Black and Deadly
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women of Music
Celebrating the black and deadly women of Australian music, from Fanny Cochrane Smith in the 1890s to Jessica Mauboy in the 21st century.
Music and dance are an integral part of ongoing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional culture. Like mainstream music, First Peoples' music followed and reinterpreted international music trends like jazz, hip hop and R&B. Jazz singers Georgia Lee and her niece Wilma Reading were among the first Aboriginal female artists to be recognised by the music industry and enjoyed flourishing international careers. Country music, with its themes of love, loss and land, was inspirational for award-winning singer Auriel Andrew.
Since the 1990s music mentoring programs such as Eora in Sydney, the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music in Adelaide and the ATSIC music college in Cairns have contributed to a dramatic increase in recording output by First Peoples' women performers. Highly successful artists such as Christine Anu, the Stiff Gins and Shakaya made their start in such programs.
In the 21st century, the success of Thelma Plum and Jessica Mauboy builds on the careers of the pioneering women artists that came before them.
Download Black and Deadly: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women in Music timeline.
WARNING: this collection contains names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In this recording, Fanny Cochrane Smith talks about being the last of the Tasmanians. She then sings in both English and her own language. It is part of a series of recordings made between 1899 and 1903.
Summary by Sophia Sambono
Emily Wurramara was born on Groote Eylandt (Northern Territory), home to Australia’s First Nation’s People the Warnindhilyagwa. Now based in Brisbane, she sings in both traditional language - Anindilyakwa and in English.
Her songs tell of the contrasting worlds of Groote Eylandt and her life on mainland Australia. They range from the experiences of her family as First Nations Australians, to concerns of protecting and cherishing our native bushland and beaches.
In 2016 her debut EP, Black Smoke was released. It spent 10 weeks on the Australian Music Radio Airplay Project (AMRAP) charts, reached number 17 on triple j’s Unearthed and resulted in her signing to Australia’s Mushroom Records.
In 2018 she released her first full-length album, named Milyakburra after the island of her grandparents. Its single, 'Ngarrukwujenama (I’m hurting)', was written in response to the mining on her island home and has been awarded the Queensland Music Award’s Indigenous song of the year (2018).
Milyakburra is Emily Wurramara’s first full-length album. Named after the island of her grandparents, its music presents personal stories of Emily and her family, told through her own lyrics in both English and Anindilyakwa.
'Ngarrikwujeyinama' in Anindilyakwa means 'I’m hurting'. This song was written in response to the mining of her island home, Groote Eylandt. The local community fought to protect this native environment and. in 2013, seabed mining in and around the Groote Eylandt area was banned.
'Yimenda-Papaguneray' is a two-part children’s lullaby. Part one is 'Yimenda' (turtle in Anindilyakwa), followed by the hand-clapping game, 'Papaguneray'.
Jessica Mauboy is a popular R&B artist who was launched into the public arena as a runner-up on Australian Idol in 2006. She subsequently signed a contract with Sony Music and released her debut studio album, Been Waiting, in 2008, with her first number-one single, Burn. The album became the second highest-selling Australian album of 2009 and was certified double platinum. Jessica Mauboy branched out for a starring role in 2010 in the Aboriginal musical Bran Nue Dae and in the 2012 film The Sapphires, which earned her the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Crystal Clynne’s vocal technique ranges across hip hop, soul and jazz. She performs as spoken-word lyricist MC Lady Lash and the soulful diva Crystal Mercy.
Born Crystal Clyne Mastosavvas, her father is a Greek fisherman and her mother First Peoples Australian. As a Kokatha-Greek woman from Ceduna on South Australia’s West Coast, Crystal’s first EP as MC Lady Lash (Pearl, 2010) was featured in the ABC series Ready for This and she was awarded Redfern Records' 'Female of the Year' prize.
In 2012 she released the album Crystal Mercy: The Fisherman’s Daughter, leading to her receiving a Victorian Indigenous Performer Award for Most Promising Act and an Age Music Victoria Genre Award for Songlines Best Indigenous Act in 2013.
In 2017 Crystal commenced production of a documentary detailing her journey back to country. As Lady Lash, she returns to her place of childhood at Koonibba Mission, Ceduna and meets with Kokatha Elders for women’s business. The documentary is due for release in 2018.
'Clock Work Blue' is from Milky Way, the second album by Crystal Clynne released under her pseudonym MC Lady Lash.
Milky Way was produced closely with her husband at Skitzo Productions. Its combination of melody and beat is a key example of Lash’s music as intersection between jazz and hip hop.
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The Fisherman’s Daughter was Crystal Clynne's first album released under the pseudonym Crystal Mercy.
'Green Cherries' was featured on National Indigenous Television’s (NITV) Move it Mob Style. Produced by Wayne 'Lotek' Bennett, its jazzy breaks and sassy vocals speak of the iconic jazz women: bold, brave and adored.
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New to the music scene, indie-roots musician Thelma Plum was in the first intake of students to graduate from Brisbane’s Music Industry College in 2011. She was soon discovered on Unearthed by Triple J with her song Father Said and invited to perform at the 2012 National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMA). Her 2013 debut EP, Rosie, includes singles Around Here and Dollar, which have earned her accolades including the NIMA for New Talent of the Year.
The Central Australian Women’s Choir (CAWC) consists of combined members from community choirs throughout remote Northern Territory. Townships represented in Australia’s central desert and coastal regions include Areyonga, Titjikala, Ntaria, Mutitjulu and Docker River (Kaltukatjara). The experience of its members ranges from two to nearly sixty years and crosses family generations.
Whilst the CAWC formed in 2010, its choral tradition began over 100 years ago in the late 19th century, when German missionaries arrived at Ntaria. They brought with them Lutheran hymns that they translated to local language and taught to community. As such, the choir’s repertoire today presents 53 traditional German hymns sung in languages including Pitjantjatjara, Western Arrernte and Pintupi-Luritja.
Three excerpts from the feature documentary The Song Keepers (Naina Sen, Australia, 2017), about the Central Australian Women’s Choir.
In the first excerpt, Daphne Puntjina, member of the Areyonga choir since 1962, speaks of travelling to Darwin with the choir for a singing contest. She was the only First Peoples' participant in the solo singing category which she won on the night.
Theresa Nipper, a member of the Areyonga choir since 1965, speaks of her love of singing and the ways it has been shared within her community.
Finally, choir conductor and director Morris Stuart leads the Central Australian Women’s Choir during rehearsal.
Director-Writer - Naina Sen
Producers - Trisha Morton-Thomas and Rachel Clements of Brindle Films and Naina Sen of Indigo Productions
Archival photographs courtesy of the 'Leo Kalleske Collection', provided by Pauline Behn
Choir Conductor and Director: Morris Stuart
Content shared with permission of Brindle Films, Indigo Productions and Potential Films
Contemporary-folk singer, songwriter and guitarist Leah Flanagan studied Classical Music at the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide.
In 2010 she released her debut album, Nirvana Nights after which she has spent a number of years touring nationally, establishing herself as a performer on Australia’s live festival circuit.
In 2016 her LP Saudades was selected as feature album by ABC, RRR and PBS Radio with its songs ‘Chills’ and 'Old Fashioned' reaching top spots on Australian Independent Radio and AMRAP metro charts.
Her well-respected status within Australia’s First Peoples' musical community has led to collaborations with Paul Kelly, Ursula Yovich and Archie Roach.
These two songs, 'Two Words and 'Speak Your Language', are from an intimate live recording of Leah Flanagan at the Bella Union, Carlton, Victoria on 4 November 2016.
Flanagan performs these songs in anticipation of the release of her album, Saudades. Accompanying band members including Adam Pringle, Tim Curnick and Evan Mannell.
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ARIA award-winning Christine Anu is a multi-talented Torres Strait Islander from Cairns. She graduated as a dancer from the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) in 1992 and performed with the Indigenous dance group Bangarra before switching to music. Her debut album, Stylin’ Up released in 1995, went platinum and her 2000 album Come My Way went gold, elevating her to mainstream stardom.
Christine Anu’s, Island Home was released in 1995, as the second single from her debut studio album, Stylin' Up. It is a cover of a track written by Neil Murray, and originally released by the Warumpi Band as a single from their album Go Bush in 1987.
Anu’s version made some changes to the lyrics; rather than moving to the desert, she compares island life to the city life, and tells the story from a female perspective.
The work won Song of the Year at the 1995 Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) Awards, and was listed in APRA’s Top 30 Australian songs of all time in 2001.
Shakaya was a two-piece girl group who achieved fame in the early 2000s.
Naomi Wenitong and Simone Stacey met at the Cairns-based ATSIC Music College in 1999 and went on to sign with Sony as Shakaya in 2001.
They toured with Destiny’s Child, Usher, Kylie Minogue and Ja Rule.
'Stop Calling Me' was the most successful single from Shakaya, peaking on the ARIA Singles Chart at number 5 in 2002 and awarded platinum status.
In early 2000, Australia’s R‘n’B (rhythm and blues) music scene was actually petering out. It was the decade before – in the 90’s – that the international era of contemporary (urban pop) R‘n’B was in full swing. Australia was part of this movement with bands and musicians like Deni Hines, Kulcha and CBD.
At the tail end of this trend, Australia experienced a fleeting surge of the quintessential powerful R‘n’B girl band. Bardot briefly stepped into the spotlight, officially disbanding in 2002, the year that Shakaya entered. Their debut single, 'Stop Calling Me', is a primary example: its lyrics tell the story of declining the relentless calls of desperate ‘wanna-be’ boyfriends.
The song itself illustrates the rhythms and melodies typical of popular 90’s R‘n’B with one exception. Auto-tune is used heavily as a voice effect, processing its sound to extreme metallic tones as opposed to its traditional use as pitch correction. This method was first used in the very late 90s; today its sound is well known within R‘n’B and pop music. 'Stop Calling Me’ was released late enough that auto-tune’s influence had reached Australian shores and Cairns-based producer Reno Nicastro.
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Georgia Lee, born Dulcie Pitt, became an identity in the jazz and blues clubs of Sydney and Melbourne in the 1950s where she performed with well-known bands including the Graeme Bell Jazz Band. Originally from the Torres Strait, Georgia Lee’s style was influenced by the influx of American troops in the region during the Second World War when she packed parachutes by day and sang at jazz clubs by night. After making her mark overseas,Georgia Lee returned to Australia and toured with American jazz legend Nat King Cole in 1957.
Yarra River Blues is one of two Australian tracks to feature on Georgia Lee’s 1962 album ‘Georgia Lee Sings The Blues’.
Summary by Brenda Gifford
Following in the footsteps of her aunt Georgia Lee, Wilma Reading’s jazz ambition took her around the world. Throughout her 40-year career Wilma performed with some of the world’s leading jazz musicians, including the legendary Duke Ellington band. She appeared on American television in the famous Johnny Carson Show and was also the musical guest on over 30 BBC television shows, including a season on Britain’s highest-rated program at the time, The Morecambe & Wise Show.
Wilma Reading released three 7” single records on Australia’s Rex label in the early years of her career. The last single consisted of 'I only came to say goodbye' (A-side) and 'That’s how I go for you' (B-side). Both songs were written or co-written by the musical director of Rex, Franz Conde; they were released in the same year that Conde was appointed musical director of Rex’s distributor, Festival Records.
In 1961, Conde’s vision for Festival entailed a distinct shift away from 1950s rock’n’roll to smoother jazz and lounge vocalists. Wilma Reading’s honeyed vocals, backed by lush strings, chorus and orchestra, oozed the glitz and glamour of big bands and nightclubs that Conde was looking for.
It was shortly after this single that Reading headed to Tokyo and then Las Vegas where the golden era of showbiz was in full swing. This last Rex single is an example of Reading at the peak of her early career. Having established herself as a bright star on Australia’s jazz circuit, she is on the cusp of launching into the international market revolving around the USA and UK.
An Arrente woman from Alice Springs, Auriel Andrew began her musical career in the late 1960s, ‘cutting her teeth’ on the local live music circuits in Adelaide and Port Lincoln. She appeared on various live TV musical broadcasts before she became a regular on Channel Nine’s Country and Western Hour, hosted by Reg Lindsay. In 1973 she moved to Sydney, and toured with renowned Aboriginal performer Jimmy Little. Auriel went on to perform at the grand opening of the Sydney Opera House and sang Amazing Grace in Pitjantjatjara for Pope John Paul II during his Australian tour in 1986.
'Truck Driving Woman' is the first song from Auriel Andrew’s debut EP, released on the Adelaide-based label, Nationwide Records. Andrews moved to Adelaide in 1968 to pursue her music career. By 1970, her early career was in full swing with regular television appearances and requests for performances.
A feature of this song is its obvious role reversal. Given that truck drivers are typically viewed as burly men, Andrew’s message (with her young, sweet voice, white boots, tassles and country twang) is both cheeky and empowering. Her lyrics tell the tale of her father always wanting a truck-driving son and how Andrew, without batting an eyelash, steps into the role instead.
The switch in roles will become a repeated theme in Andrew’s songs. Its message of gender equality is one she continually delivered throughout her career. The fact that its presence can be seen in her very first song from her debut EP illustrates that Andrew’s long musical career was about both the music and its message to women; a message that is even more poignant when considering the challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
Chocolate Princess is the second album from Auriel Andrew. It was recorded the year she moved from South Australia to Tamworth, New South Wales – the centre of country music Australia. The album’s label (Opal Records) was based in West Tamworth and with this move, Andrew quickly established herself on the local circuit, performing at festivals, events, bars and venues.
Chocolate Princess presents Andrew after initial rush and excitement of her early career. The country twang of her younger voice has developed into a deeper and richer tone; her vocal is delivered with a depth of emotion gathered from personal life experience and acquired confidence.
Her rendition of 'Let It Rain Let Him Cry', is a poignant statement. With a simple word replacement, (the original song is, '…Let Her Cry'), Andrew flips country music tradition, staking her claim as a calm, confident women and transferring the weaker role to her masculine counterparts.
'Honky Tonk Man' shows Andrew's matured vocal range at some of its best for this era. This classic country ballad is steeped in nostalgia, revelling in memories and a touch of heartache. Andrew holds true to the country music tradition, delivering the Honky Tonk Man’s story with growling vocals and rousing chorus in a tone that clearly states it’s on her own terms.
Tiddas, featuring Lou Bennett, Amy Saunders and Sally Dastey, was one of the very first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s musical groups. They began performing together as backing singers for Aboriginal band Djaambi in 1990 and formed as a trio to perform at Melbourne women’s festival Hot Jam Cooking where Ruby Hunter dubbed the ‘Tiddas’, an Aboriginal word for sisters. Their ARIA award-winning second album, Sing About Life, includes the popular song Inanay which is sung in Yorta Yorta language.
As a duo, Olive McGuiness and Eva Bell are largely considered to be the first Aboriginal Australians that recorded popular songs in a commercial studio. As cousins, they spent their childhood in Cowra then Sydney amongst the Wiradjuri people of NSW. It was here they met the composer of their music, Grace O’Clerkin.
Olive and Eva’s first big break was in 1955, as finalists on Australia’s nationwide radio program, Amateur Hour. Shortly after, they released their first record. Their second and last release was in 1956.
Whilst Olive stopped professionally performing that same year, Eva Bell went on to forge a successful career. Also known as Eva Mumbler, in 1962 she won the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) Music quest. Eva was an active member of her community. In 1970 as part of her work with Sydney’s Aboriginal Family Education Centre she was presented to Queen Elizabeth and Princess Anne, on their visit to Australia.
Image: Olive McGuiness (aged 18) and Eva Bell (aged 16). Source: The Australian Women’s Weekly, 7 December 1955, p.15 retrieved from Trove.
Olive and Eva were a harmony duo active in the 1950s.
Born Olive McGuiness and Eva Bell, the cousins had two releases over the span of their career. Both were 10” records (78 rpm) on Australia’s Prestophone label, consisting of two songs with quartet accompaniment.
The first release was in 1955 with songs written by Grace O’Clerkin. Grace was a NSW composer inspired by Australia’s bushland and its First Peoples. Her songs, 'Old Rugged Hills' and 'Rhythm of Corroboree', paint a picture of an exotic land filled with ancient river gums and mystic legends.
This picturesque ideal is further romanticised by the yearning harmonies of Eva and Olive. Harmony bands were popular music of the time. American stars such as The Chordettes and The Andrews Sisters sang in similar tones, delivering songs of wistful daydreams. After the Second World War, the western world was awakened to the lure of foreign adventures and the music genre known as 'exotica' was born. Fuelled by an American middle-class suburban longing for unknown idyllic lands, its sentiment is an obvious influence. O’Clerkin’s words paint Australia as a near fantasy.
Olive and Eva were an exceptional duo. Their close connection to each other and to Australia’s land is expressed through their heartfelt delivery. Their harmonies show a natural synchronicity akin to the rhythm of language. Where one misses a lyric, the other seamlessly leads; where one’s voice drops, the other's picks up. While Olive and Eva’s songs tell a mix of fantasy and reality, they also capture an honest portrait of two significant popular singers from the 1950s, unique to our country.
The real Sapphires, the original singing group that inspired the 2004 stage play and 2012 film. Left to right: Beverley Briggs, Laurel Robinson, Lois Peeler and Naomi Mayers.
Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy and Shari Sebbens on stage in a scene from The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, Australia, 2012).
Ruby Hunter was a Ngarrindjeri/Kukatha/Pitjantjatjara woman from South Australia taken from her Aboriginal family at 8 years of age and fostered into a white family. While homeless and living on the streets, Ruby met her lifelong partner and musical soulmate, Archie Roach, who discovered her first written songs hidden in their hostel room. Archie recorded Ruby’s 1989 song Down City Streets on his debut album, Charcoal Lane. Ruby released her first solo album, Thoughts Within, in 1994 and was the first Aboriginal woman to be signed to a major record label.
This clip of home movie footage shows Ruby Hunter recording vocals for the song 'Louis St John' from the 1997 album Looking For Butterboy.
Archie wrote the song about the racially-motivated murder of Perth teenager Louis St John Johnson (Warren Braeden) in 1992. Ruby's raw vocals evoke a powerful sense of love and loss.
Bill and Pauline Johnson, Louis's foster parents, asked Archie to write a song about Louis and gave him a photo of Louis to guide him. In his autobiography Tell Me Why (2019) Archie says 'Ruby had a big part in the song as well. She was the spirit, the voice from the Dreamtime, calling Louis back home.'
This is a beautiful example of behind-the-scenes footage capturing a musician's creative process and offering us an intimate look at the recording of an album.
The poor lighting reflects the choice to record in a house in Port Fairy, Victoria, rather than a traditional studio, which also gives the recording and the footage an intimate, down-to-earth feel.
Notes by Beth Taylor and Adam Blackshaw
Stiff Gins are musical duo Nardi Simpson and Kaleena Briggs. Known for positive acoustic melodies in Aboriginal language they began as a trio, including Emma Donovan, after meeting at Eora College, Redfern, in 1999. The word ‘gin’ was originally a Dharug word for woman/wife, but became a derogatory word for an Aboriginal woman. Their moniker ‘Stiff Gins’ reclaimed this offensive reference to Aboriginal women, a banner to guide their music in the direction of strength and pride.
Stiff Gins (Kaleena Briggs and Nardi Simpson) sing 'Dust', a song in two Aboriginal languages. A wax cylinder recording made on an original 1903 Edison Standard D model phonograph.
Casey Donovan was the youngest and first female winner of Australian Idol, winning the second season at the age of 16.
Donovan is a multi-award winner and nominee, including an ARIA No 1 Award for Listen with Your Heart and Deadly Awards for Best Album, Best Single and Most Promising New Talent.
After the hype of Australian Idol died down, Donovan re-established herself as a solo independent artist, and as one of Australia’s most promising First Nations entertainers.
She has since starred in the concept show Women of Soul, the stage production of The Sapphires in 2010, and The Mamas and the Papas stage musical in 2011 as Mama Cass.
Fanny Cochrane Smith’s wax recordings are the only recorded example of Tasmanian Aboriginal songs or of any Tasmanian Aboriginal language. The Royal Society in Hobart recorded these songs between 1899 and 1903 less than a decade after the technology arrived in Australia. Fanny performed all of the Tasmanian songs she knew, some in Aboriginal languages, others in English.