Aboriginal musicians struggle to be heard

Indigenous Australian performers say despite diverse styles, their music is stereotyped, unappreciated and not widely played on radio

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA. 07 APRIL 2009: Singers Kaleena Briggs (R) and Nardi Simpson record a track at Gadigal Studios April 7, 2009 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Ian Waldie.) *** Local Caption ***  IW_Aboriginal_Music_005.jpg

SYDNEY // New grants are being offered to indigenous musicians by the Australian government to help them break into the tough world of show business. It is rare for Aboriginal artists to reach the top of the charts. They complain that their music is not taken seriously or appreciated by mainstream audiences, which often expect their work to be of the traditional variety with didgeridoos, an iconic wind instrument, and lyrics sung in tribal languages. "No matter what genre you are, you are always seen as indigenous musicians. We could play rock music, but it would still be aboriginal music," said Nardi Simpson, 34, a guitarist and folk singer with The Stiff Gins, during a session at the Gadigal studios in the Sydney suburb of Redfern. "Maybe the general public aren't aware of the great creativity that is happening musically or artistically in our community. "Our musical styles are as diverse as all our mobs are. There's a lot of country music, there's a lot of hip-hop with the young fellas now, but also we've got amazing opera singers," Simpson added during a break from recording her group's third album, a serene and emotive collection of songs that explore the importance of family and heritage in Aboriginal culture. A grant of 12,000 Australian dollars (Dh32,000) from the Australia Council for the Arts is helping to pay for Simpson's latest project, but $10,000 more is needed to complete it. A lack of money has been a constant hindrance during her decade-long career during which she has juggled a full-time job with family responsibilities and her musical commitments. "Being a musician is a struggle and these grants are vital," said a fellow band member and vocalist, Kaleena Briggs, 30. "When you go out there performing you are barely getting paid. You're not really doing it for the money." Studio facilities and the cost of engineers and producers do not come cheap. "It is ridiculous how expensive it is. It's horrible," Briggs said. "We don't get paid a lot of money and it all goes into making an album." To ease the financial burdens on emerging indigenous artists, the government in Canberra is planning to offer grants of up to $25,000 under its new Breakthrough initiative. It is part of long-standing efforts by the authorities to help Australia's original inhabitants, who remain the country's most impoverished and alienated group. The arts minister, Peter Garrett, who made a name for himself outside of politics as the frontman for the Australian rock band Midnight Oil, told reporters that investment in Aboriginal artists was essential. "One of the most powerful drivers of culture, of creativity and of employment is contemporary music. Indigenous kids are producing fantastic music and they have got some wonderful, wonderful predecessors to take as inspiration: Yothu Yindi, Christine Anu, Gurrumul Yunupingu. We're really keen to see that talent get the opportunity to build a platform for itself and to build careers." The Breakthrough grants will be distributed by an expert panel and industry executives believe they will boost the careers of Aboriginal musicians through the release of professionally produced CDs and downloads. "It shows the government is taking this type of music and culture seriously," enthused Michael Hutchings, who runs an indigenous record label and studio called Gadigal Music. "What we can do at Gadigal is help the artist through the process, put a business plan together so they can focus on the development of their art." Storytelling lies at the heart of indigenous music, which details deep and eternal spiritual connections to land that define an ancient people, whose history has traditionally been passed on by word of mouth. "What we're looking for is music that tells a story from an indigenous perspective, whether it's an indigenous kid who has moved from the country to the city, which is a big thing in hip-hop," Mr Hutchings explained. "It is a continuation of song lines, which have been running through indigenous culture for thousands of years. It's just a new format, using modern techniques and appropriating western technology and there is nothing wrong with doing that. That's how all art moves and changes." Simpson added: "We always carry very proudly the history of where we're from, our people and our family." Despite its diversity, Aboriginal music is rarely heard on most popular radio stations. Some singers blame underlying racism, while others point to indifference. Brad Cooke, the general manager at the Gadigal Information Service, an indigenous community organisation, said the government grants as well as schemes that teach youngsters to sing, dance, write songs and perform will bring about change. "All of a sudden on commercial radio in Australia it is cool to be black, but still not cool to be black from Australia on Australian radio," Mr Cooke said. "We're doing our bit to sort that out. It will come eventually. "Our artists have always had the strengths to tell their own story and that is really what our music is about. There is genuine substance to it." pmercer@thenational.ae