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Fighting Social Problems With Rock Songs

Ignoring commercial formulas, Australia's Aboriginal people use music to express feelings and deal with issues

THEY don't sing about love and heartbreak. Instead, Aboriginal rock groups focus on social issues such as the effect of drugs and alcohol on their community, land rights, and unhappiness over mining and development. It's not the normal commercial formula, ``Will you love me tomorrow?'' says Bill Davis, coordinator for CAAMA Music which is part of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association in Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

``It's just a reflection of things that we see and effect us,'' explains Paul Ahchee who is with the Aboriginal group Amunda. ``Aboriginal people feel more comfortable singing about how they feel than writing a letter to a newspaper,'' says Mr. Ahchee.

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Amunda, for example, laments the development of Alice Springs in the song ``Alice, Don't Grow So Fast'': ``Soon there will be tall buildings/ Blocking out the sky/ Couldn't see the hills for the fog in the sky/ Couldn't see the hills for the fog in the sky.''

Alcoholism is another major concern of the groups. The North Tanami Band croons, ``Don't drive and drink.'' And Pantju (Punch) Thompson sings in his native Pitulu, ``Now! Sitting without thinking/ Older brother drinking wine/ Younger brother sniffing petrol.''

Scrap Metal, which is more mainstream than most of the bands, sings about Broome, a small coastal town in northwestern Australia. ``It's our feeling about the town, the things that happen to the town and our life-style here,'' says Alan Pigram, a guitar player on the band.

In their song ``Old Broome Town,'' Scrap Metal laments how things have changed since they were children growing up in Broome: ``But the freedom of our younger days have all gone now/ And, things are not the same anymore.''

Most Aboriginal rock groups sing in English. But sometimes the lyrics are in the band's native dialect. The second half of Yothu Yindi's CD ``Homeland Movement'' is all traditional songs from the Rirratinu and Gumatj clans of East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. It includes songs about the brolga, a bird, and the eating of kangaroo meat in a sacred place.

However, many Aborigines never learned their native language because it was discouraged by the Australian government in the 1950s and 1960s as part an assimilation policy. There is a greater interest today in Aborigines singing in their native tongue, says Mr. Ahchee.

Although most songs are written by the groups, Blekbala Mujik, in an unusual twist, received special permission to sing songs that are owned by individual Aborigines. Each Aboriginal has his own song which only he can sing. Under tribal law, singing someone else's song is punishable by death. However, with permission, says Davis, ``there are less likely to be problems.''

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Aboriginal rock groups mainly use drums and guitars. There is an uneven quality among the groups, and most of the music is the major key. However, some groups use clack sticks, hard pieces of wood that make a sharp sound, or boomerangs rubbed together, which give off a vibrating sound, or the didgeridoo, a wind instrument that makes a deep, droning sound.

Most Aborigines are poor. To afford electric guitars, amplifiers, and drums takes some ingenuity and at times luck. Scrap Metal, for example, got its start 10 years ago after a 50-cent bet at the racetrack returned $1,400. ``We spent the next day buying new guitars and new amps,'' says Mr. Pigram.

Already, some of the groups are receiving international attention. The established Australian band Midnight Oil, for instance, has used Yothu Yindi as its opener in concerts outside of Australia.

Like any other artists, the Aborigines want recognition. However, as Davis notes, ``there are big puddles and little puddles, and some are content to be known locally while some others have a clear grasp of what it takes to be musically active in the big smoke.''

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