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Murundak: Songs of Freedom

MADMAN: An inspiring and moving journey into the heart of Aboriginal protest music, featuring The Black Arm Band.
Murundak: Songs of Freedom
I’m fortunate to have seen the Black Arm Band play twice: their debut at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2006, and at Womadelaide in 2008. The latter gig features in Murundak: Songs of Freedom, a DVD that tells the Black Arm Band’s story, interwoven with an entertaining lesson in Aboriginal protest music and the reasons for that protest.

The Womadelaide gig was special for the band because it was their first performance after Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation. Actor and SBS presenter Rachel Maza Long introduces the band and singer Ursula Yovich knocks into her microphone and says sorry. Rachel asks her what she said and Ursula repeats, sorry. “Say it again”, Rachel tells her and Ursula says sorry a half dozen different ways. “See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” Rachel laughs, and the crowd roars.

For veteran artists in the Black Arm Band (named to parody former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s rejection of a ‘black arm band view of history’), that concert was the first time they felt they didn’t have to worry about what an audience might think of their protest songs. Members of the Aboriginal musical firmament like Lou Bennett (Tiddas), Joe Geia (No Fixed Address), Archie Roach and Bart Willoughby (No Fixed Address, Goanna) performed with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes. It was a moving moment, and it’s one of many captured on this illuminating DVD.

The Black Arm Band – an Aboriginal super group – formed in 2006. It was created to perform a one-off show called Murundak, a showcase of popular Aboriginal protest music, including such songs as Archie Roach’s ‘Took the Children Away’, No Fixed Address’s ‘Yil Lul’ and ‘We Have Survived’, and whitefella’s forays into the same territory, such as Paul Kelly’s ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’ and Goanna’s ‘Solid Rock’. With a band boasting Dan Sultan, Emma Donovan, Shane Howard, Stephen Pigram, Ruby Hunter, Mark Atkins, Kutcha Edwards, Jimmy Little and many others, it’s not surprising the project grew, touring Australia and the world.

This DVD tracks the band’s history, including its performance at the Sydney Opera House and its show in London, the idea of which was to show the British, in Joe Geia’s words, that Aboriginal people have survived 200 years of white settlement. Kutcha Edwards, a member of the Stolen Generation, holds up photos of his late parents and sings ‘Is This What We Deserve?’ to “the mob who put us in the predicament we’re in”. There’s barely a dry eye amongst the mob at Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Murundak: Songs of Freedom tracks the public narrative of Aboriginal protest against injustice while also exploring the personal journeys attached to the songs: No Fixed Address being bumped off stage for being black, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter’s time drunk on the streets before becoming respected Aboriginal elders and transformative musicians. The documentary concludes with the reality that the current crop of Aboriginal musicians, like Dan Sultan, don’t have to sing protest songs if they don’t want to, due to the hard work of his Uncles and Aunties in the Aboriginal musical community.

As Bart Willoughby tells it, many of the older generation of Aboriginal protest singers have a kind of syndrome like the one experienced by Vietnam veterans of the same era, though he says “we never went to war”. But they did; with their music and for their people. Joe Geia remembers carrying around a megaphone in the ‘70s, protesting on the streets, until he thought that a PA system and music might be a better way.

Murundak documents Joe’s and Bart’s and Archie’s and Ruby’s – and so many other Aboriginal artists’ – cathartic moments. They sing their songs of protest and freedom to audiences they hope, in this post-apology moment, will join them to help transform the lives of their people, still one of the most underprivileged on earth. It’s a moving and – despite an often tragic subject matter – warm-hearted and positive testament to the power of music and the indomitable Aboriginal spirit.

The DVD extras includes full recordings of songs performed in the main feature (and many other tracks) as well as further interviews with Aboriginal artists.

Four and a half stars

Murundak: Songs of Freedom
Written and directed by Natasha Gadd and Rhys Graham
Australia, 2011, 82 minutes + extras
Madman Entertainment
Rated M

Paul Mitchell

Saturday 2 July, 2011

About the author

Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne-based writer. His short fiction collection, Dodging the Bull (Wakefield Press) was part of the 2008 The Age State Library Summer Read. He has published two collections of poetry, Minorphysics (IP) and Awake Despite the Hour (Five Islands Press). Paul's essays and journalism have appeared in Griffith Review, The Age, Eureka Street, Meanjin and The Big Issue.