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Music of Australia

The earliest Australian musical form was the folk musics of the Australian Aborigines. Aboriginal music declined after European colonization, and has only recently begun to be revived, often with modernized influences. Bands like Yothu Yindi have begun the popularization of Aboriginal folk in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Australia has also been home to notable classical composers as well as artists working in popular music genres such as rock, jazz, folk and electronica.

Table of contents
1 Aboriginal music
2 Classical and contemporary
3 Jazz and new music
4 Popular music
5 See also
6 References

Aboriginal music

Aboriginal music has become a vehicle for social protest, and has been linked, by both performers and outsiders, with similar forms from Native Americans; Jamaican singer Bob Marley is often credited with helping to revive traditional Aboriginal music, as did the movie Wrong Side of the Road, which depicted Aboriginal reggae bands struggling for recognition and linked it with land rights. Yothu Yindi's sudden pop success in the 1990s surprised many observers, and helped bring many Aboriginal issues into mainstream Australian affairs. In 1980, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) began broadcasting traditional music and has become extremely successful. CAAMA has helped popularize remote musical communities, such as Blek Bala Mujik whose "Walking Together" became a sort of Australian anthem after its use in a Qantas commercial. Other popular Aboriginal bands include Desert Oaks Band, Blackstorm, Chrysophrase, Young Teenage Band, North Tanami Band, Christine Anu, Warumpi Band, Bart Willoughby, Buna Lawrie, Coloured Stone, Areyonga Desert Tigers and Waryngya Band.

Aboriginal mythology tells of a period in the ancient past called the Dreamtime, during which totemic spirits wandered the continent singing the names of plants, animals and other natural features. Thus, song brought the world into existence; these totemic spirits left emblems across the continent, and the paths between them are called songlines. Music is thus deeply linked to the creation myth; Yothu Yindi's Mandawuy Yunupingus said "The song is creation. The art is creation. The specialness in that, is that we have a heart and mind connection to mother earth... Songlines is entrenched within the land itself, the journey of the songlines is from the east to the west, the journey is about following the sun" (Breen, p. 11).


Bunggul is a style of music that arose around the Mann River and is known for its intense lyrics, which are often stories of epic journeys and continue, or repeat, unaccompanied after the music has stopped.

Clan songs

A particular clan in Aboriginal culture may share songs, known as emeba (
Groote Eylandt), fjatpangarri (Yirrkala), manikay (Arnhem Land) or other native terms. Songs are about clan or family history and are frequently updated to take into account popular films and music, controversies and social relationships.


Karma is a type of oral literature that tells a
religious or historical story.


didgeridoo is a type of musical instrument, a woodwind aerophone, traditionally made out of eucalyptus or bamboo. Aborigines used the didgeridoo to communicate over long distances, as well as to accompany songs, and the instrument is commonly considered the national instrument of Australian Aborigines. Famous players include Mark Atkins and Joe Geia, as well as white virtuoso Charlie McMahon.

Krill Krill

The Krill Krill song cycle is a modern musical innovation from east
Kimberley. A man named Rover Thomas claims to have discovered the ceremony in 1974 (see 1974 in music) after a woman to whom he was spiritually related was killed after a car accident near Warmun. Thomas claimed to have been visited by her spirit and received the ceremony from her. In addition to the music, Thomas and others, including Hector Jandany and Queenie McKenzie, developed a critically acclaimed style of painting in sync with the development of the ceremony.


Kun-borrk arose around the
Adelaide, Mann and Rose Rivers, distinguished by a didgeridoo introduction followed by the percussion and vocals, which often conclude words (in contrast to many other syllabic styles of Aboriginal singing).


Wanga arose near the South Alligator River and is dintinguished by an extremely high note to commence the song, accompanied by rhythmic percussion and followed by a sudden shift to a low tone.

Classical and contemporary

Composer Peter Sculthorpe is notable for his incorporation of the sounds of the Australian bushland and outback in his symphonic works such as Kakadu, Mangrove and Earth Cry.

Jazz and new music

The trio of Tony Buck (drums), Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Chris Abrahams (piano), known together as The Necks since forming in 1987 (see 1987 in music), was notable for its hour-long jams of jazz and ambient music textures, gaining widespread attention both in Australia and internationally.

Popular music

Main article: Popular music


In the
1950s American rockabilly music was taken up by local musicians. The most famous exponent was Johnny O'Keefe.


Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion groups had a huge influence on the local music scene. The Easybeats and The Bee Gees were one of the Australian bands to gain success outside Australia.


Punk rock bands like The Saints and Radio Birdman gained a loyal following, while early electronic musicians like Severed Heads began to experiment with tape-loops and synthesizers, but not rising to prominence until the 1980s. Post-punk rockers The Birthday Party led by the Nick Cave formed in 1978 and disbanded in 1983. The classic Australian pub rock band Cold Chisel formed in 1973. Other notable acts include AC/DC, Hunters & Collectors, Skyhooks, The Models.


While many Australian bands from the
1980s remained cult acts outside of Australia, some, including INXS and AC/DC, Midnight Oil and Kylie Minogue, found wide success for years, while others, like Men at Work, became one-hit wonders throughout most of the world. Other more commercial artists such as the singer John Farnham were very successful for many years within Australia, but largely unknown outside the country.

Notable artists such as singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, ambient-rock-crossover act Not Drowning, Waving, the world music Dead Can Dance and Aboriginal-band Yothu Yindi drew inspiration from uniquely Australian concerns, particularly from the land, which garned them critical appraisal within Australia, and found international listeners. Other widely praised and influential acts such as The Go-Betweens, The Stems and The Triffids, never quite gained the international success that many critics felt they deserved, but had loyal followings well into the 1990s.

Bands such as The Celibate Rifles, The Lime Spiders and The Hitmen, all from Sydney, would serve as a link between the garage rock revival of the 1980s and the grunge scene to follow.


Throughout the developed world, indie rock of various kinds became more popular during the 1990s, especially grunge music. As in other countries, independent music festivals also saw a resurgence in popularity, most notably the Big Day Out (which began in Sydney in 1992) attracted and help build the careers of many Australian acts as well as showcasing international artists to a local audience. Notable Australian independent acts included the Falling Joys from Canberra; Regurgitator, Powderfinger and Custard from Brisbane; RatCat, The Clouds and The Crystal Set from Sydney; and Silverchair from Newcastle.

Some electronica artists also gained limited international fame, including the industrial-oriented Snog (formed in 1988), Southend, Boxcar (which had several 12" dance singles in the Billboard magazine Dance Top 10) and Itch-E and Scratch-E (whose track "Sweetness & Light" gained the award for the best dance single from the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) in 1995). Also part of rising popularity of electronic music in the late 1990s were The Avalanches which became widely known outside their native Australia. Less well-known internationally, but nonetheless important Australian electronic acts included The Lab active in the early to mid-1990s and Infusion, Wicked Beat Sound System and The Bird in the late 1990s, early 2000s.

Directions in Groove from Sydney began in the early 1990s as a groove jazz (sometimes referred to as "acid jazz") outfit but towards the end of that decade had introduced elements of live drum and bass to their music. This fusion approach to jazz and electronica performed live was extended in the late 1990s and early 2000s by The Hive (renamed The Baggsmen in 2002 to avoid confusion with a Swedish-based band with a similar name) and Entropic.

See also