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1967: songs of celebration and struggle

Adelaide Festival

Adelaide Festival concert 1967 celebrates the 50th anniversary of an important Australian civil rights milestone, but young musician Yirrmal hopes it will also raise awareness of the continuing struggle for Indigenous recognition.

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The March 15 concert, subtitled Music in the Key of Yes, will see Yirrmal perform alongside other musicians – including Dan Sultan, Thelma Plum, Adalita, Radical Son and William Barton – to mark the 1967 referendum that saw more than 90 per cent of Australians vote to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the census, and to  recognise them under federal law.

It will be presented against a backdrop of archival footage, with audiences promised “a powerful program of ’60s pop songs and stirring anthems of struggle, joy, protest and reflection inspired by the referendum”.

The unequivocal support for the referendum stands in contrast to the ongoing current debate over constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, but Neil Armfield has said he and Adelaide Festival fellow artistic director Rachel Healy think that the spirit of ’67 “could rise and live again in 2017”.

Yirrmal, a Yolngu man from North-East Arnhem Land, certainly hopes that proves true. Below, he talks to InDaily about the concert and the ongoing struggle for Indigenous rights and recognition.

What does it mean to you personally to be involved in this concert marking the referendum?

Being involved in this concert is important to me as I am part of the next generation of Indigenous Australians and we are still fighting for our rights. My family has been fighting for our rights and asking for a Treaty for over 50 years.

Many Yolngu people in Arnhem Land are still struggling, so I have to step up and be involved and make people aware of this anniversary and also of the Recognise campaign [for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people].

Why do you think it’s important to celebrate the 1967 milestone in the struggle for Indigenous rights?

It is important to mark this milestone, but we are not really celebrating it.

It has been 50 years and we are still fighting. We haven’t got a Treaty yet and we’re still not recognised in the constitution, so we are not there yet, but it’s important people are aware that it has been 50 years since the referendum.

What songs will you be singing in the concert and why they are significant? 

I’ll be singing one of my own songs, “Deep Blue Sea”. This is an original song of mine but it has traditional songlines in it. It is a creation story about the land and the sea. It is significant as it is an important song to me and my people about our connection to the land.

I’ll also be singing “Ronu Wanga” – “My Island Home”. This song connects people to their homeland and it refers to our traditional lifestyle and hunting. It was written about a Yolngu fella from Elcho Island who was living far away from his home. It means a lot to me and many people can relate to it.

What songs will your fellow musicians be performing?

Some other songs in the concert are “This Land is Mine” and “Solid Rock”, which Dan Sultan and Adalita are singing. Leah Flanagan and Emily Wurramara will be singing “Blackbird”, by the Beatles – “blackbirding” was the enforced labour and slavery of Aborigines.

Looking further ahead, what else will 2017 have in store for Yirrmal?

I have a busy year ahead. I look forward to writing more songs this year while still playing to audiences around the country. I want to write new songs that will go on my debut album, and I want to continue to share the Yolngu culture and songlines and stories.

I’m very proud of my culture and I want to share that with Australia.

1967: Music in the Key of Yes will be performed at the Festival Theatre on March 15 as part of the Adelaide Festival program. Read a review of the Sydney concert here.

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