The terms ‘Indigenous’, ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Islander’ are self-defining in Australia. An ‘Indigenous’ person is one who identifies as ‘Indigenous’ and is accepted by other Indigenous people.

The term ‘Indigenous music’ here refers to music owned or composed or performed by Aboriginal or Islander musicians. It therefore includes musical styles originating before the settlement of Australia by European people, and musical styles which have been taken up by Indigenous musicians since then.

The terms ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ are problematic. The Indigenous use of ensembles and styles originating outside Australia has now an extensive history. While they may for convenience be labelled ‘contemporary,’ in many places Indigenous use of these styles is established as a tradition in its own right. On the other hand, songs which use styles originating in pre-invasion Australia may be very recent.

I am using ‘traditional’ as a convenient way to describe music whose stylistic origins are Indigenous, and ‘contemporary’ to refer to styles whose origins are outside Indigenous Australia but these terms carry no implication that some styles are more ‘authentic’ than others. All of these songs and styles are in important ways ‘Aboriginal’ although their Indigeneity may not be immediately obvious to all listeners.

Traditional Musical Styles

Traditional Aboriginal music, like the 250 or more languages of Aboriginal Australia, differs in different parts of the continent. Some general observations apply across Australia, but specific musical styles are associated with specific Aboriginal groups. Musical styles which originated in Indigenous Australia are still strongly practised in northern and central parts of Australia: the Kimberley area of Western Australia, Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, Cape York in Queensland, and the sparsely populated central areas.

Traditionally, Indigenous music is primarily vocal. Across Australia, the traditional musical ensemble is a singer or several singers of the same gender with percussion accompaniment. A single singer or a group of male singers might accompany themselves with paired sticks or boomerang clapsticks; a single female singer or a group of female singers might accompany themselves with pairs of sticks or with body percussion. More rarely, a singing group includes men and women together. In north Australia, the accompaniment might also include the didjeridu (an end-blown natural trumpet without fingerholes).

Performances take place out of doors and without written prompts. They often occur with dancing: vigorous and energetic male performances and more contained but still virtuosic female performances. They may well be part of an extended ceremonial complex which may also include painting – body painting, rock painting, the preparing and painting of special boards, ceremonial poles or figurine carvings – costumes, including, in central Australia, elaborate headdresses for the dancers, and props, such as the feathered string, so crucial in the north and the ritual boards of the centre. Such a performance might last for several days, and at its centre are the songs; the directors of the performance are the chief singer or singers.

Throughout the continent, Indigenous musicians have adopted popular music styles: country and western and rock inspired ensembles and songs are heard everywhere. In areas where traditional styles are still strong, musicians often mix musical characteristics of their traditional music with contemporary forms. A rock ensemble, with singers, electric guitars, bass and drum kit will sing songs written by the Indigenous performers in their own languages, and sometimes incorporating aspects of their traditional musical styles into the rock forms. New music and musical styles have come with the adoption of Christianity in many areas.

Often the didjeridu is added to the rock ensemble. The didjeridu has seen two movements out of its traditional Arnhem Land home. The first happens when didjeridu-accompanied musical styles from Arnhem Land, particularly the Wangga and related genres from north-western Arnhem Land, have travelled or been traded into neighbouring areas. These are now heard from the western and southern end of the Gulf of Carpentaria across to the Kimberley. The second has happened when Indigenous musicians from all over the continent have adopted the didjeridu as a musical icon of their Aboriginality. It now appears as a solo instrument, or in conjunction with other musical ensembles: a rock band, or a wind quintet, or a symphony orchestra for example.

In north Queensland, interaction with Papua New Guineans has taken place for hundreds of years, and with Pacific islander people in maritime industries like pearl shelling more recently. Choral part singing by squads of dancers is accompanied by leaf and shell rattles and the skin drum in a style called in north Australia ‘island dance’ or some similar name. This musical style now takes its place in ceremonies alongside styles which seem to have an older derivation.

Music and Religious Beliefs

Traditional Aboriginal religious beliefs centre around a concept usually known in English as ‘the Dreaming.’ This polysemous word refers to the myths explaining the origin of Aboriginal land, people and natural phenomena; it is considered to be the source of Aboriginal social organisation and mores; it provides the blueprint for Aboriginal law; and it describes the special, ‘totemic’ relationship that individual Aboriginal people have with the natural world.

The myths tell stories about the ancestor creator heroes who, a long time ago (‘in the Dreaming’), came usually singly or in pairs to a formless land. In travelling across particular areas they created the present topographical forms of the land, populated it with animals and plants, gave birth to human beings, taught them how to speak and sing, how to behave well and how to sustain the land and its people. They then disappeared into the land, or sky, or across the sea. Physical features of the land owe their existence to the heroes and their activities. The creative powers that they displayed while forming the land are now imbued in the land itself.

If the land and its occupants are to flourish, these creative powers must be reactivated at regular intervals, and this can be done by the performance of the appropriate ceremonies. During these ceremonies, the songs reference the names, natures and activities of the creative ancestor heroes, and the dancers reawaken the generative force through the power of the song and ceremony

Most traditional Aboriginal songs are believed to have come from the Dreaming. In a few genres human agency is recognised in composition, but for the most part the songs are believed to have come down through the generations from those whom the ancestral heroes taught. Even new songs in these genres are thought to be taught to contemporary singers in an actual dream, or during some other quiet period, by relatives now deceased who can show them new aspects of the Dreaming.

Ceremonial Performance

Ceremonies are usually underpinned by a particular part of a Dreaming myth. One section of a myth is chosen as the basis of the songs, dances, paintings and other associated ceremonial paraphernalia, and the ceremony is an elaboration of the nature and activities of the ancestor hero celebrated. Songs which are related to the ancestors’ activities over particular areas of land, are often owned and sung by the living descendants who now own that piece of land. Singing the particular songs is an assertion of the singers’ rights in that piece of land. Songs are an important part of the inheritance of particular people or families, and may only be sung by the appropriately authoritative singers.

This is a very powerful form of song ownership, because no-one can sing or play recordings of these songs who has not been authorised to do so by the recognised owner. In some cases, the owner may be a family (clan), whose members collectively own the songs, although in practice it is often a senior member, senior in age and ritual status, who takes the decisions. Some ceremonies or parts of ceremonies may be restricted as to who may perform them and who may witness them. Some ceremonies are for men only, some for women only and some may be viewed by anyone.

The performance of highly elaborated ceremonies is a crucial part of Aboriginal life. They are expressions of the philosophy and explorations of the significance of Aboriginal beliefs. They have important social functions, related especially to the recognition of status and learning, and death. The ceremonies which train men and women in religious beliefs and social life are usually, or mostly, secret. As they become older and their experience of ceremonies grows more extensive, men and women are taught more and more of the true significance and meaning of the songs and ceremonial activities. An elder is someone who has been to many ceremonies, can sing many songs and has extensive knowledge of these important matters.

Ceremonies associated with death, on the other hand, are not usually secret. They are performed in public places and they provide structures where the whole society can express and deal with their grief. Clan songs such as the Brolga and Djambidj series discussed below would be performed at funerals and, as important and significant but not secret songs, are available for use on many other occasions. None of the secret material is discussed here.

Public performances of traditional music and dance are sometimes referred to as corroborees, a word from one of the languages of the Sydney region whose use has spread throughout the continent. The music usually consists of a number of short items commonly between 30 seconds and 2 minutes long, performed one after the other with short breaks between them. Of the two recorded performances discussed here, one has 22 song items, one 44 items. Because of the attempt to fit a whole corroboree on a single recording, these performances are if anything shorter than usual. Although these performances are not secret, the songs and dances are part of the important ceremonial resources of these performing groups.

Some Examples

North-East Arnhem Land

In 1963 Alice Moyle recorded a Brolga corroboree at Numbulwar in eastern Arnhem Land. It has been published as the first 5 tracks on the CD Songs from the Northern Territory 2 Aboriginal Music from Eastern Arnhem Land. The following information is taken from the CD notes by Alice Moyle.

The Brolga corroboree is sung by two groups of Nunggubuyu-speaking musicians. Singers from the Ngalma-ngalmi clan sing items about Brolga (a large Australian silvery-grey bird). Alternate items are sung by members of the Murungun clan and their song items are from a different series. Gulungu, Ngardhangi and Arrama are the Ngalma-ngalmi singers, and didjeridu accompaniment is provided by a young didjeridu player, Rimili.

Their items are:

  • 1. The Brolgas come in
  • 3. Another flock arrives
  • 5. Another flock arrives
  • 7. Daybreak
  • 9. Daybreak
  • 11. Brolgas coming from Warkala
  • 13. Still coming from Warkala, Ramiyu and Karangarri
  • 15. Daybreak
  • 17. Brolgas coming from Warkala
  • 19. Brolgas coming from Warkala
  • 21. Brolgas coming (“finish”)

The alternate items are sung by the Murungun clan singers Larangana and Djingudi. Rimili also provides didjeridu accompaniment for them. Their items are:

  • 2. Yambirrigu (fish)
  • 4. Yambirrigu (fish)
  • 6. Yambirrigu (fish)
  • 8. Dhambul (feathered strings)
  • 10. Dhambul (feathered strings)
  • 12. Dhambul (feathered strings)
  • 14. Dhambul (feathered strings)
  • 16. Dhambul (hold up the sticks by which the feathered strings are hoisted)
  • 18. Dhambul
  • 20. Dhambul
  • 22. Dhambul (“finish”)

Dancing occurred throughout the performance, and the dancers’ chirping sounds can be heard on the recording. Bystanders contributed whistles and comments and the excitement of the performance is clearly audible.

Quieter and clearer versions of the Brolga song items are heard in the later CD tracks. These are brilliant examples of clan-owned and performed songs relating to a totemic song subject. The vocal parts consist of wide-ranging melodic descents; the singer’s clapsticks clearly mark the tempo and the didjeridu player employs the fundamental, first overtone and a range of voiced and unvoiced effects to produce a lively energetic performance. The Brolga’s calls are imitated in a vocal refrain.

A free translation of one of these Brolga items is

  • Now they are standing
  • Close together
  • Others are flying
  • From Mamururi
  • Up there circling
  • Ngiwalkirri
  • Kurruwurwur
  • Now they are standing
  • Close together.

Typically, the song text describes the Brolgas travelling over named areas of land of special significance to the Ngalma-ngalmi family.

The Murungun items are clearly distinguished from the Ngalma-ngalmi items by their musical form: melodic undulations within a narrow vocal range.

Central Arnhem Land

In 1979, performers from the Blyth River region of Arnhem Land went to Canberra and performed a song series known as Djambidj. Recordings of this performance were issued on an LP entitled Djambidj: An Aboriginal Song Series from northern Australia (soon to be issued on CD). The following information is taken from the companion booklet by Margaret Clunies Ross and Stephen Wild.

The two senior singers were Frank Gurrmanamana and Frank Malkorda, and the didjeridu was played by Sam Gumugun. The performance was missing various elements that would have been present in an Arnhem Land performance (ceremonial activities such as dancing, dramatic enactments, body painting, sand sculptures and the display of ritual objects), but in the relatively contrived environment in Canberra, musical and textual aspects of the song series could be foregrounded.

Each of the 13 tracks contains one or more song items about one song subject:

  • Dalwurra (Black Bittern) 3 items
  • Wurragulama (Green Turtle) 4 items
  • Marrawal (Spirit Man) 2 items
  • Balidja/Wodbarridja (Small Tuber) 3 items
  • Djurdi-djurda (Small Bird) 2 items
  • Djodja (Red-cheeked Marsupial Mouse) 4 items
  • Galauwun (Silver-crowned Friar-bird) 2 items
  • Wang-gurra (Brindled Bandicoot) 1 item
  • Wama-Dubun (Wild honey – sugar bag – and Hollow Log) 5 items
  • Anmurnabama (King Brown Snake) 3 items
  • Ngalilag (White Cockatoo) 4 items
  • Maralgarra (Crow) 6 items
  • Djurrei (Eel) 5 items

In some ways these are similar to the east Arnhem Land songs. Like the items for Brolga, these song items may have three sections, an introduction, the song proper, and an unaccompanied vocal termination. Of these three, only the second section is mandatory; the introduction and the unaccompanied vocal termination may or may not be present. In both of these performances, the song items are improvised in performance. The elements to be used are carefully defined: the song texts, the melodic contour, the stick patterns and the didjeridu part have a repertoire of elements available for each song subject and they are combined anew in each performance. As in the Brolga corroboree, however, each item has a highly polished and detailed structure intricately worked and coordinated, showing evidence of the brilliant musicality and experience of the musicians.

The lists of song subjects for these two series give some indication of the kinds of material dealt with in Indigenous songs. The Djambidj items all relate to particular species known in north-central Arnhem Land. Some, like Galauwun (Silver-crowned Friar-bird) and Djodja (Red-cheeked Marsupial Mouse) are clearly defined, but others like Djurdi-djurda (Small Bird) obviously resisted the efforts of the several very thorough and experienced researchers who worked on this material to establish which bird it actually was.

The translation of the Brolga item indicates how much of the Aboriginal lexicon is based on geographical names and how little the song texts reveal with simple translation. Mamururi, Ngiwalkirri and Kurruwurwur roll off the tongue with a delightfully musical effect, but to a knowledgeable Nunggubuyu person they reference the myths that are associated with each place, and the history and literature which the myths detail. Layers of meaning are encoded in song texts like these and they can by unpicked only by the appropriately authorised elders. Detailed notation and translation of the Djambidj texts, available in the companion booklet, give a sense of the scope, detail and poetic elaboration of the material.

Other Traditional Musical Styles

West Arnhem land Wangga and Wangga-related series provide a further variant on the Arnhem Land styles discussed so far. Several CDs including Bunggridj-bunggridj: Wangga Songs from Northern Australia by Alan Maralung with Linda Barwick, and Rak Badjalarr: Wangga Songs for North Peron Island by Bobby Lane complement Allan Marett’s book Songs, Dreamings and Ghosts: The Wangga of North Australia. The songs are sung by a male singer or singers with a pair of hand-held clapsticks and accompanied by a didjeridu. Their sound components are the same, but the musical styles are clearly distinguishable. They tend to be owned not by families but by single singers who typically recount receiving them in a dream from a deceased ancestor.

The music of the Kimberley area has been studied to some extent. Some material is available in recording, and the literature is becoming more extensive. Nurlu is a boomerang-clapstick-accompanied dance song genre. Butcher Joe’s Nurlu, named typically for its owner, is sampled in commercially available recordings.

Songs associated with the Wandjina, the famous rock paintings of figures with halo-like decoration around the head which has eyes and nose but no mouth have been recorded and published. A single singer using repetitive song texts beats a pair of sticks in fast patterns which were said to represent rain. The Wandjina are associated with rain in a part of Australia where yearly monsoon-like weather patterns are an essential to all life.

Djabi is another category of Kimberley song. They are composed and sung by individual musicians and are accompanied by a rasp called djabi, the only use of such an instrument in Australia.

Central Australian styles are sung by a singer or a group of singers each of whom beats a pair of boomerang clapsticks. Many of these series have been studied in great detail, but because they are mostly secret, and recordings are not readily available, it is difficult to assimilate their musical reality.

A book and related CD by R.M.W. Dixon, and Grace Koch, Dyirbal Song Poetry: The Oral Literature of an Australian Rainforest People examine traditional songs from an area behind the coastal city of Cairns in North Queensland and provide detailed examination of a song tradition now no longer practised. The elderly singers recorded from the 1960s to 1980s show the same attention to fine details of structure obvious from other parts of Australia. The recordings are mostly of single singers with percussion accompaniment, and the song subjects show a range of concerns. Some describe the behaviour of birds and animals, others show how to make hunting implements and outline techniques of fishing and hunting. Some, as always, relate to particular places. Some incorporate aspects of religious beliefs and practices: how to stop thunder, how traditionally-trained doctors might cause or cure illnesses. Some speak of personal feelings such as love, grief, bravery, and some comment on the effects of the white invasion and loss and desecration of the land. Not all are imbued with the seriousness of ritual and ceremonial implications. One favourite is ‘Henry’s Pigs’. The text is translated as:

  • Hughie Henry’s pigs
  • He is in the yard
  • Standing there just like a pig himself

Contemporary Styles

Many Indigenous musicians and performing groups use contemporary Western musical styles. One of these is Kev Carmody, a singer-songwriter with a guitar who writes and performs songs about being Aboriginal. With Paul Kelly he wrote ‘From little things, big things grow’ about the cattle station workers in the Northern Territory who in 1966 walked off in protest at their conditions and began a movement which eventually forced the recognition of Aboriginal land rights in Australia.

The former practice of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from parents who were considered incapable of looking after them prompts many songs. ‘Brown-skin Baby’ is one written by Bob Randall, a stolen child himself whose extended efforts to find his family is recounted in his biography (Songman: The Story of an Aboriginal Elder of Uluru, Sydney: ABC Books, 2003).

A more recent example is Archie Roach’s ‘Took the Children Away.’ Again the composer was a stolen child and his extensive writing and performing experience, sometimes with his partner Ruby Hunter, explores this experience in bitter and melancholy songs of great power.

Christine Anu is a highly successful dance-pop singer, whose performance of the Warumpi Band’s ‘My Island Home’ is well-known. Her songs are often about her experience as a Torres Strait Islander, and she sometimes uses Torres Strait Island songs.

Roger Knox and Troy Cassar-Daly are contemporary Indigenous performers using country and western forms, a practice which goes back for at least 60 years.

Geoffrey Gurumul Yunupingu, who sings his own songs mostly in his north-east Arnhem Land language Gumatj, is a brilliant recent addition to this distinguished company.

Of the performing groups, the most well-known is Yothu Yindi. Their award-winning song ‘Treaty’ a rock song using the traditional north-east Arnhem Land djatpangarri style, is about the political failure to produce a treaty between Indigenous Australians and the invaders who took over their land from 1788. Other rock groups include Blekbala Mukik, Warumpi Band, Saltwater Band, Lajamanu Teenage Band, Coloured Stone, No Fixed Address, Us Mob, Mixed Relations, Kulumindini Band, Pitjantjatjara Country Band. There are dozens if not hundreds of these groups, and like all such groups they change members, change names, disband and reform over time. Some of their music is available through Skinnyfish Music and some through Celebrating Culture. Tiddas, and Stiff Gins are two female groups which use tight vocal harmonies.

In addition to these groups there is another category of performer, the didjeridu players. These are young men (usually not women) who have taken didjeridu performance on a new journey. Some are traditional players and some have learnt from traditional players, others have learnt independently but all have extended the use of the didjeridu, moving beyond its traditional role as an instrument to accompany singing, exploring new and exciting ways to play this evocative instrument. Djalu Gurriwiwi and his family are traditional makes and players of the didjeridu. Milkayngu Munungurr’s recordings are listed online.1 This site also refers to other musical materials from north east Arnhem Land. Charlie McMahon has a great respect for traditional players, but does not seek to imitate them. He takes the didjeridu into contemporary music, tuning it to concert pitch and using it in new ways. William Barton has played in Peter Sculthorpe’s Requiem, a major work for orchestra, chorus and didjeridu. Alan Dargin, David Hudson, Mark Atkins and Janawirri Yiparrka are four more of these didjeridu players who play it as a solo instrument and in new ensembles.

Broome in Western Australia is the home of a remarkable family which is known as the Pigram brothers. Their two highly successful musicals, ‘Bran Nue Dae’ and ‘Corrugation Road’ toured Australia in the 1990s. They continue to write, perform and publish songs and tour each year. But they remain strongly connected to Broome.


Contemporary Sources

In the last 20 years, a major shift in Aboriginal musical styles and their presentation has occurred. Some highly accomplished and highly learned Indigenous performers are still likely to be found performing only at local ceremonial occasions, but many are taking active steps to present their musical culture to the rest of Australia and the world.

The Garma Festival of Traditional Culture is hosted by the Yolngu people every year in north-east Arnhem Land. This is a five-day event to which Australian political leaders, Indigenous leaders, invited guests and others come to learn about Yolngu culture. Centring on Yolngu performing arts, the compass of the festival illustrates very clearly the holistic approach of Indigenous cultures. The music festival reaches out not only to other performing and graphic arts, but to education, health and the whole experience of being Aboriginal in contemporary Australia. A recording studio has been built as part of the local musical development centre, and a national programme for recording Indigenous music is under development.

The Ngarinyin Culture College runs 11-day courses in the Kimberley in Western Australia. Again music and dance are central but lead through to other aspects of living.

In central Australia the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) at Alice Springs, runs radio and television stations, produces commercial recordings in its own studio, and films with its own resources. Since the 1970s, CAAMA has concerned itself with the social, cultural and economic advancement of Aboriginal peoples. Clearly focusing on the promotion of Aboriginal culture, language, dance, and music it aims to generate economic benefits in the form of training, employment and income generation.

The Tjapukai Dance Theatre in Cairns, north Queensland is another of the regional centres run by local Aboriginal communities to demonstrate aspects of their culture to visitors. This one operates continuously and is the flagship for the marketing of Australia’s Indigenous cultures, a multi-award winning Aboriginal centre on a 25 acre site with separate arenas allowing visitors to experience rainforest culture, its history and dreaming, as well as its contemporary dance theatre.

Professional dance training institutions, and dance companies exist, and the foremost of these is The Bangarra Dance Theatre. Its focus is to blend traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture with international contemporary dance influences to create a truly Australian dance language. Based in Sydney, it has established deep and on-going relationships with Aboriginal musicians and dancers in different parts of the continent.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Sound recordings and films demonstrating traditional musical styles are to be found through the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Their library and sound archive whose catalogue is available online,2 hold the most extensive collection of material, especially the early material, and their publishing arm, Aboriginal Studies Press is a major source.

Further Information

The dearth of books about Australian Indigenous music is gradually being overcome by some excellent specialist material.

  1. The book by Allan Marett, Songs, Dreamings and Ghosts: The Wangga of North Australia (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2005) deals specifically with a particular north-west Arnhem land genre.
  2. R.M.W. Dixon and Grace Koch’s Dyirbal Song Poetry: The Oral Literature of an Australian Rainforest People (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1996) documents a now no longer performed genre in north Queensland.
  3. Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2004) introduces Aboriginal rock music.
  4. Clinton Walker’s Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music (Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press, 2000) is a comprehensive source for Aboriginal musicians in the country music genre.
  5. Fiona Magowan, Melodies of Mourning: Music and Emotion in Northern Australia (Crawley, W.A. University of Western Australia Press, 2007) examines women’s crying songs from north east Arnhem Land.
  6. Karl Neuenfeldt ed., The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet (Sydney: John Libbey & Perfect Beat Publications, 1997) is a collection of specialist articles about the didjeridu.
  7. Jill Stubington’s Singing the Land: The Power of Performance in Aboriginal Life will be published by Currency House in Sydney in October 2007. Although it does deal in some detail with music, especially the published recordings, it is intended primarily as an introduction to Indigenous music for a non-specialist audience. It is available from Currency House.3


Dr Jill Stubington. Submitted 9 July 2009. Still considered current by author, October 2014.


Jill’s brother John Stubington took the brolga and Wandjina photos.



Dr Jill Stubington is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Music and Music Education, University of New South Wales, Kensington, Sydney.

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