All roads lead to Byron, and blackfellas

The Aboriginal flag flying high at the Byron Bay Bluesfest.

MUSIC, at least for me, is an intensely personal thing. I was fortunate to be raised by parents who have a great love of music, so they made sure that my three brothers and I got a good musical education.

We all had to learn multiple instruments, we all had to join choirs, we all had to play in brass and concert bands. Most of the time, when I was forced to sit down and practice (piano, or drums, or briefly trumpet) I would have obviously rather been out riding my bike. But looking back, I’m grateful for the experience because even though I never went on to pursue music as a career, it fostered in me a strong love and appreciation that continues to grow to this day.

That’s one of the amazing things about music – it gets better with age. And that explains how, finally, I found myself at the Bluesfest in Byron Bay over the Easter break.

By way of brief free plug, if you ever get a chance to go, do it. It’s an amazing experience. But take gumboots. Apparently it almost always rains, and this year was no exception.

It’s incredibly well organised, and the music is amazing. There’s something a little surreal about seeing not one – but more than a dozen – of the best musical acts on earth, and all in the space of five days.

But strangely, as the Bluesfest wound to a close, it didn’t leave me pondering the power of music. Instead, as I made my way home, most of my time was spent thinking about race relations in Australia.

There are four main tents at Bluesfest, and the biggest of them – where the headline acts play – is massive. I’m only guessing, but I imagine it could comfortably hold 10,000-plus.

Flying atop that tent was a big Australian flag, and right beside it was a big Aboriginal flag.

The wholly uncontroversial nature of it struck me, because to get to Bluesfest I had travelled north from Sydney, gathering stories on blackfellas as I went. I passed through a lot of small towns where the notion of flying an Aboriginal flag outside the local council chambers still sparks controversy today. My point being, it was nice to pull up at Bluesfest and be greeted by such an inspiring sight.

As the festival got underway, the obvious respect and acknowledgement of Aboriginal people kept coming.

Bluesfest was opened by a performance and welcome to country by Traditional Owners. I watched from a distance, and was once again struck by the totally uncontroversial nature of it all. In the real world, away from Bluesfest, politicians still make populist pitches to a deeply ignorant nation about the pointlessness –and danger, apparently – of acknowledging Aboriginal people as the true owners of this land.

All up, a great start to Bluesfest, I thought.

And as the festival progressed, it kept coming, even if the links weren’t always so obvious, and sometimes just purely personal.

With the latter in mind, the headline act for Bluesfest 2013 was Paul Simon. I got into Simon a few years ago, through his album Graceland. Like I said, music is an intensely personal thing, which is why I’m allowed to claim that it’s one of the best albums ever released… in the history of music (the theft of a song off a band called Los Lobos notwithstanding).

The roots of Graceland are black South African, and Simon was the first white musician to sprinkle true African beats and voices through an album aimed at a white western audience. It was pure genius, and a long, long way ahead of its time (Graceland was released in 1986, when South African Apartheid was well entrenched).

I ‘discovered’ Graceland in Tasmania, while travelling the island with Nala Mansell, daughter of iconic leaders Michael Mansell and Heather Sculthorpe, two of my favourite ‘middle finger activists’.

Nala and I were on our way to a protest north of Hobart, where the Labor government was building a highway bypass. The route took the freeway smack bang through the middle of an area that contained a staggering quantity of some of the oldest evidence of human habitation in the Southern Hemisphere – literally several million artefacts that are tens of thousands of years old.

As it turned out, the bypass went through anyway – the importance of shaving a few minutes off the journey of time-poor Hobartians eventually won the day. Notch one up for ignorance and disrespect. But my point being, seeing Paul Simon live was a bit of a dream come true. But it was laced with a tinge of sadness about how I came to discover his music.

Apart from a chance to see Simon, I had two other major goals in mind for Bluesfest 2013: I wanted to see the Dropkick Murphy’s perform ‘Tessie’, an iconic song written about the Boston Red Sox world series win, and one of my favourite songs of all time (my Irish roots at play, methinks). The Dropkicks played. They were awesome. But Tessie never made the song list.

So it was onto plan B – Australia’s very own Xavier Rudd playing ‘Land Rights’.

While in Tassie, I’d filed a video story about the Brighton bypass protest, and Land Rights was the song I used as the backdrop. To this day, the hairs still stand up on the back of my neck when I hear the song (the irony of a white guy getting off on another white guy singing about black rights is not lost on me).

Anyone whose seen Rudd live would know that he incorporates Aboriginal music and instruments into most of his performances. On this occasion, he also incorporated Aboriginal people.

Midway through his set, Aboriginal dancers flooded the stage. The crowd roared, and to be frank, I was pretty stunned.

Not since Cathy Freeman won her 400m gold in Sydney had I heard so many whitefellas cheer for blackfellas. But in truth, that was more about us, than her. Australians were really just hoping she’d win gold and up the Australian medal tally.
So the appreciation a huge crowd showed a group of black dancers at Bluesfest buoyed my spirits.

What brought me back to earth was a drunken white guy standing beside me, who kept yelling ‘Save the whales’ to the laughter of him and his mates. I stood waiting for him to yell something about blackfellas. Thankfully, it never came.

But it got me wondering why a typical Australian bogan, with such obvious disdain for Xavier Rudd’s values, would stand in a crowded tent and embrace the man’s music, while yelling insults.

And then I remembered – the capacity to both loathe Aboriginal people, while simultaneously draping yourself in the most appealing parts of their culture, is a uniquely Australian thing. And it’s been with us for a long time.

We did it at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympics. The world watched as a nation dipped its lid to the oldest surviving culture on earth. And then when the lights in the stadium were switched off, we got back to the business of actively ignoring Aboriginal people, at best, and actively undermining them at worst. And, of course, occasionally slaughtering them (see Palm Island, Mr Ward case, Kwementyaye Ryder, Briscoe etc etc).

Murri activist Sam Watson refers to this phenomena as ‘the inflatable Aboriginals’ – the blackfellas we bring out when the world is watching, and then deflate and pack away when the world goes home. And I hasten to add, it’s not, obviously, so much a comment on the performers, rather a shot at the motives behind the act choice.

As the Bluesfest bopped on, I realized it wasn’t just an ‘Aboriginal thing’. Australia’s racism runs deeper than that.

In the course of our history, we’ve found time to hate every minority that looks different and has had the temerity to arrive on our shores. We’ve hated the Chinese. We’ve hated the Italians. Then the Greeks and the Vietnamese. And through it all, we’ve reserved a special hatred for the blackfellas.

At the moment, we really hate the Sudanese, and in particular we hate the Lebanese (or really anyone of Middle Eastern appearance).

And that brings me to yet another revelation from Bluesfest. Of all the acts I saw – including the three I went specifically
to see – I was surprised to find my favourite performance was from Cat Empire, an Australian band.

I only really knew one of their songs, ‘Hello’, their breakthrough single from 2003. For the uninitiated, the song is basically about trolling for women, and the chorus goes ‘hc-hello hc-hello’ in an exaggerated Middle Eastern accent.

It’s always struck me as weird that a song that so many Australians would class as ‘woggy’ could be successful in a country with so little tolerance for ‘wogs’. And seeing Cat Empire live confused me even more.

As performers, the band is amazing, and the two lead singers – Felix Riebl and Harry James Angus – are outstanding. Angus in particular has an incredible voice and stage presence.

Both men are born in Melbourne, and while I don’t know their ethnicity, I’d take a punt and say Angus has Greek heritage, while Riebl’s ancestors maybe come from Lebanon. I’ll stand to be corrected of course, but my point is if both men were wanted by police, they’d likely be described as ‘two men of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean appearance’.

Midway through their Bluesfest performance, out came some belly dancers. And like they did for the blackfellas at Rudd’s show, the crowd roared.

You might be tempted to write that off as the Bluesfest being home to a more tolerant crowd. Statistically speaking, maybe it was a little. But looking around, there was still a pretty strong cross-section of Australian society. To put it bluntly, there were bogans a-plenty.

So how, given Australia’s renown for its world beating racism, can we hate a culture and celebrate it at the same time?

Of course, the answer lies in our hypocrisy, and our deep, deep determination to convince ourselves that our national story is something other than land theft, child theft, wage theft.

The fact is, Australians can acknowledge the success of Aboriginal people, like Cathy Freeman, but they never attribute it to their Aboriginality. But when Australians come to consider the perceived failings of an Aboriginal person, they almost always attribute it to their Aboriginality.

And of course, the reverse is true when whitefellas look in the mirror.

When an Australian is successful on, say, the sporting field, it’s precisely because he’s an Aussie (Aussie Aussie, Oi oi oi). But when an Australian disgraces himself, it’s because he’s a ratbag. His nation had nothing to do with it.

It’s an amazing leap, and an even more amazing double standard.

And it’s uniquely, quintessentially an Australian state of mind.

By way of postscript, Xavier Rudd never did play Land Rights. A curse on his house for that. But he did celebrate Aboriginal culture, like he always does. And he dragged a lot of whitefellas along for the ride, whether or not they shifted their thinking afterwards.

Change is a slow process, particularly in a nation determined not so much to live in the past, but live on the lies of the past.

And as for the Bluesfest, they advanced the cause of Aboriginal people with a great generosity of spirit. When I go to events around the nation I’m usually reminded of how ashamed I am of my country. Bluesfest is the first non-Aboriginal event I’ve been too in some time where I actually felt a little bit proud.

Maybe that’s the real power of music. It has the capacity to transform, but also to make people forget – bogans and supporters of blackfellas alike.

And so while I may never understand how we, as a society, are able to so easily divorce ourselves from the truth of our past and the reality of our present, it was nice to escape that reality for a few days.

* Chris Graham is the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, now a freelance writer based in Glebe, Sydney.