Black and deadly: women in music

SOPHIA SAMBONO

Sophia Sambono, Curator Indigenous Collections, surveys the black and deadly women of Australian music, from Fanny Cochrane Smith in the 1890s to Jessica Mauboy in the 21st century.

Georgia Lee, 1949. Unknown photographer. Courtesy of Karl Neuenfeldt.

Indigenous music and dance are an integral part of ongoing Indigenous traditional cultural practice. They equally hold a significant place in contemporary and urban settings for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.

The earliest recordings of Indigenous music were largely ethnographic with a focus on traditional songs and language. Early wax cylinder recordings include those made in the Torres Strait by AC Haddon, and of Fanny Cochrane Smith in Tasmania (see gallery).

New technology improved the ease of recording and dissemination of music, contributing to a greater availability of popular music which in turn influenced Indigenous contemporary recordings. Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson write in Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places (2004) that ‘Aboriginal people have consumed and performed folk music, gospel and choral music for at least a century, and country music for over 50 years’.

Trends in Indigenous contemporary music have run parallel with international music trends particularly those associated with transnational black culture such as jazz, reggae, hip hop and R&B. With the arrival of US troops in the 1940s the soldiers’ enthusiasm for jazz and blues quickly spread, as did Australian Indigenous identification with the fight for equal rights in America.

Country music, with its universal themes of love, loss and affinity with the land, provides much common ground across racial barriers. It reaches fever pitch popularity in 1970s Australia and remains an enduring tradition for many Indigenous people, particularly in rural areas.

The 1980s saw Indigenous male rock and reggae bands rise in popularity, the Warumpi Band and Yothu Yindi the most famous among them. The recording of Indigenous contemporary music was expanding from being recorded only on specialist Aboriginal labels to larger, and even major, music labels. Ruby Hunter was the first Indigenous woman to be recorded on a major record label, in 1989.

The 1990s saw the fight for Indigenous rights and self-determination in the 70s and 80s bear fruit. The popularity of male-dominated bands paved the way for making Indigenous music more acceptable to wider audiences, and women performers began to make their mark.

In 1990 Melbourne’s Hot Jam Cooking festival was set up as a space for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women performers in a white, male-dominated industry. Ruby Hunter performed as well as the trio soon to be dubbed Tiddas. This festival sought to rebalance the uneven gender relations in the mainstream music industry where, according to Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places, ‘Gendered notions of musicianship, credibility and musical skill work against women’.

Likewise, the With Open Eyes festival (1992) came at a time when Yothu Yindi, Kev Carmody and other male Aboriginal artists were finally being signed to major labels and finding their audience, but Aboriginal women artists still worked in relative obscurity. Designed to ‘open the women’s eyes to their own achievements and potential, and to promote the confidence needed to explore all options for a career in music’, the festival also provided mentoring from successful musicians, inspiration from other Indigenous women to become active performing and recording artists, and support from community in building a fan base. Music mentoring programs which have contributed to a dramatic increase in recording output by Indigenous women include Eora in Sydney, CASM in Adelaide and the ATSIC music college in Cairns.

The 90s trends of pop and folk were taken up by women artists such as Tiddas, but also Christine Anu, Stiff Gins, and Shakaya. Today we still see a strong pop influence as well as a mix of all genres across the board represented in the music industry. You can hear this today in the music of Casey Donovan, Jessica Mauboy and Thelma Plum.

The music business has always been a tough road to travel and the success of these women is even more significant when you consider the obstacles they overcame, including enduring negative perceptions of Indigenous people in post-colonial society and the limited marketability of women’s music. As Georgia Lee told the press in her heyday, ‘It’s hard to be a woman, but harder still if you are a woman and Black’.