Peter Garrett: What I learnt in a revelatory journey into the desert

Peter Garrett: What I learnt in a revelatory journey into the desert

By Peter Garrett

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images of, and refers to, people who have died.

It starts with lullabies, the most elemental of musical offerings. Then nursery rhymes and carols like "Out on the plains the brolgas are dancing, lifting their wings like warhorses dancing." The refrain "Orana [welcome] to Christmas Day" was likely one of the first words in Aboriginal language I heard.

Ella Fitzgerald, Gershwin and Nat King Cole percolated out of the grey, big box record player sitting in the corner of our living room as I grew up. Then came sparkling Brit pop on the radio, with The Beatles, Kinks, Who and our (sort of) own Bee Gees in full swing. Starting with She Loves You, You Really Got Me, Won't Get Fooled Again, New York Mining Disaster, it went on from there.

After leaving home and zigzagging through university, I tended towards artists that reflected the country I knew: Skyhooks, The Dingoes and, later, Archie Roach, Cold Chisel and Yothu Yindi – there are many others.

Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett and Rob Hirst with the Warumpi Band's George Rrurrambu (deceased) performing at Yellow Water (Ngurrungurrudjba) on the South Alligator River at Kakadu during Blackfella/Whitefella Tour in 1986.Credit:ABC

I knew by heart the hymns and anthems of my schooldays, including God Save the Queen, minus the Johnny Rotten snarl – all generated from the Western canon. The songs that landed in the ears of kids growing up in the ’60s and ’70s – again mostly imports from England or the USA – were utterly familiar.

Yet, at that time, I cannot recall hearing any music that emanated from Aboriginal Australia. Put it down to a sheltered middle-class upbringing and the narrow gate through which sounds travelled to my generation. This "great Australian silence" was deafening.

Eminent Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner coined this expression in his 1968 Boyer Lecture referring to the hidden history of British colonists taking by force an already occupied continent where, in Stanner's words, Aboriginal people were "a melancholy footnote". It has its parallel in the small life of a suburban teenager.

A whispered, widely held sentiment, perpetuated after the claim in John West's History of Tasmania (1852), that "it was better that the blacks should die, than they should stain the settlers' health with the blood of his children", was unfamiliar to me. As for the songs of First Nations people, old or new, I'd heard nothing.

Fast-forward to 2017, nearly 20 years since Midnight Oil's last recording, and we've come together to find out if playing on stage still works for us – it does. Lucky days.

The next step is to do some recording. There is no shortage of songs, but how they might sound and whether they will take hold is an open question.

Midnight Oil with collaborator Warne Livesey.Credit:Daniel Hackett

The Makarrata Project songs pretty much chose themselves. The initial lyrical themes were pointed explorations of a subject that had absorbed us for some time: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's ongoing quest for recognition and justice.

It seemed basic and in keeping with the notion of reconciliation to invite collaborations with First Nations' artists and open up the tracks we'd recorded for additional content and interpretation.

The contributors included old mates Sammy Butcher from Warumpi Band, Bunna Lawrie, Frank Yamma and Kev Carmody, and up-and-coming artists Alice Skye and Tasman Keith. Troy Cassar-Daley, Kaleena Briggs, Leah Flanagan, Dan Sultan and Jessica Mauboy – an abundance of talent –came on board.

One of the Midnight Oil's collaborators, Bunna Lawrie, is a Mirning elder, whale songman and pioneering Indigenous rocker with his band Coloured Stone.Credit:Daniel Hackett

We usually record intense and alone, now we had many voices. When poet Joel Davison laid down a spoken word section in Gadigal Land, and we were allowed the use of a stunning vocal by the late Gurrumul, the scene was set for many "hairs on the back of the neck" moments.

Underpinning this mini album is the important Uluru Statement from the Heart with a reading by Adam Goodes, Stan Grant, Ursula Yovich and Pat Anderson, which calls for truth telling, constitutional recognition for First Nations and a Voice to the national Parliament. These elements would constitute "Makarrata", a Yolgnu expression meaning coming together after a struggle.

In 1986, we'd ventured out with the Warumpi Band from Papunya on the aptly named Black Fella/White Fella Tour, playing to towns and small settlements through remote and northern Australia.

Our immersion in Indigenous culture and non-industrialised landscapes was brief but revelatory. We discovered what was never taught at school, namely a vibrant, living culture within the fledgling modern nation we'd grown up in.

The desert environment provided space to think hard about the consequences of the first disastrous contact that marked European and Indigenous relations.

As for music, there was plenty. At the apex were the ceremonial songs and dances that marked important occasions. The hypnotic rhythms of chanted songs, with clapsticks, and sometimes didge, that is an increasingly familiar sound today.

Peter Garrett with Waracuna youngsters in July 1986. Credit:Ray Kennedy

Many settlements hosted a local band playing all kinds of genres: rock, reggae, surf instrumentals, often on makeshift instruments and run-down equipment as if people's lives depended on it. Nowadays, this activity is the norm from city to bush. Like Aboriginal and Islander footy players in the big teams, Indigenous musicians and songwriters are about in great proportion.

We were a loud and fast pub band from Sydney. Too loud and too fast at times for the world we'd entered, where the shock of white invasion was still reverberating across the red dirt.

Yet everywhere we were made welcome; and the sharing of significant law objects by the Pintupi people in the Western desert – a remarkable gesture for its time – was a turning point.

The Warumpis had already toured some of these parts. The legal fiction of terra nullius that sanctioned white settlement because Australia was "a land belonging to no one" was a joke. Every corner of the country and all that lay between was brimming with people who'd been raising families and living on their ancestral lands forever.

The Warumpi Band in Papunya in 1981, from left, Gordon Butcher, Neil Murray, Sammy Butcher, Denis Minor and George Rrurrambu (deceased).

Towards the end of the tour at Numbulwar, a small town on the coast in eastern Arnhem Land, I lay outside on the stillest of tropical nights as the Warumpis loped through a song called My Island Home, written by guitarist Neil Murray and singer George Rrurrambu. The song is a bittersweet yearning of a man wanting to return to his birthplace, later successfully covered by Christine Anu.

As the music spilled over an audience of a couple of hundred people sitting under trees outside the public school, I was struck, as I have been numerous times since when listening to First Nations' artists, by how real the sentiment was, as against much Western popular music with its fleeting conceits and high-dose narcissism.

I was struck by how real the sentiment was, as against much western popular music with its fleeting conceits and high dose narcissism.

Like My Island Home, many of the songs by Indigenous artists at that time and since fix on country and family; the deep longings and tragic losses that are ever-present for Aboriginal people.

Politics is never far from the surface and the lyrics spelt it out. No Fixed Address sang: "We have survived the white man's burden, and you know you can't change that." Archie Roach reminded us that "they took the children away" from their families and that many people still carry that trauma. More recently, Briggs on January 26 raps: "If you ain't having a conversation, then we startin' it."

White Australia did indeed have a black history and the call of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people seeking justice for the theft of their lands and waters, their wages, and tragically in many instances, their children, couldn't be ignored.

Tasman Keith, Rob Hirst and Jessica Mauboy working on the Midnight Oil album.Credit:Robert Hambling

The High Court eventually put terra nullius to bed. The abridged form of ownership called Native Title that emerged was far from satisfactory but land started coming back into Aboriginal ownership and control.

A Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made more than 300 recommendations in 1991, but many were ignored. Since then, tragically, there have been more than 400 deaths in jail of Indigenous people.

Archie Roach sang about the Stolen Generation.Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen

National leadership is needed to bring the country together to right this big historical wrong, but the record so far is poor.

Bob Hawke promised a treaty in 1988 – it's nowhere to be seen. Paul Keating acknowledged the suffering in his Redfern Speech – it still continues. John Howard refused to offer a formal apology – Kevin Rudd finally remedied that callous omission 10 years later.

Tony Abbott cut half-a-billion dollars from the Department of Indigenous Affairs while saying "the lifestyle choices" of Aboriginal people shouldn’t be subsidised. He later received the highest Queens’s Birthday Honour for "services" to the Indigenous community.

More recently, Malcolm Turnbull refused to countenance a Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal people on the grounds that it would constitute a third chamber in the Parliament – it wasn't anything of the kind.

No government, despite good intentions, has managed to close the gap between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the population in measurements of health and wellbeing by any meaningful measure.

Rapper Baker Boy is one of the First Nations artists on the rise locally and internationally.

In 2015, Adam Goodes was booed out of the sport he excelled in by braying racist crowds, while the AFL and many in the media turned a blind eye.

In 2020, on Sorry Day in Reconciliation Week, one of the world's largest mining companies, Rio Tinto, chose to destroy highly significant rock paintings that dated back 45,000 years at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.

Is it any wonder a Black Lives Matter movement has surged with younger Australians, and a new generation of First Nations leaders are demanding change?

The lyrics pull no punches and Aboriginal language is taking its rightful place.

And yet … the most recent National Indigenous Music Awards saw more artists reaching audiences both here and overseas than ever before. The lyrics pull no punches and Aboriginal language is taking its rightful place. Artists such as Shellie Morris & the Borroloola Songwomen sing stories of their heritage in the Yanyuwa language, drawing on ancient song cycles.

Thelma Plum is one of the Indigenous artists singing at the AFL grand final.Credit:Simon Schluter

This weekend, AFL grand final entertainment will feature a roster of First Nations performers – Thelma Plum, Electric Fields and Baker Boy – as the organisation continues to make amends for its past. The chief executive of Rio Tinto is gone, partly as a consequence of the contempt his company showed for Aboriginal culture.

The presence and contribution of Indigenous people across all sectors of the country, including politics, academia, the arts, sports, and business, continues apace.

The songs on The Makarrata Project are about reckoning with our history, committing to fairness and truth telling and reimagining the relationship between black and white.

There is a healing way forward, accepting the invitation from the First Australians generously expressed in the Statement from the Heart to walk together in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

Midnight Oil will donate its share of proceeds from The Makarrata Project to organisations that seek to elevate The Uluru Statement From The Heart. Sony Music Entertainment Australia will match any artist contribution. You can pre-order the album, which will be released on October 30, from

Peter Garrett's playlist: 21 top Indigenous acts to tune into

By Shona Martyn

The singer reveals the Indigenous artists on his playlist. Artists who collaborated on The Makarrata Project are marked with an asterisk.

Baker Boy
The award-winning Australian rapper's hip-hop songs include both the English and Yolngu Matha languages. He was Young Australian of the Year in 2019.

Adam Briggs is a Yorta Yorta rapper who co-founded A.B. Original with Trials (Daniel Rankine) in 2016. Their work includes the powerful single January 26 and the award-winning album Reclaim Australia.

Adam Briggs.

Kaleena Briggs*
Wiradjuri woman Kaleena Briggs is best known as part of the folk band Stiff Gins (with Nardi Simpson). She adopted a "heavier sound" for The Makaratta Project.

Kev Carmody*
A Murri man, Carmody co-wrote, with Paul Kelly, From Little Things Big Things Grow which tells the story of the Wave Hill walk-off, a key moment in the recognition of Indigenous rights.

Kev Carmody.Credit:ABC

Troy Cassar-Daley*
The multi-award-winning country music star, whose mother is Bundjalung, recorded Freedom Ride, a tribute to the late Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, and the eerie bluesy Shadows on the Hill, about a 19th-century Aboriginal massacre on Gumbaynggirr country.

Electric Fields
Vocalist Zaachariaha Fielding and keyboard player and producer Michael Ross combine modern electric-soul music with Aboriginal culture and sing in Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and English.

Leah Flanagan.Credit:James Alcock

Leah Flanagan*
The Darwin singer-songwriter draws on her Alyawarre, Italian and Irish heritage. Classically trained, her work navigates the margins between soul, jazz and lovingly crafted pop.

Born blind, Dr G Yunupingu grew up as a member of the Gumatj clan on Elcho Island, off the coast of tropical North East Arnhem Land. The internationally acclaimed artist, with a powerfully emotive voice, died in 2017. One of his vocals is included in The Makaratta Project.

Dr G Yunupingu

Tasman Keith*
Tasman Keith, a Gumbaynggirr man from Bowraville on NSW’s north coast, is the son of trailblazing rapper Wire MC. Featured on Triple J's Unearthed, one of his best-known songs is Billy Bad Again.

Bunna Lawrie*
Bunna Lawrie is a Mirning elder, whale songman and was a pioneering Indigenous rocker with his band Coloured Stone. At the end of the Midnight Oil single Gadigal Land, he sings "Wenyo", which means "welcome, greetings".

Jessica Mauboy*
Jessica Mauboy's songs and videos have been streamed over 292 million times around the world. She has toured with Beyonce, sung for Barack Obama, represented Australia at Eurovision in 2014 and starred in Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires.

Jessica Mauboy.Credit:SBS

Shellie Morris & the Borroloola Songwomen
Since discovering her Wardaman and Yanyuwa roots, classically-trained Morris has worked with Borroloola Songwomen of the Northern Territory who are custodians of her maternal family's ancient Indigenous song cycles.

No Fixed Address
The Aboriginal reggae-rock band formed in Adelaide in 1979 when they fell under the spell of Bob Marley. One of the first Indigenous bands to be recorded, the 1984 video for We Have Survived was filmed at Palm Beach and Botany Bay.

Original band members of No Fixed Address in 2016: Lesley Graham Lovegrove (guitar, vocals) , Ricky Harrison (guitar, vocals)) ,Bart Willoughby (drums, vocals) and John John Miller (bass).Credit:Justin McManus

Thelma Plum
A Gamilaraay woman from Delungra, NSW, 25-year-old Plum's debut album Better in Blak in 2019 reached No.4 on the ARIA charts.

Archie Roach
Australian icon Archie Roach's debut album Charcoal Lane was released in 1990 and featured the song Took the Children Away about the Stolen Generation. When he was four, he and his sisters were forcibly removed from their family.

Singer Alice Skye.Credit:Michelle Grace Hunder

Alice Skye*
Alice Skye, a Wergaia woman from Horsham in Victoria, was the Triple J Unearthed National Indigenous Winner in 2017. She released her debut album Friends With Feelings in 2018.

Dan Sultan*
The multi-award-winning alternative rock singer and guitarist has Arrernte and Gurindji heritage. His albums include the ARIA-winning Black Bird (2014) and he has also played in Black Arm Band, a collective of Indigenous musicians.

Warumpi Band
Formed in the Aboriginal settlement of Papunya in the central desert region of the Northern Territory in the early '80s, the band released the first rock song in an Aboriginal language Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out From Jail) in 1983. They toured with Midnight Oil on the Blackfella/Whitefella tour of 1986. Guitarist Sammy Butcher is part of The Makarrata Project.

The Warumpi Band in Papunya in 1981, from left, Gordon Butcher, Neil Murray, Sammy Butcher, Denis Minor and George Rrurrambu (deceased).

Frank Yamma*
Frank Yamma, who sings in both Pitjantjatjara and English, is the son of Issac Yamma, one of the pioneers of singing Western style songs in traditional language. His most recent release, Tjukurpa: The Story, is nominated in the 2020 ARIA Awards for best blues and roots album.

Yothu Yindi
Formed through the merger of a band of unnamed musicians from the Yolngu homelands in Arnhem Land with a non-Indigenous group called the Swamp Jockeys, Yothu Yindi (which means Child and Mother) is most famous for the hit song Treaty (1991).

Ursula Yovich*
Ursula is a celebrated playwright and actor whose work includes Barbara and the Camp Dogs and The Man with the Iron Neck. On the musical front, she has toured with Black Arm Band. Growing up in Darwin, her first language was her mother’s Burarra.

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