In 1991, Australian band Yothu Yindi had an unexpected dancefloor hit with Treaty, a song responding to then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s promise of a treaty between black and white Australia.
The track, performed in both English and Yolngu language, not only charted in Australia, but went to number 6 on the US Dance Club Songs chart with the Filthy Lucre remix. It’s now considered a dance classic.
“It became such a popular song because of the rhythm,” Sydney Opera House’s Head of Indigenous programming Rhoda Roberts says. “It’s got a lovely beat to dance to, and I guess it became a bit of an anthem because there was such pride for this Aboriginal band to be seen singing this political song that had a wicked sense of humour to it.”
In addition to combining Aboriginal and western music, the song was a witty rebuke to various governments’ broken promises to Aboriginal people.
The song begins by talking about Hawke’s insistence at 1988’s Barunga Statement that a treaty would be forged between black and white Australia by 1990. That treaty never materialised.
Of course, not all Indigenous people have agreed with the notion of a treaty, but the song feels quite pertinent again, with a treaty clearly back on the agenda.
“We’re the only First Nations race in the world that hasn’t ceded their land or signed a treaty,” Roberts says. “Governments have come time and time again since they’ve arrived here suggesting a compact or a treaty — they give it so many names — whereas we operate under a Makarrata. For us, that’s our kinship structure and how we abide with law and land boundaries.
“The song starts ‘I heard it on the radio, I saw it on the television’. All those talking politicians; they’re talking, but nobody proceeded to talk with us.”
Original members of Yothu Yindi, Witiyana Marika, Stuart Kellaway and Kevin Marlangay, are set to reunite in November this year, alongside newer collaborators, including singer Yirrmal (grandson of Dr Yunupingu), for a free concert on the Sydney Opera House forecourt. They’ll be performing their biggest hits, all with an electronic twist.
“To have them back, singing their songs, and adapting them to what’s relevant to the next generation, is really lovely to see,” Roberts says. “It’s that intergenerational exchange. They do that, of course, through passage ceremony rituals and all the rest, but to see it happening in Western music as well is wonderful.”
The Treaty Project concert is part of the Homeground festival (25 – 26 November), celebrating First Nations cultures from Australia and around the world.
The festival, directed by Roberts, will this year move to the Opera House’s forecourt, given the large crowds it attracted in 2016. The festival is made up of a combination of performances and workshops that bring First Nations cultures together.
“We’re trying to build it so that people get a really holistic view of Indigenous culture — you can go to the dance ground and see very traditional Māori haka. Then you can go into the healing program and have a Māori healing, and then go into a workshop to see how and why they do particular types of haka,” Roberts says.
The festival combines contemporary art by First Nations people — including the first Hip Hop act to emerge from Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, Mau Power, and contemporary folk singer Irish Mythen, performing works that speak to her Celtic heritage — alongside traditional dance, music and culture.
“Like any world society, we have our classics as well, and it’s really important to keep the classics alive,” Roberts says “We’re in a real state with more elders and custodians passing, that we need to ensure that those songlines, and the language songs that have been done for three thousand generations, don’t get lost.”
It’s appropriate that the Homeground festival is held at the Sydney Opera House, given the history of the site. Bennelong Point was originally an island called Tubowgule, and was used as a meeting place for various Aboriginal clans.
As such, the Sydney Opera House in 2011 became the first Australian arts organisation to have a Reconciliation Action Plan, ensuring that the arts centre presents and respects the work and cultures of Aboriginal Australia.
Roberts says while there’s a massive hunger for First Nations cultural experiences amongst visitors to the Opera House, she’d like to see that hunger take hold across more of Australia.
“I think it’s something we should be really proud of — that we host the oldest race and have such diverse culture. No other country has what we have,” she says.
“Australians don’t big-note. We’re a bit larrikin in our behaviour, and I love that about Australians. But also we need to go ‘hold on a minute, we’ve got something pretty damn good,’ and we should be shouting about it.”
She also says the kind of Aboriginal culture and knowledge celebrated in Homeground could prove particularly useful as we stare ahead into an uncertain future.
“Aboriginal people want Australians to know this stuff — because at the end of the day, with the way the world’s going, we’ll still be able to eat and drink, because we know where it is without going to the supermarket.”