The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at
The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at

Journeys with the Black Arm Band

Journalist Jane Cornwell welcomes this powerful musical journey through Australia’s cultural heartland, with its mix of traditional and contemporary songs set against a backdrop of specially commissioned visuals.

How to deal with the continuing effects of colonialism on the lives of the first Australians remains an unavoidable, central and enduring moral issue for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The so-called ‘Aboriginal question’ has long been debated in a continent claimed by the British in 1788, wrested from the original inhabitants who’d been there for over 40,000 years, living side-by-side with nature, practising their customs and rituals.

Singing up the songlines, the routes travelled across the landscape during the Dreamtime, the special period of beginning. Telling their stories in hundreds (somewhere between 350 and 750) of distinct social groupings and languages: Gumatj, Ngaatjatjara, Peek Whurrong, Yorta Yorta.

As tragedies mounted, voices grew louder. Indigenous voices: leaders and activists. Artists, writers and, especially, musicians

With colonisation came ignorance, alienation and unspeakable horrors. Entire populations were wiped out. Governments got it wrong, and wrong again, removing children from their families, and families from their land. But as tragedies mounted, voices grew louder. Indigenous voices: leaders and activists. Artists, writers and, especially, musicians. The songs they wrote told of their love of country, of encounters and memories, obligations and community. Of big hearts and big stories, triumphs as well as tragedies. They sang them as they marched for justice down city streets. They’re still singing them now.

‘Music and arts are the critical tipping point for the survival of our culture,’ says Brisbane-based singer and rapper Fred Leone, a community leader of Aboriginal, Tongan and South Sea Islander descent – and a current member of the Black Arm Band. ‘It’s a hard task, making culture relevant to the young. Elders and we – the next generation of elders – are adapting our methods to create new and innovative ways to assist knowledge transfer.’

A fluid supergroup of First Nations songwriters, musicians and their collaborators, the Black Arm Band was founded in Melbourne in 2006, armed with a remit to empower and inspire Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander communities, and build cultural bridges for reconciliation. Starting with murundak, a show highlighting black folk protest, their large-scale music-theatre productions have gone on to tour the great concert venues and festivals of the world, and they work with some of Australia’s most remote Indigenous communities.

dirtsong is the Black Arm Band’s third major project, a multi-media paean that uses film, dance and music to evoke a sense of country and spirit. Here are traditional songs, contemporary anthems and black-and-white footage of soaring water birds and Indigenous children kicking up sand. Here, too, are rhythmic clapsticks, sublime female harmonies and the ancient burr of the didgeridoo. And here is language: songs-cum-conversations performed in eleven different Aboriginal languages. A journey through Australia’s cultural heartland, in its original voices.

‘Our stories, sung through ancient languages, by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians, create a place for healing and hope,’ says Tjupurru, the Black Arm Band’s didgeribone [slide didgeridoo] player and a descendent of the Djabera Djabera of West Australia’s Kimberley area. ‘This is the way Australia’s dark past can be revealed, understood and reconciled.’

The mother of soul singer Deline Briscoe was three-years-old when she was forcibly taken from her land and family: ‘So growing up I never heard her languages, bubu and wawurr, spoken in our home,’ says Briscoe, a proud Yalanji woman from Far North Queensland. ‘dirtsong breathes new life into these words, for new ears and hearts to listen to and feel our stories.’

The Black Arm Band, then: celebrating the resilience and joy of an ever-evolving Indigenous Australia, and the culture that informs daily life.’

Listen to our Spotify playlist featuring dirtsong performers

Black Arm Band: dirtsong takes place 4 & 5 May in the Hall

Originally published in the March Guide