McKenzie Wark on Wed, 21 Jun 2000 06:24:45 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Buried Country

Buried Country:
Grass Roots Indigenous Communication

McKenzie Wark
Wednesday, 21 June 2000

"You can talk to Jesus on His Royal telephone." I was a little kid when
Jimmy Little's big hit was on the radio in the early 60s. It was a happy
tune to which to sing along. But to some Aboriginal listeners, it was
something else. It was a sign, travelling on the airwaves, of
Aboriginality itself.

One of the highlights of the 2000 Sydney Film Festival for me was Andy
Nehl's documentary Buried Country, about Aboriginal country music. It will
be broadcast in Australia on SBS on the 8th July. There's a cd coming out
from Festival records. There is also a book by Clinton Walker, also called
Buried Country, published by Pluto Press, and a website
<>. Jimmy Little himself performed live at the
premiere of the film. All in all, a fittingly multimedia package that
documents a little known aspect of Aboriginal oral and performative

It's curious how the Aboriginal arts that have become legitimate and
respected all in some way or another mimic white middle class tastes.
There is Aboriginal dance theatre, there are western desert dot paintings,
there is even Aboriginal literature. 

I think its a great thing that these forms of expression have rightfully
found their place. But the Aboriginal writing that is celebrated is the
kind that fits the white middle class presumption that the novel is the
supreme and sublime form. The Aboriginal art that is celebrated is the dot
painting style, so refreshingly abstract and free from western
representational conventions. In performing arts, we have the magnificent
Bangarra Dance Theatre, who can perform comfortably within the confines of
the conventional stage. 

But what is excluded from this belated celebration of Aboriginal
creativity? Anything, I suspect, that can't be accommodated to white
middle class sensibilities. The acceptable kind of Aboriginal art, to
white audiences, has some trace of authentic tribal culture, but mixes it
with the respectable forms of middle class taste. 

This is where Buried Country is a useful and important set of documents.
Clinton Walker's tells the stories of an extraordinary group of singers,
songwriters and performers, many famous in rural parts of rural Australia
or with Aboriginal audiences, but who have been largely ignored elsewhere.
It will be interesting to see whether white middle class taste is ready
for a more rural kind of popular roots culture such as Aboriginal country

Jimmy Little is a big star again, having released a magnificent collection
of interpretations of contemporary Australian songs. Listeners have
embraced The Messenger, but not yet the Jimmy Little who recorded Yorta
Yorta Man in 1995. 

Andy Nehl's film and Clinton Walker's book tell the story of Vic Simms,
who recorded his album The Loner in jail. There's Bob Randall, whose 1964
song Brown Skin Baby told of the stolen generation, years before our
'public intellectuals' deigned to listen to it's story. There's Herb
Laughton, stolen when he was two, the grandfather of country music in the
Northern Territory.

What's canny about this film and book is the way in which these amazing
artists are presented in such a way that a white middle class audience can
finally hear them. From Allan Lomax recording African American blues
singers for the Smithsonian to the Buena Vista Social Club movie and cds,
there is a taste that has developed for vernacular song and singers. Nehl
and Walker have very astutely drawn our attention to an Australian and
indigenous version of roots music.

Jimmy Little's 'Royal Telephone' is a spiritual, but the royal telephone
might not be, or be only, one that connects one to a higher spiritual
power. Perhaps the royal telephone is radio and recording, connecting one
to the higher power that is a community of feeling, here on this earth.
What Buried Country shows is the importance of the royal telephone of
radio, recording, even television in channelling images of Aboriginality
to Aboriginal people themselves.

In her book Well I Heard It On The Radio, Marcia Langton has rightly drawn
attention to the biases and inherent racism in many images of
Aboriginality that circulate in the media. But this kind of critique of
representation does not take into account the capacity of audiences to
read for themselves. Buried Country documents the way Aboriginal musicians
have listened, learned, and found a way to tell their own stories in song,
using means that were not of their choosing -- country music. 

Jimmy Little may have been presented as a sanitised and 'assimilated'
figure, on television and radio, but nothing can restrain the otherworldly
power of his voice to provide Aboriginal listeners with a sign that
something more could be possible. Even the most constrained and restricted
images can be an incitement to cultural renewal and creativity.

For a long time the emphasis in media and cultural studies has been on the
critique of representation. The glass was always half empty. No image, no
story, was ever anything more than a stereotype. There can be something
futile about this approach to popular media. 

No representation is ever adequate to what it pictures -- by definition. A
representation can never fully express what it represents. The only way
out was to privilege practices of image making that draw attention, in the
process, to their artificial and constructed nature.

This sometimes leads to great works of art, like Tracey Moffatt's film
Night Cries, featuring Jimmy Little. But it does so at the price of only
producing art that makes sense in the world of educated middle class
tastes. It produces works that are forever in need of being explained.
They work well in the context of a pedagogy, but not outside of it.

But there might be another approach to media and cultural studies. One
that isn't based on the critique of representation, which always sees the
glass half empty. That same glass is a glass half full. Its half full side
is the creative and expressive power of those who can read something
useful in mainstream media and create their own stories and images using
that borrowed language. This is the side of the phenomena of media, its
'royal telephone', that needs another way of thinking and writing. 

This might be a way of thinking about media and culture that isn't
critical of the glass half empty, but which sees the potential of the
glass half full. This is what some scholars might call the virtuality of
media -- its capacity to give rise to new and different things, regardless
of how restricted or impoverished a representation it may be.

Buried Country fits very well with this virtual, rather than critical,
approach to media. Its a compilation of stories that document just exactly
how creative people can be with a guitar and a few chords, and the example
of both Slim Dusty and Jimmy Little to incite a renewed creativity. It
builds on the great tradition of documenting roots music, a tradition that
has always stressed the virtuality of culture and resisted the negativity
of the critical approach.

Buried Country is a powerful collection of resources. It is an education
in the black vernacular at its finest, saying the things that white middle
class public intellectuals have taken a long time to start hearing, and
still don't quite get. It is an education in how to use popular media, in
the creative, transforming power that people can bring to even the
simplest communication tools. And it is an education in some great and
neglected artists, who just happen to fall outside the range of middle
class tastes -- as yet. Every school, every library, should have these

Pluto Press:

Buried Country:

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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