The New Face Of Australian Aboriginal Music
Silja J.A. Talvi Talks With Mark Atkins

A cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, Mark Atkins leans forward to hear an audience member's well-intentioned but ultimately impossible question: "Can you give us some examples of what exactly the Aboriginal dreamtime is?"

With a pause and a quick, white cloud of exhaled smoke, Atkins explains that there are no words to sum up the entirety of Australian Aboriginal cosmology. "It is our law," adds another Aboriginal artist, Stephen Goldsmith. "It is the law of our land."

"What about the didjeridu?," asks another inquisitive audience member. "Where did it come from?"

"As far as I'm concerned, it's the mother of all flutes," chuckles Atkins, who explains that the instrument is a naturally occurring phenomenon in the Northern Australian bush. "I've been playing it for 20 years, and I'm still learning."

In the summer of 1999 North Americans had a rare opportunity to witness the art and music of several Aboriginal artists, including Stephen Goldsmith, Mark Blackman, the Bangarra Dance Theatre and Mark Atkins, at WOMAD USA in Redmond, Washington. In between performances and audience-participant workshops, Atkins busied himself with an exquisite art car painting, transforming a Volvo V40 from a utilitarian vehicle to a moving Aboriginal canvas in the space of three days.

Atkins, whose parents are Irish-Australian and Yamijiti, has found his calling in bringing Aboriginal stories, painting, drumming and didjeridu performance to European, Asian and American audiences, seeking a way to bring much needed attention to the ongoing plight and the rich heritage of Australia's decimated indigenous population. Atkins was the founding member of the Kooriwadjula (black man/white man) ensemble of contemporary and traditional Australian musicians, and created, along with Aboriginal artist Jahawirre Yiarrka, the musical group Ankala.

With a new Ankala album to be released later this fall on the World Network label, Atkins has already played on numerous didgeridoo recordings, including Didgeridoo Concerto (Larrikin, 1994), Rhythms from the Outer Core (Oce/Australia, 1997), and The Sound of Gondwana (Black Sun/Celestial Harmonies, 1997). Atkins has also performed internationally with a wide range of musicians, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and the London Philharmonic Orchestra among them.

On the last day of WOMAD, Atkins spoke with Silja J.A. Talvi about his life and music.

Silja J.A. Talvi: I'm interested in learning a little bit about your own childhood and specifically how your identity as both a descendent of Aboriginal people and of Irish-Australians shaped the way that you related to the world around you?

Atkins Mark Atkins: I'm Yamitiji (Aboriginal people from Western Australia) ... my mother is Aboriginal and my father Irish. Growing up as a kid I found it very hard because, basically I grew up in the middle. I lived on the fence. I always thought, "Hang on, the Irish people are different than these other white people." And on the other side, [my family was] very different because my mother's side is black. I found within the communities that black people didn't much like English Australian people and the English people didn't like [Aborigines] or the Irish, so it was hard growing up in that atmosphere.

But when I got older, I always felt comfortable in the Aboriginal communities because, in a sense, Aboriginal people never pretended to be anything else [than what they were]. They had respect for each other. Plus, my [Aboriginal side] never had this individualism, this materialism. This "me and my" thing. Even still today, it's hard for Aboriginal people to get on to live in a European society because they want to put fences around things and want [to own] things. It's not "we or us," it's "me and my." There's a big difference.

At what point did you begin to immerse yourself in music, art and storytelling?

I was always an artist. I can remember at school finishing other people's art projects or doing little paintings and selling them for 5 and 20 cents. I was good at school in the sense of music, art and sports. Everything else I failed at, and nobody really had the time for somebody like me.

In addition to didjeridu performance, you're also known to make and paint your own didjeridus in both modern and traditional styles. Can you tell me a little about how and where you go about selecting the right logs from the nature, and something about the process involved in designing a didjeridu?

Basically, I go out into the bush and find a good spot. With didjeridus I'm looking for signs of the white ants living in the logs. Then I'll get a big stick, a hard stick, and I'll hit the log and put my ear to it and see if it's hollow. Once I've found one that's hollow I'll cut it down and bash it, hit it, with the stick again to loosen all the bark off of it. Then I'll find an old stump and I'll bash it [against the stump] and knock out all the rubbish in it. If I want to get some beeswax then I'll find the Australian gnat, the little one, and I'll catch one and attach a little bit of cobweb to it so that I can see it and then I'll let it go back to its hive. I take some of that wax for [the mouth of] my didjeridu.

Do you know the exact note you're going to get from a didjeridu just by looking at it?

You have a pretty good idea of what it's going to be: a C or D or F. But that's just from experience.

How do you see things changing for Australia's indigenous inhabitants in the next 10 to 20 years or so?

Within the education system, I see [that there should be] a lot of changes there. They're starting to change some things. Back home, [though], we're still dealing with things educationally like, "When was the first settlement in Australia? 1876." Well, it wasn't 1876 [for us], that was just the first European settlement. [Similarly with questions like], "Who was the first man to cross the mountains or the first man to cross the desert?" Well, those things have got to change because kids are learning these things and thinking that it was white people who did these things first. Nobody should forget who the traditional custodians of this country are. The people walking the land now are walking in our people's footsteps.

How do you view your own artistic work as impacting Australian society? Do you see any direct result from your work on a political or social level?

In Australia, as soon as you, as an Aboriginal person, are on stage, it's political. In Australia, you get a lot of European artists doing [media] interviews, and they never ask them about who they are, or where they come from, or their political views on anything. As an Aboriginal artist and person, you always get those questions.

What is that like for you to see how the popularity of the didjeridu has spread among non-Aboriginal populations?

I've said this throughout Europe: I think it's good. What usually happens is because I'm a player, they'll start talking to me about the history of the instrument, the paintings, where I come from. There are all these other cultural issues that they learn as well if they come to a workshop [that I'm holding.] The first thing I do is give a little introduction on the instrument and its history. I answer a few questions and then teach them to play. Usually, afterwards, they're not asking questions about the didjeridu or what I'm doing here or there, but about the culture back [in Australia.] It's something that I [view as] opening doors, not just in the sense of playing [the didjeridu.]

Tell me about some of your ongoing projects back in Australia, including the Ankala group and the Kooriwadjula ensemble?

Kooriwadjula is something that I put together 10 or 11 years ago. Aboriginal artists working in Australia find it hard to get work because basically the [music club] management don't want Aboriginal people at their venues. So we don't get to play where the white people play. We have to play outside [of those venues]. That is changing very slowly, but it is still like it was 20 or 50 years ago. There's a place where we're allowed to be, and everywhere else is not [acceptable.]

When I tour Europe, I do a concert with guitar, songs, didjeridu and stories. And some visuals. Sometimes I work with a three-piece [group] with a sequencer and sampler, it's more of a dance-type thing. And with a [bigger] band it's sort of a cross between an Orson Welles, Pink Floyd, and Deep Forest.

You do seem to pursue more traditional modes of Aboriginal music and culture as well as a more experimental or modern approach in your performance. I'm interested in how you straddle the two worlds, the world's oldest continuous culture on the one side and a fast-paced, ever-changing world on the other side. Is that a comfortable place to be musically or personally speaking?

Yes. For me, yes, musically and personally. I'm comfortable there because I can adapt. I can go out into a white Australian environment and play their little games and dress up to impress. Basically, when you live in that way you're living to other people's expectations. On the other side of the fence, we don't [care about those kinds of expectations]. We are what we are and we'll get along. We live from the next day to the next.

Links to information on Aboriginal culture, music and issues

Photos © 1999 Silja J.A. Talvi

return to rootsworld Will You Subscribe?