Aboriginal Music

The music of the Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders is very much part of the social fabric of their life, their history and their culture. It has a haunting and mysterious quality that draws the listener into the history, culture and the ancient dreamtime of the Aboriginal people.

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Among the earliest inhabitants of the Oceania region, it is generally accepted that the indigenous Australians - the Aboriginal people - entered Australia from the Indo-Malaysian mainland via New Guinea, taking advantage of the land bridges which stretched most of the way through Asia.

These land bridges were exposed during the ice ages, the Pleistocene epoch, when water levels dropped hundreds of metres. New Guinea and Cape York Peninsula were once joined by the Sahul Shelf.

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The oldest settlement so far recorded in Australia is radiocarbon-dated to about 50,000 years ago. This settlement around Lake Mungo is where humans camped around inland lake shores and dined on fish, shellfish, emu eggs, small marsupials and - almost certainly - a range of wild seeds, roots and fruits. The first human remains found at Lake Mungo are all homo sapiens - the modern human type to which present-day black and white Australians all belong. More than this, the remains are among the oldest of this type in the world.

The first archaeological discovery at Mungo, in 1969, was a skeleton of a female who had been cremated and placed in a small pit. This cremation is dated to about 24,000 B.C. Other burials in the Mungo region are of bodies laid out flat and not burned, but all have some kind of goods with them in the grave. These goods include stone tools, shells and animal seeds. At this time, we do not know the beliefs of the mourners who made these offerings, however, their presence most probably recorded a complex set of beliefs about the spiritual world. It seems likely that aspects of the "Dreaming", the all-encompassing historical and cosmological structure that is a cornerstone of modern aboriginal life, were already present all those years ago.

Although there were variations in the customs and skills of the hundreds of different Aboriginal tribes across the vast continent of Australia, they all lived in equally close community with their environment. The Dreamtime, the Aborigine's spiritual guide, encouraged their intimate involvement with the landscape, whether their home was on the lush coastal plains or in the harsh interior. They knew what to eat, how to prepare it, where and when to find it and, most important, how to protect their resources for the future. What the elders knew about survival, they passed on by example, legend and ritual. Along with this, there were songs for every occasion -  hunting songs, funeral songs, gossip songs and songs of ancestors, landscapes, animals, seasons, myths and Dreamtime legends.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

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Aboriginal didgeridoo


Indigenous Australian music, in this context, is taken to include the music of the Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who are collectively referred to as indigenous Australians. Music has formed an integral part of the social, cultural and ceremonial observances of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, down through the millennia of their individual and collective histories to the present day.

Aboriginal people throughout most of Australia believe that in the beginning of time, in the Dreaming, there were no visible landmarks; the world was flat. As time progressed, creatures emerged from the ground and had the power to change at will from their animal to their human form.

The kangaroo ancestor may now be described, in songs particularly, as the kangaroo; the form of his life essence is a matter of little consequence. These original ancestral beings created all the features of the landscape in the area in which their lives were spent, and also populated the entire region concerned. By their actions, they laid down the rules of conduct for all their offspring.

Throughout their lives on earth, they left inseminating powers in the soil; they also created, and taught to others, many songs including those recounting the history of their own lives, songs for healing the wounded and the sick, injuring the enemy, including rain, arresting the flood, or causing the wind to turn back.

The inseminating powers left by these ancestors are doubly important to the present people: firstly, because the propagation of their group is dependent on this power to create human offspring in the likeliness of the human elements of the ancestor; secondly, because the food source of the group is dependent on this power of each ancestor to ensure the plentiful supply of recreated forms of the animal or plant element of the ancestor's being. These powers become most accessible to the present inhabitants of the area on those occasions when the spirit of a particular ancestor is drawn towards his own identification marks of the song, acts and designs which he originally created and which have been meticulously preserved ever since.


A song is sung as a series comprising many short verses, each of which tells about a particular event or place associated with the ancestor; or the performance may be a full ceremonial one which includes portrayal of relevant events in the performance of dances accompanied by the singing of the appropriate verses.

The song associated with any one totemic "line" will have the one melodic form throughout. This means, in the case of very long "lines" of songs, where the ancestor is reputed to have crossed thousands of miles of territory, that the characteristic melodic form will be found in areas with different languages and musical techniques.

Because of the latter differences, an outside observer may well fail to recognise extreme sections of the one song-line as conforming to the same musical pattern, but that they do conform has been repeatedly stressed by performers and shown by a number of detailed analyses. The concept differs from our experience of melodic sameness; it consists of repetitions of sections of melody for a set proportion of the time the total verse takes to perform.

Because this technique allows flexibility in those areas of musical expression which tend to change from one tribe to another, the basic information can be kept intact even though the total history may be retained, section by section, in many different tribal areas.

This means that, even when a visitor from afar is unable to understand the language that the locals are using in a song, he can determine, from the musical structure, to which totemic line the song belongs.

And, because his own totemic song has been very strong conditioning agent in the total
processes of his education to adult status in the community, the recognition of his own song in another area will have very deep significance. These history songs link the time long past with the present; the singer is part of a continuum; he is reliving events of another era, and is yet part of them.


The Australian Aboriginal people developed a number of rare, unique and interesting musical instruments. These include the didgeridoo, the bullroarer, and the gum-leaf. Most well known is the didgeridoo, a simple wooden tube blown with the lips like a trumpet, which gains its sonic flexibility from controllable resonances of the player's vocal tract. The bull-roarer is a simple wooden slat whirled in a circle on the end of a cord so that it rotates about its axis and produces a pulsating low-pitched roar. The gum-leaf, as the name suggests, is a tree leaf, held against the lips and blown so as to act as a vibrating valve with "blown-open" configuration. Originally intended to imitate bird-calls, the gum-leaf can also be used as a musical instrument.

The didgeridoo originated in Arnhem Land on the northern coastline of central Australia, and has some similarity to bamboo trumpets and even bronze horns developed in other cultures, though it pre-dates most of these by many millennia. The characteristic feature is that the didgeridoo, which is a slightly flaring wooden tube about 1.5 metres in length, is simply hollowed out by natural termites ("white ants") from the trunk of one of the small trees of the region. After cutting down, the instrument is cleaned out with a stick, the outside refined by scraping and then painted with traditional designs, and the blowing end smoothed by adding a rim of beeswax.

Aboriginal didgeridoo

The predominant sound of the didgeridoo is a low-pitched drone with frequency around 70Hz, but depending significantly upon the length of the instrument and the flare of its bore. In traditional use, the didgeridoo, with clap-sticks for emphasis, accompanies songs or illustrates traditional stories about ancestors and animals  Recently, however, its use has spread into the popular music domain and has had world-wide influence.

The bullroarer consists of a simple wooden slat, 30 to 40cm in length and 5 to 7cm wide that is whirled around in a circle on the end of a length of cord. The slat rotates under the influence of aerodynamic forces and generates a pulsating sound with a frequency typically around 80Hz. This sound is an important feature of Aboriginal initiation ceremonies. The instrument itself is by no means unique to Australia, as similar instruments have been used by populations as diverse as those of ancient Egypt and Northern Canada.

The gumleaf is altogether more primitive as a musical instrument, since it consists simply of a leaf from one of the various species of Eucalypt trees growing throughout Australia, which held against the lips using the fingers of both hands. It does, however, have a long tradition and culture. Although it takes a good deal of trial and error for a beginner to even produce a sound from a gumleaf, a skilled player can control the pitch with good accuracy over a range of more than an octave and play simple tunes with ease.

As in most cultures, the Aborigines also used percussive instruments in their ceremonies. Often these were simply two boomerangs clashed together, but they also made special shaped sticks for this purpose. Because the wood used is a fine-grained hardwood, the clapsticks are physically long-lasting and produce a sharp and well defined sound.

In their usual form, these sticks are about 200mm in length and 20mm in diameter and are shaped to a long point at each end. One stick is held in each hand and they are struck together at about the mid-point of each. The pointed ends ensure that the fundamental transverse vibration has a high frequency, so that the percussive effect stands out well above the low-pitched drone of the didgeridoo. The musical instruments of the Australian Aboriginal people have come into world prominence because of the popularity of the didgeridoo, both as a tourist item and as a musical instrument. It is only recently that we have begun to have an appreciation of the acoustical subtleties associated with performance on this and the other ancient instruments of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

Yothu Yindi

Yothu Yindi in concert

Mandawuy Yunupingu - soon after becoming 'Australian of the Year' 1993

The information on this Web site has been extracted from Jane's Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter (Island Music) Vol. 5, Edition No.5, May 2006

The following short article on Aboriginal musician, Archie Roach, has been extracted from both
Jane's Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter and Jane's Oceania Home Page Newsletter - November/December 2007.


The life and times of Archie Roach have provided the springboard for the unique and compelling musical contribution of this talented artist. One of the stolen generation of Aboriginal children, Archie Roach has been able to reconnect with his Aboriginal family and his proud Aboriginal heritage and, in doing so, has provided us all with a musical heritage that is absorbing and beautiful. In addition, his rich vocals highlight the pain and suffering that was, sadly, part of the stolen generation.

Archie Roach was born near a bend in the Goulburn River near Shepparton in central Victoria. In 1956, Archie Roach's family, along with the rest of the area's indigenous population, were re-housed on Rumbularah Mission. Subsequently, Roach and his family subsequently moved to Framlington.

Archie Roach - 2007

When Archie was three or four years old, some people from the Aboriginal Protection Board came with a policeman and told his parents that they were taking their children away, so that they could be brought up properly by white families who would teach them how to be real Australians.


Archie has some memory of his father running from the fields to protect them and of his cousins trying to hide him. But the white people found him and told him that he was going on a picnic; his mother wept when they took him away. They took all of his brothers and sisters, too, except for the oldest, Johnni, who was so big that the white people took him for an adult and let him stay. They sent off his other brother and his two older sisters on their own and took Archie and his two youngest sisters, Gladdie and Diana, to a Salvation Army orphanage.

Archie and his two young sisters did not stay long in the orphanage. As soon as they had soaked up enough Christian discipline, they were deemed ready to live with a white family, and the three of them were shunted off in different directions to start a new life with foster parents. The first two foster families didn't work out with Archie, and when he was nine, he was sent to a third white family, a couple named Alec and Dulcie Cox, who had migrated from Scotland to Melbourne with their children and set up home in Lilydale.

The Cox's eldest daughter, Mary, played keyboards and guitar in a local Pentecostal Church, and taught Roach the basics of both instruments. Archie was further inspired by his foster father's record collection, which included old Scottish ballads and songs by artists such as Billie Holiday, the Drifters and Nat King Cole.

Mr and Mrs Cox became his father and mother. His life took on a kind of stability. He went to school and made friends and, as the time passed, his memory of his Aboriginal family and cultural heritage faded. When he was 12 or 13, a friend persuaded him to go to a Pentecostal Church with him. For the sake of being friendly, Archie went along and sat politely, and bored through the service until a woman appeared with an acoustic guitar and sang a Hank Williams song.


There and then, as the music gripped his imagination and warmly touched and filled his heart, he knew this was what he wanted to do. He started learning to play acoustic guitar with Mary, singing Hank Williams and George Jones songs and any other country music Mary could lay her hands on. So he might have continued for years, slowly drifting away from his past, if it had not been for one of his older sisters, Myrtle, who wrote him a letter. He was 14 or 15. She sent it to his school in Lilydale, and they put out an announcement that there was a letter for Archie Roach.

By now, Archie knew himself only as Archie Cox, but he knew, too, that he was the only Archie in the school, so he went and collected the letter. He showed it to his best friend, Glen McKinnon, who said it was obviously for someone else. It mentioned several family names that Archie had never heard of. And who was this Myrtle? There was one name he knew. Gladdie. He still remembered Gladdie. So, unlikely as it was, he knew the letter was for him. And when it said that his mother had died the week before, he felt a sadness.

He went home and showed it to Mr and Mrs Cox, who began to cry. Archie saw their tears and he remembered a boy who had told him he was black, and he thought of the fire that was supposed to have killed all his family and he looked at the letter, and he thought of his own mother dying without him - living all these years without him - and he was flooded with anger. He blamed the Coxes. These were tears of guilt, he was sure. They must have lied to him. And a few days later, when a man came to the door and told Archie he was his social worker, his grief and anger exploded, blowing away the sturdy framework of his life. He wanted to hurt someone. At school, he started beating other kids, something he had never done before. He was disrespectful to the teachers and to the Coxes. He no longer gave a damn about this white life and he made up his mind to go out on the streets, to find his own people, his own family. So he ran.

He was 15. He had a guitar strapped across his back, and he had no money. He headed out to find Aboriginal people. He found some who knew some of his family and discovered they were living in Sydney. He set off along the road, stopping in towns along the way to find work to stay alive. It was the best part of a year before he finally made it to Sydney and when he got there, the trail had gone cold. His family had moved on again. Bitter and angry, he took to the city streets, sleeping with the homeless and with wine-sodden wrecks.

One day, he was sitting in a pub and he was drunk - too drunk to tell a lie, as they say. A woman started talking to him and when she asked him his name, the drink made him forget his alias. "Archie Roach," he said. The woman looked at him and started asking him questions about his family. In his sleepy, slurred voice, he started reeling the family names he knew. As he spoke, the woman stared at him more intently, and as he dragged up more and more names of kin he had never met, she started to roll her head and wave her arms around. Archie thought she was having a fit. She fell on him, screaming and crying. He tried to roll away, but then he heard what she was yelling: "Baby, my baby: I'm Diana. I'm your sister. You're my brother."

Archie Roach lost 14 years on the streets. Along the way, he discovered that his father and his beloved sister Gladdie were both dead; he followed the scattered clues to trace the remains of his family, drank himself to the point of poisoning, went tent-boxing like his father before him; had two children with a young Aboriginal woman, Ruby Power, who, like him, had been stolen from her parents; and somehow, in among an agony of confusion, he played his guitar.

He came back in one sense simply because he went to a rehabilitation centre and managed to stop himself drinking but, more importantly, he emerged in one piece because he listened to his Uncle Banjo, who told him to stop singing other people's songs and to write about his own life. So he sat down and wrote a song called 'Took The Children Away', the story of the day in Framlingham when he was stolen from his parents. The song was the beginning of a long and accidental therapy, in which he squeezed the poison out of his spirit and into his music. All the time that he appeared to be writing about other people, he was
writing really about himself.

Archie moved to Melbourne, where a museum was preparing a tape of Aboriginal music to celebrate the 1988 Bicentennial of the founding of Australia. He played his song for them. A community Radio Station heard the tape and asked him to play it on the air. A Television Station heard the radio show and asked him to play the song on an Aboriginal Current Affairs show. A Melbourne rock guitarist, Steve Connolly, who was then playing with Paul Kelly, heard the song and called Kelly, persuading him to let Archie Roach play an opening set at their next concert in Melbourne.

On a warm night in November 1989, Archie Roach walked on to the stage of the Melbourne Concert Hall in front of 2000 people. He could not believe how many people were there. His hands were shaking with fear.He sat on a low chair, rested his guitar across his knee and, without any words of introduction, he began to play them 'Beautiful Child'.After that, he told the silent audience, 'This next song is about something that happened a long time ago'. Then, in his slow, dark voice, he told them about the children.

He came to the end of his song. But still there was no sound from the vast audience. Archie shrugged and said to himself, "Well bugger it if they don't like it." And started shuffling towards the wings. As he walked, he heard someone somewhere start to clap and then another. He could see Paul Kelly smiling at him from the wings and then he heard the roar of applause. He stopped and turned and stood there as a mighty wave of affection swept down from all corners of the hall.

His life was never the same again. With Paul Kelly's help, in 1990, he recorded the album, 'Charcoal Lane', which won two Australian Record Industry Awards and was distributed in Australia and the United States. The album features the song, 'Took the Children Away', one of the most lyrical and moving expressions of the sorrow and despair of the stolen generation. Indeed, this song has become an anthem for the many Aboriginal people who identify strongly with its story.

Archie has also expressed this sadness in another more recent song 'My Mother's Heartbeat', from the album 'Looking for Butter Boy' 1997,which concludes:

'my mother's heart stopped beating
one dark and dreadful day
and all I heard was weeping
the day I went away
ah, there's nothing so sweet
as my mother's heartbeat

beating inside her womb
waiting inside my room
her body loves me to sleep
waiting through my darkest night
beating, it's my rhythm of life
the sound of my mother's heartbeat

ah, my mother's heart is beating
somewhere in this earth
and at night while I lie there sleeping
I'll dream sweet dreams of her
for there's nothing so sweet
as my mother's heartbeat'

It is only in retrospect that Archie Roach has come to understand why his music appeals to so many - "We can't measure the depths of each other's suffering. When you suffer, that's the worst suffering in the world. That's what I try to talk about. When I first wrote 'Took The Children Away', I thought, 'Here I'm writing for my people - at last a song that tells this terrible thing.'

'If it hadn't been for that happened to me, I probably wouldn't have been a musician. We are the sum total of our lives, of that's happened to us. A lot of things are sad but I would never ask to be different. Terrible things happen because of misunderstanding, but I know I would be a poorer person if I had not been through these things'

Pacific Islands Radio is most pleased and very proud to feature the incredible music of Archie Roach and, in particular, the album 'Looking for Butter Boy'.


The policies that produced the Stolen Generation brought with it thousands of Aboriginal people that were deprived of their families, the loss of the love of the mothers, as well as being deprived of an understanding of their rich cultural heritage.

The Stolen Generation, in my humble view, remains one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Australia and one that demands a full apology from the leaders of this country (Australia) to the Aboriginal people. Certainly, the possibility of a meaningful reconciliation between black and white Australia seems very unlikely to proceed in a meaningful manner until such an apology is forthcoming.


Singer songwriter Archie Roach, 51, and his partner, singer and actor Ruby Hunter, 50, have five children, ranging in age from 18 to 32. Roach performed with the Black Arm Band at the Sydney Festival on January 22 and 23. 

He's inspired by ... Kids. 'I couldn't imagine my world without children running around my bloody knees. I think that's the part of me that wants to provide the childhood I never had. (Roach was removed from his family and placed in foster care when he was three years old. He left home at 14 and ended up on the streets.) My children are adults now but they still inspire me. My daughter, Chrissie is a mother bringing up children on her own and she also works in child care. My son Amos teaches didgeridoo to children and looks after his family. Mr. T (Terence) is now 18. His mother couldn't look after Terence when he was a baby so he came to us at 10 days old and he's been with us ever since. Of course, ruby Hunter has been a big inspiration in my life. I suppose it goes hand in hand: children and partner.'

He most admires... Jesus. 'I was a bit of wreck in my younger life. I was displaced and on the grog and the people - friends and family - who wee around me at the time wee a big inspiration to me. It might sound like a cliche but the idea of Jesus Christ, the story of a guy who didn't have much but endeared people to this idea of love and hope. You don't have to be a Christian to appreciate what he's got to say.'

His turning point... discovering his Aboriginal heritage at age 16. 'I was a boy. I'd hit the streets (of Melbourne) when I was 14 and I was drinking every day and I went to a place called Mareeba, up north of Cairns. It was there that I experienced a turnaround in my life. I got there and thought, 'Oh yeah, everybody's the same - they speak English, smoke, drink, whatever. They're just like city blackfellas.'

Then I was sitting down having a drink one night and suddenly the old fella got up and said something in his own language. I didn't understand what he said but he was speaking it fluently - not in broken English - and then everyone turned toward that man. They all got up, took off their boots, their shirts and all started dancing in their jeans - Aboriginal dancing in jeans - and it went all night! No more drinking, just dancing. And I asked the old man, 'Why do you still have this? We don't seem to have it down south.' And the old man looked at me and I saw true sadness in his eyes. He said, 'I'm sorry my boy.'

I realised then that he wasn't sorry for me, he was sorry that the whole thing was slowly being erased. he said, 'We can teach you stuff but what we show you up here you've got to take back with you.' It took a while but I learnt to do that. I realised there was something cheaper than boomerangs and spears, you know'? that's what I tapped into - you could be an urban Aboriginal or a bush Aboriginal and still tap into it.'

When he can't take any more ... 'I'm blessed that I have music. Some people don't have any outlet for life's knocks and they're the people my heart goes out to. Music - to me - is a medicine. If I'm feeling down, I'll listen to a bit of blues, a bit of soul or maybe some gospel - I'll pick me up a bit.'

The best advice he's received... 'The old golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I've always looked for goodness in situations, in life and in people because I'm not of the belief that we are irredeemable. I'm not a Christian but I'm not very critical of people. It's good to be that way.'

The worst advice... 'People think it's the best advice: 'Be a man! don't show your emotions and don't cry; don't care about anyone or anything, be a law unto yourself.' That's bad advice.'

"I'm blessed that I have music. Some people don't have any outlet whatsoever for life's knocks and they're the people my heart goes out to. Music - to me - is a medicine."
... Archie Roach

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