Aussie Band Taps Into Its Indigenous Roots

Yothu Yindi is the first Aboriginal band to place in the Australian top 10; the album `Treaty' has been released in the United States

DRESSED in tribal clothing, band members of the Australian Aboriginal group, Yothu Yindi, crossed the floor of the nightclub without fanfare. Lead singer Mandaway Yunupingu began a passionate, hypnotic chant in his native tongue, a song that has been passed down from his ancestors 80,000 years ago.

The deep, sonorous sound of the yidaki, or didgeridu, an instrument made from a long bamboo stick, and the rhythmic crack of bilga, wooden clapsticks, evoked the cries of Australian wildlife and the noise of the bush. The seven other Aboriginal musicians wore tribal paint symbolizing important events, like the creation of women and the initiation of young men into the adult world.

The Aboriginal flag hung from the stage. Mandaway, as he's usually called, later explained that the black upper half "stands for the people. The red portion is the blood that has been spilt since whites inhabited Australia over 200 years ago. The golden circle in the center of the flag depicts the sun, `the giver of life.' "

An Aboriginal painting with spiral designs and intricate patterns also decorated the platform at Nightstage, a cosmopolitan club outside of Boston. "This creates atmosphere," Mandaway relates, "and makes us feel at home. Our mind goes back to our country, to our land."

Yothu Yindi (pronounced yo'-thoo YIN'-dee) is a kinship term and means literally Child and Mother.

The four white musicians in the band transform ancient songs into danceable pop. They play the electric guitar, drums, and keyboard, giving the music a reggae sound.

One of the first songs performed by Yothu Yindi was "Mainstream" from their second album, "Tribal Voice." Part of the lyrics proclaim, "black and white - we're living together." Through their music, the band hopes to show the need for mutual respect and understanding between the races in order to achieve harmony.

"Being black is political," affirms Mandaway. The indigenous band members are from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and Mandaway is likely to become the leader of his clan someday. When he informed his elders that the band was about to embark on a 10-week tour of the United States and Europe, they instructed him to "take the message to the world and tell [people] about our situation in Australia."

Since the European colonization of Australia in 1788, Aborigines have lost their ancestral land, and increasingly experienced high levels of poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism. Yothu Yindi's most popular song, "Treaty," refers to the Australian government's unkept promise in 1988 to create a treaty between black and white Australians.

Following the release of their first album, "Homeland Movement," in 1988, Yothu Yindi toured the US with Australian band Midnight Oil. Mandaway claims that the Oils are Yothu Yindi's "mentors," and he says that lead singer Peter Garrett assisted him with the political aspects of the band's lyrics.

Yothu Yindi attempts to help young Aborigines. Mandaway is the principal of a school that is mainly comprised of Aboriginal students. He was the first person in his community to graduate from a university.

He declares that "there is a fear deep in my heart" that the younger generation will lose their knowledge of their culture and heritage. In one song in his native language, Mandaway speaks to an Aboriginal boy standing beneath a neon light, telling him, "Don't lose yourself ... your identity ... and your spirituality."

"We try to be role models for these kids and make it easier for them," Mandaway says.

Yothu Yindi hopes to use the profits from "Tribal Voice" to build a cultural center in their region that would benefit young Aborigines.

MANY indigenous musicians face enormous prejudice in Australia and receive little attention from radio stations.

Mandaway respects older, relatively unknown Aboriginal bands like "Coloured Stone" and "Scrap Metal" which, he maintains "have had it kind of hard on the road."

In contrast, "We've come in the first five years bang! into the big world." After winning several Australian record-industry awards this year, Yothu Yindi has signed a contract with a major American company, Hollywood Records.

Yet, Mandaway continues to experience racism. He was refused entry into a Melbourne pub in March, supposedly because he was wearing "inappropriate attire" - he was dressed in jeans. The incident created a public furor, ending with the bar manager's apology on national television.

Mandaway was glad for the opportunity to point out prejudice in Australia. "They picked the wrong bloke, mate," he declares, smiling.

Overseas audiences, Mandaway believes, are more receptive to Yothu Yindi's music than those in Australia. Being fairly unfamiliar with Aboriginal traditions, the audience in Boston was eager to learn about tribal art and culture.

However, Mandaway believes that Yothu Yindi is succeeding in its attempt to change white Australian attitudes toward Aborigines.

"`Tribal Voice' has gone No. 6," he exclaims triumphantly, showing that "people are appreciative of our music." They are "genuinely examining themselves ... and [are willing] to be part of a process of bringing people together and starting a new beginning."

Mandaway does not see an end to Yothu Yindi. Instead, he hopes that the band and its objectives will be passed down to a younger generation, similar to the songs the indigenous members of the group adopted from their ancestors. There are two more dates on the band's current tour, both in California: June 11 at Slim's in San Francisco and June 14 at the Roxy in Los Angeles.

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