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Aboriginal Musicians 'Band' Together To Expose Oppression

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Aboriginal Musicians 'Band' Together To Expose Oppression

Aboriginal Musicians 'Band' Together To Expose Oppression

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Since the British arrived in Australia more than 200 years ago, aboriginal Australians have had a sad and tragic history. Indigenous Australians, who've lived on their continent for at least 40,000 years, have had their land stolen, treaties broken, and children taken away.

For the past six years, a group of musicians called The Black Arm Band has sung of the struggles and aspirations of aboriginal people. Their work is part catharsis, part education project. NPR's John Burnett has their story. A warning: It includes some offensive language.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A black arm band is a symbol of mourning. For aboriginals in Australia, it's come to mean something else. The black arm band view of history is a version of history that takes a critical - some would say militant - analysis of Anglo-Australia's mistreatment of indigenous people. And that, in a nutshell, is what The Black Arm Band sings about. It's protest music.


KUTCHA EDWARDS: (singing) We have survived the white man's world and (unintelligible). We have survived the white man's world and (unintelligible).

BURNETT: The group is actually called The Black Arm Band Company, a kind of all-star super group, with a rotating roster of Australian indigenous musicians, each successful in his or her own right. Singer and songwriter Shellie Morris, with dreadlocks and an incandescent smile, is one of the original members.

SHELLIE MORRIS: We were all out there singing our songs, telling our stories by ourselves. So we wanted to get together and do it in a much stronger way because of who we are and where we've all come from. We're not up there yelling and screaming and saying, it's your fault, it's your fault. We didn't want to leave the audience feeling no good. We wanted everyone to say, we believe in hope.

BURNETT: The aboriginal rights movement in Australia parallels the American Indian movement in this country with similar goals: land rights, self determination and cultural acceptance. They also have to put up with day-to-day discrimination. Shellie Morris tells the incident last year when she performed at the Sydney Opera House, a crowning achievement for an Australian artist. She invited nine indigenous women from her community to attend. When it was over, they went outside, stood on the sidewalk and tried to hail a cab.

MORRIS: And 20 taxis wouldn't pick us up. They see that you're aboriginal, and you're not getting in.

DAN SULTAN: In this country, someone won't see it as offensive to say the word abo or the word coon or nigger because they're not offended by it.

BURNETT: Dan Sultan, a 28-year-old aboriginal rocker, sits in a Melbourne coffeehouse. He's played with The Black Arm Band from the beginning.

SULTAN: What The Black Arm Band is trying to do is it's trying to just open people up and open people's eyes a bit to the situation, just put a big old mirror up so people can have a bit of a look at themselves.


EDWARDS: (singing) We been here since time began. Our ancestors' footprints are buried in the sand. We are but caretakers of this ancient land, but you still don't understand.

SULTAN: I remember we played a festival in Adelaide, a great festival called WOMAD. Some friends of mine were in the audience, and they overheard these two guys saying, oh, what's this, you know, a couple of aboriginal people, you know? They said, oh, we'll check it out. And anyway, by the end of the show, they were a bit teary, and, you know, they came away with more than they went there with.


EDWARDS: (singing) Is this what we deserve? Can you tell me now? Is this what we deserve?

BURNETT: The Black Arm Band has earned a loyal following among its overwhelmingly white audiences. Brian Strating is a folk musician and a primary school teacher in Melbourne and a big fan of the band.

BRIAN STRATING: I think that they are contributing in a very, very important way and a very powerful way to a conversation and the education of the general Australian public. The audience might already be sympathetic and understanding, but there's an amplification that, I think, spreads beyond that. It gives people like me in the audience inspiration to take the message with us further.

BURNETT: One of Australia's best-known aboriginal singer-songwriters is 57-year-old Archie Roach. His most famous composition is his personal story of what's come to be called the stolen children. These are the aboriginal sons and daughters, especially mixed-race children, who were forcibly removed from their parents by the Australian government to be raised by white foster families between 1870 and 1970. Roach was 3 when he was taken away. His song begins...

ARCHIE ROACH: This story is right. This story is true. I would not tell lies to you, like the promises they did not keep and how they fenced us in like sheep. They said to us, come take our hand. They set us up on mission land. Taught us to read, to write and pray, then they took the children away.


ROACH: (singing) Took the children away, yeah, the children away. Snatched from my mother's breast, said this is for the best, took them away.

BURNETT: In 1995, the Australian attorney general launched an exhaustive investigation into the stolen children. But it wasn't until 2008, in a landmark address to the commonwealth, that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a full apology.

FORMER PRIME MINISTER KEVIN RUDD: For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

BURNETT: Australia now observes a National Sorry Day to express regret for the historical mistreatment of aboriginal people. Uncle Archie, as he's known, sits quietly in a hotel room in Melbourne, a knit cap on his bald head. He is still recovering from a stroke, from cancer and from the death of his wife and fellow musician Ruby Hunter - all of which happened in the past two years. Roach is asked, does he also write songs about the entrenched problems within aboriginal communities. Australia's first people make up about 2 percent of the population. They suffer dramatically higher rates of infant mortality, drug abuse, alcoholism and unemployment than the rest of the population.

ROACH: I've got a song called "Walking into Doors." Now, that song is a song about domestic violence. In it I sing, Brother, don't hurt her anymore. We could be our own worst enemy. It's no use us pointing the finger of blame to anybody else anymore. We got to point our finger straight back at us. We can't blame colonialism anymore, you know? We've got to change our mindset.

BURNETT: Uncle Archie Roach says now that his people's street marches are over, there needs to be another outlet for protest, and he hopes The Black Arm Band is it. The musicians will make their U.S. debut next February in New York. John Burnett, NPR News.


ROACH: (singing) All the children came back. The children came back. Oh, the children came back. Yeah. I came back.


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