parliament.

Photo of Jimmy Little, Col Hardy,
Charlie Perkins and Candy Williams

Singer Jimmy Little, vocalist Col Hardy, professional Soccer star Charlie Perkins, and singer Candy Williams, July 1962 at NADOC demonstration, exhibition and concert.

The Foundation held concerts on Sunday nights along with other activities to raise funds. Enough funds were raised by 1964 to buy a building at 810 George St. Here they had an art shop, ran dances and concerts and acted as an action planning centre. Members worked alongside other Aboriginal activists, like Faith Bandler and Doug Nichols, for a Referendum to change the constitution to recognise Aborigines as citizens in their own country. Singer Harry Williams was one of the many people involved with the Foundation.

Eva could often be found singing at shows with the likes of Jimmy Little and the Silver Lining Band which included James Wilson Miller.

Vic Simms – the swing rock crooner with a serious message

Vic Simms is a Bidjigal man from La Perouse, Sydney, New South Wales who began performing at concerts and festivals in 1958 when he was 11 years old. This represented a ticket to freedom out of the mission.

Nothing was ever easy growing up here, and we lived under curfews and the oppression of the Aboriginal Protection and Welfare Boards and managers and police and being told how to live your life, you know, even as a young kid....
The story of Vic Simms, interview with Rachel Maza, Message Stick, 21 October 2005, ABC1
Vic Simms performing

Vic Simms performing. courtesy of Vic Simms and Mess Noise

Football social events were times away from the mission, where Aborigines could dance. One day in 1957, at a rugby social at Maroubra, the band was led by Col Joye, one of Australia’s most well-known acts. Volunteering to sing at an interval, Simms’ singing so impressed Col and Kevin Joye that they later asked Simms to come on tour with them. Simms was 11 years old when he did his first paid gig at the Manly Jazzerama with Col Joye and the Joy Boys. On the bill with them was pop star Johnny O’Keefe.

During his school years, he toured regularly with Col Joye who was supporting all the visiting international stars of the time; Bill Haley, Buddy Holly (1958), Shirley Bassey and Little Richard. Simms first solo LP was The Loner (1973) by RCA Records, recorded in Bathurst Jail, after they received a tape from a charity group.

album cover The Loner

Vic Simms album cover The Loner (1973)

For a short while, Simms toured to other prisons, did live appearances in shopping malls, and gave three big concerts at the Sydney Opera House in 1973, in the first week it was open.

One of the tracks, Dance in the Shadow has a great dance groove to it with a touch of swing, a funk feel and melodious vocals. The swinging rock sound of Stranger in my Country has a groove supported by a horn section. While Simms’ music has a light hearted groove, it had a serious message.

Stranger in my Country became an anthem about dispossession

I am not mistaken after my land was taken,
in the early years we were put down
men, women and kids shot down
don’t try to understand me…
A Black Australian has his pride
his culture and his dreamtime.

Back into the Shadows is about a racist experience in a pub where Simms went to sing and dance, and where he was kicked out for being black.

Hey boy get out… if your white it’s alright,
if you’re black, get back into the shadows …
I left the scene, I was grieving
I felt alone, my spirit was broken

In 2005 Vic Simms & his All-star Band went on tour with The Jimmy Little Trio. In 2011, Simms played with a six piece band, On the Prowl in Sydney and in 2013, his album The Loner was re-released by Sandman Records. At the same time Vic Simms returned to La Perouse where he takes visitors on bush tucker tours.

Bobby McLeod – song poetry for peace of mind in crazy times

photo of Bobby McLeod

Bobby McLeod. Courtesy of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

Bobby McLeod (1947-2009) was a Yuin man, with connections to Ngarigo people on the Monaro. He grew up in a tin hut at Worrigee on the delta flats of the Shoalhaven River, on the south coast of NSW, and learnt guitar from Jimmy Little’s family.

Like Vic Simms, McLeod also spent time in jail, where he wrote his first song, Wayward Dreams, completed his high school education and started studying Australian history from books lent by Charles Perkins. (A tribute to Bobby McLeod, ABC) McLeod went onto become an inspirational elder and song man who used music and dance to teach culture and wisdom, as well as language.

After living at the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1974, where he confronted authority figures about the abysmal housing and health experienced by Aboriginal people, McLeod left for Melbourne. There he played with a group called the Kooriers with Paul and Dudley (aka Doug) Meredith. They played a lot of union gigs and recorded a demo tape at the ABC studios. In 1987, McLeod went to the Tamworth Country Music Festival where he was invited by Enrec studios to record. This led to his first album Culture UpFront being released by Larrikin Records in 1988.

In 1990, McLeod, along with Vic Simms, Roger Knox and the Euraba band were invited to North America by Indigenous Americans, to play prisons and reservations. This experience brought about a change in his musical style, focusing on positive aspects of himself, his life and culture reflected in his second album Spirit Mother, backed by the Flying Emus.

This led to the establishment of the Doonooch (Owl Dreaming) Healing and Cultural Centre at Wreck Bay. A few years later he established the Doonooch Dance Group as a means to both keep young people away from alcohol and drugs and also provide them with cultural and spiritual awakening.

In 2000 the Doonooch dancers performed at the Olympic Games opening ceremony and at the World Indigenous Forum in Noumea, travelling world-wide to over 24 countries by 2007.

In 2005, McLeod's album Dumaradje was nominated for Best World Music Album at the ARIA Awards. McLeod’s music resounds with the truth of his experiences, song poetry he wrote about his mother, his sense of country, living on his own land in crazy times, his contentment, his satisfaction at learning his language and his journey to peace of mind. (A tribute to Bobby McLeod, ABC) This is complimented by his poetry published in Ngudjung Yugarang Mother's Heartbeat, 2008. He wrote

Music plays an important role in opening our minds to the meaning and beauty of life, while amplifying the realms in which they [people] think about themselves and the world they live in.
Bobby McLeod, Koori History Website

Archie Roach – melting hearts over injustice and inspirational swing

Photo of Archie Roach

Archie Roach, Singer songwriter. Courtesy Black Arm Band

Archie Roach, a singer and song writer, is a defining heroic voice for Indigenous Australians, singing songs of protest about the treatment of Aboriginal people at the hands of White Australia policies that are acclaimed by a wide audience internationally.

As a child from Warrnambool, Victoria, he was forcibly removed from his family by Australian Government agencies to an orphanage. To deal with this, he penned the profound song, Took the Children Away (1990) which featured on his début solo album Charcoal Lane. Roach commented

There are certain things I couldn’t talk about, deal with in my life, so I started to write about it, sing about it, and it was such a release. I’m glad I discovered that – putting your feelings into song.
Archie Roach, quoted in Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places, 2004, p 92

His beautifully strong and deep voice melts many a heart and his profound sense of injustice brings many a tear to anyone listening to his music. His songs have also given inspiration and recognition to the Indigenous struggle for their identity whether about the pain of surviving in Charcoal Lane in the lanes near Gertrude Street in Melbourne or returning to country. In Took the Children Away, the concluding verses give hope with the lyrics

One sweet day
all the children came back
the children came back ..
Back where their hearts grow strong
back where they all belong…
back to their mothers’ land
the children came back
back to their Mother…
back to their People
back to their Land.

Contrasting strains from a more sombre start recounting the dark days ‘tearing us all apart’ move towards a lilting swing rhythm in both songs which gives an underlying feel of strength and optimism, of moving forward.

From 1997, with his partner Ruby Hunter, Archie Roach toured the Top End and North Queensland conducting song writing workshops, developing music skills and holding industry development talks as well as providing entertainment.

Hunter was stolen from her family also and was a celebrated Aboriginal singer-song writer in her own right, with many awards. Hunter died in 2010. Since her death, Roach suffered a stroke and lung cancer but recovered to release the album Into the Blood Stream in 2012.

Photo of Tiddas

Tiddas, L to R: Amy Saunders, Sally Dastey and Lou Bennett

Tiddas – sisters of spirit with musical power and honesty

Tiddas (meaning sisters) were dubbed with their name by Archie Roach after he heard them singing backing harmonies. For nearly 10 years, throughout the 1990s, they were Australia’s premier all-female vocal group. Tiddas were described as

three women, two guitars and one spirit … sisters who have distinguished themselves as a musical trio of rare power and honesty

In 1992 their debut EP Inside My Kitchen was nominated for two ARIAs for Best New Talent and Best Indigenous Record. Four albums were recorded between 1992 and 1998, and they toured internationally before going their own separate ways.

Tiddas consisted of Lou Bennett and Amy Saunders, and Irish woman Sally Dastey, Lou went on to release a solo album before reuniting with Amy and joining Scottish bass player and vocalist Alics Gate-Eastley to form the Bloody Marys.

Stiff Gins – singing the roots of the NSW river people

Stiff Gins are the brilliant acoustic duo of Nardi Simpson (Guitar, vocals) and Karleena Briggs (vocals), though Emma Donavon was originally one of the members until leaving in 2004 to start her solo career. Their aim is to ‘sing the history, culture, story and spirit of the roots of their NSW river people’.(Stiff Gins)

The folk harmonies of Karleena’s high floating voice with Nardi’s earthy grounded voice makes the sound of this duo memorable and their song Yandool which is sung in Wiradjuri language is a perfect reminder of this.

Photo of the Stff Gins

Stiff Gins: Karleena Briggs and Nardi Simpson, promotional image

They reclaimed the often derogatory word ‘gin’ used for Aboriginal woman, originally a word from the Dharug language for women, attempting to change the historical use of the word, turning it around to mean strong, proud, talented black woman in honour of their mothers, aunties, sisters and grandmothers. (Stiff Gins reply to criticism of name, Letter to the Koori Mail, 31 October, 2001, p. 9)

They started their musical journey with the release of their EPs Soh Fa (2000) and Morning Star (2000) and have recorded three albums, Origins (2001), Kingia Australis (2004) and Wind and Water (2011) featuring Yandool sung in Wiradjuri, the language of Kaleena’s people.

Singing in language, Wiradjuri for Briggs and YortaYorta for Simpson, represents many things. It honors those who spoke the language fluently. At the request of the NFSA, the Stiff Gins sing in language for the music score to the film footage of the naming of Canberra. It makes visible the invisible. It brings to mind immediately all the people who have walked and met in Canberra, a traditional meeting place, including Simpson’s family who walked from Brungle Mission. Language also speaks of the spirit of things.

Singing in language means the country sings back to you.
Stiff Gins in conversation, NFSA, 21 March 2014

In confirming the power of song and singing in language as song women, Simpson and Briggs celebrated the one hundred old recordings of Fanny Cochrane Smith singing in Palawa kani. At the NFSA, in March 2014, they recorded on a wax cylinder their own song in language, in front of a live audience, to celebrate the three women’s language, as part of a continuation of their tradition as song women.

Dewayne Everettsmith

Photo of Dewayne Everettsmith

Dewayne Everettsmith, 2012, promotional image

In 2007, Dewayne Everettsmith, a young Tasmanian Aboriginal balladeer appeared on Australian Idol and created a sensation. Dewayne sang a song written by a group of Tasmanian Aborigines; Roger Sculthorpe, Heather Sculthorpe, June Sculthorpe, Chris Mansell, Di Cook and Theresa Sainty, about the importance of Country. It is sung in Palawa kani, the Tasmanian Aboriginal language. The song begins

Milaythina nika milaythina-mana   This land is my land

Everettsmith’s voice has been described as a rare gift, with an indefinable sound that has an intimate presence. This can be appreciated in the acoustic version of It's Like Love. The lyrics were written as a response to his feeling of country and produced as an orchestral version with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with Jasmine Beams that was used by Tourism Australia as the ‘new’ sound of Australia in 2012. His debut album Surrender features lush arrangements of songs from his repertoire. Bruce Elder, Sydney Morning Herald, wrote of Everettsmith 'A uniquely gifted singer with hints of the soul of Marvin Gaye and the sunny beauty of Johnny Nash'.

Since then he's supported Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu in Australia and overseas, and performed as an ensemble member of the Black Arm Band. Dewayne is signed to Darwin based label Skinnyfish Music that has nurtured the recordings of saltwater freshwater music.

Song and dance continue to form an important part of Aboriginal culture today in Tasmania.

Fusion and styles – survival ballads and song poetry

Collaboration, melding music Aboriginal style – the Black Arm Band

Black Arm Band members

Black Arm Band members Deline Briscoe, left and Emma Donovan right, at Nayri-Niara Festival at Bruny Island, 2013, photo by Jillian Mundy, courtesy of Black Arm Band

The melding of traditional music, survival ballads and swing tunes are clearly heard in the musical collaborations of the Black Arm Band, formed in 2006 as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Some of the emerging performers featured are female vocalists Lou Bennettt, Deline Briscoe, Emma Donovan and Mindy Kwanten, as well as the renowned balladeers Archie Roach, Kev Carmody and Dewayne Everettsmith, internationally recognised Yirdaki player Mark Atkins, contemporary dancer and violinist Eric Avery, and the country and blues guitarist Lee Morgan.

The Black Arm Band is dedicated to collaborations and ongoing workshop programs in communities. The purpose is to reinforce the power of music for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people – to communicate their distinct identities, histories, heritage and culture.

Useful Links

Look, Listen and Play

Indigenous singers and musicians

Listings of Indigenous performers

Awards, foundations and distribution

Indigenous and other select festivals

Print References for further readings

  • Diane Bell, Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A World that Is, Was, and Will Be, Spinifex Press, 1998
  • Gerry Bloustein, editor, Musical Visions, Wakefield Press, 1999
  • 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
  • S. Kleinert and M. Neale, Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Oxford University Press, 2000
  • Clinton Walker, Country Man. Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Pluto Press, 2000

Last updated: March 2014
Creators: Kathryn Wells


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