Styles & Forms | Australia & Oceania | World

Oceania covers a vast portion of the world’s surface, and each island or archipelago is separated by thousands of miles of Pacific, yet these distinct cultures share one source: the southward migration of seafarers from Southeast Asia, who arrived on the single landmass that was New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania approximately 50,000 years ago.

It would take more than 45,000 years before they would set foot on the islands of Melanesia, travelling east to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa by 1300 BC, and then on to Hawaii, French Polynesia and, eventually, New Zealand about 1,250 years ago.

These time spans, the distances covered and the rising seas that saw New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania become three islands, brought significant variations to the separated cultures. The effect of colonization has been no less important, with the Indonesian, British, Dutch, Portuguese, German, French and American peoples being among those laying claim to the islands, and Christian missionaries laying claim to the souls of their inhabitants. Nevertheless, indigenous cultures have survived, often against the odds.

An Indigenous Folk Music

Australian history once began in the eighteenth century with Captain Cook, at a time when the Aborigine population stood at three times the 250,000 it was at the end of the twentieth century. Attempts to ‘keep Australia white’ have included separating Aborigine children from their parents and deliberate extermination. Language, culture and land rights have been ignored and people have been resettled. In the late-twentieth century, immigration from the north meant that Australia had to face up to its status as a de facto Asian country.

But just as the American folk revival of the 1960s is irrevocably tied to civil rights, so the Aborigines’ fight for recognition fostered an indigenous folk music and an appreciation of Aboriginal art – from painting to dance to the didgeridoo – that has spread to every continent and rock festival. The singers Kev Carmody, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter have become standard bearers for this movement, bringing an awareness of the oppression their people had to bear to the wider audience, at home and abroad. As their names suggest, all three were raised by white people.

Festivals of Aboriginal culture gather indigenous people from all over Australia, the Torres Strait islands and Papua New Guinea, and are now visited by tens of thousands of Australians whose claim to the title goes back less than two centuries. But, given that Aborigines constitute only one-and-a-half per cent of the population, it is unsurprising that Yothu Yindi, the first band to break into the mainstream, were a multiracial rock band that could play a set in which a pop hit such as ‘Treaty’ could be followed by a tune that was 10,000 years older.

Very Little Cultural Interaction

Melanesia stretches from New Guinea (the island is divided into Indonesian Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea) to Fiji. Although George Telek, from Papua New Guinea, is the only singer to have a profile outside the archipelago, there...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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