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Australia's Black Arm Band makes music out of a painful past

From a dark past, soulful songs emerge

Aboriginal protest songs deal with struggles and resistance, but the music is utterly rich and captivating.
Jun 5, 2015 5:50 AM

SOME of the most beautiful music you'll hear at this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) comes from the darkest places.

Besides Matthias Goerne's haunting rendition of Schubert's Winterreise, written while the composer was dying, there's also the extraordinary Black Arm Band from Australia performing Dirtsong at the Victoria Theatre.

The music is utterly captivating, a mellifluous blend of voices and indigenous and modern instruments - even though the words belong to some near-extinct aboriginal languages and the messages stem from what the band's spokesman describes as the "oppression" of the aboriginal people.

"This music speaks of cultural dispossession and survival, and the struggles against oppression. It highlights social equality and unites people to drive social change," said the spokesman, likening it to anti-apartheid songs of South Africa and Civil Rights movement songs of America which were similarly sung to propel change in their respective countries.

Black Arm Band is a young music collective, formed only in 2006 in response to then-Prime Minister of Australia John Howard's "dismissal of the 'black  armband view of history', which saw him essentially denying the cultural dispossession of the First Nations in Australia since the arrival of the Europeans," said the spokesman. "These views discredit the atrocities carried out against the First Nations."

Subsequently, many of the pioneers of Aboriginal contemporary music came together to create a new project called The Black Arm Jam to make music that draws from Aboriginal Australian as well as contemporary genres.

The spokesman said: "Many contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musicians have been singing about their marred history and the associated dispossession for decades. Through this music, they have made an immense and positive impact not only on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities but also the broader Australian community through raising awareness and telling their stories."

The music, though remarkably infectious, carries a message of struggles and resistance. Ong Keng Sen, SIFA's festival director, confessed to being "covered in tears" when he first heard the band, prompting him to include it in this year's festival line-up.

Black Arm Band's spokesman said: "Creating the songs involved the deep pain of acknowledging why and how our First Nations' languages have been removed from use, and the associated cultural, familial and social ramifications of their removal.

"Like the polar ice caps, the world's languages are melting away. According to Unesco, they disappear at a rate of one every two weeks . . . Before the arrival of Europeans there were hundreds of languages spoken here but only around half of them are left and many of them are endangered. And Australia has the worst record of language extinction in the world."

The spokesman said the band doesn't just perform music about its painful past, it also sings about love, land and family. The musicians find inspiration from pop, blues, R&B, soul, jazz as well as classical music to create melodies that appeal to a broad range of audiences.

"The story of Aboriginal life is not just about sadness, loss and struggle. It is also about joy, hope and triumph against the odds," said the spokesman. "When you listen to this music, you will gain a new sense and understanding of the beauty, richness and diversity of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture."

Dirtsong by Black Arm Band plays at the Victoria Theatre on Aug 20-22 at 8pm. Tickets from S$40 from Sistic