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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island music resource guide: Overview

A guide to resources about Indigenous music in Australia

Australian Indigenous music includes traditional music performed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well as contemporary music by Australian Indigenous artists. Traditional music has existed in Australia for 50,000 to 120,000 years and is performed for ceremonial, ritual, and cultural purposes as well as for celebration and entertainment. Since colonisation, Indigenous music has increasingly drawn inspiration from traditionally Western music styles, although traditional music remains an integral part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. This guide aims to assist in research and provide social, cultural and historic context to Australian Indigenous music by highlighting assorted resources which can be used to develop an understanding of music in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture and its role in cultural expression.

With a remarkable history that stretches back at least 50,000 years, the indigenous people of Australia are part of the world’s oldest cultures. Preserving their ancient heritage through a complex oral tradition of mythological “Dreamtime” stories, music has always played a central role in maintaining cultural identity. From the traditional sounds of voice, bilma (clapsticks) and yidaki (didgeridoo) through to contemporary singer-songwriters and rock bands, Australia’s indigenous music continues to evolve in fascinating ways.” -

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander users are advised that some of the materials in this guide may contain images and voices of deceased persons.

Traditional music

'Traditional' music generally refers to Indigenous music which does not draw on post-colonial influences. It usually incorporates handmade instruments and vocals with words or syllabic singing styles. The main instruments used are the didgeridoo, a wooden aerophone instrument; clapsticks and other forms of percussion; and the gum leaf as a reed instrument.

There are several different kinds of traditional Indigenous music in Australia including:

Bunggul- music from northern Arnhem Land which is characterised by intense lyrical storytelling and repetition of vocals without instruments

Kun-borrk- music from the Adelaide region which combines didgeridoo and percussion music with vocals 

Wangaa- music from the Northern Territory which uses rhythmic percussion and typically one didgeridoo player, usually performed at ceremonies

Wajara- non-sacred music performed by the Gurindjti people of the Northern Territory for entertainment rather than ritual or ceremonial purposes.

Songlines- sacred songs from the Dreaming which transcribe the landscape into melodies and allow the holders or keepers of the songs to navigate vast areas as they sing the songs. 

Contemporary music

Contemporary Indigenous music in Australia draws on Western music styles and genres including rock and roll, reggae, hip-hop, and country and western music, which has been arguably the strongest contemporary influence on Indigenous music in Australia. Contemporary Indigenous musicians often sing in a combination of English and First languages and often incorporate the use of traditional instruments such as clapsticks and didgeridoos in their music. A number of Indigenous artists have achieved mainstream recognition for their music, such as Yothu Yindi who found international success for their 1999 song 'Treaty' which helped to spotlight Australian Indigenous social and political issues. Other notable comnntemporary Indigenous artists include Jimmy Little, Warumpi Band, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, and Archie Roach.