THE BLOG

40,000 Years of Singing

04/14/2014 11:41 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2014

"We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love... and then we return home." -- Aboriginal Elder quoted in Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years Of Aboriginal History

I wrote the majority of this essay when I was on tour with my band in Australia, about a month ago. I took advantage of every free moment I had to visit art galleries, museum exhibitions and any indigenous musical performances I could find. I've always been intuitively attracted to indigenous music, or "world music" as it is commonly called, and I've tried to learn as much as possible about the world's indigenous cultures, through their music and art. There's really something special, even sacred, about the music created by the Earth's First Peoples, and in Australia, traditional Aboriginal music is still performed in the same way its been done for thousands of years -- with the human voice and some very basic wooden instruments. I first heard this music when I came to Australia in the early 1990s, when my dad was stationed in Sydney working for an industrial explosives company that supplied the enormous mining industry down there. As I visited my parents several times throughout the 1990s, it gave me a rare opportunity to explore the Australian landscape and gaze through a portal into another, far more ancient world.

It's been 15 years since my last visit to Australia, but last month I was fortunate to attend Brisbane's annual celebration of indigenous identity known as "Clancestry." The pun on "Clan" is because Aboriginal people are born into clan systems with spiritual totems that have historical ties to the land, its plants, and its animals. Watching and hearing the indigenous singers and dancers performing on a perfect summer evening was mystical and transporting to another time. As the singers described their songs, they always reaffirmed their deep connection to the landscape, their people and their culture, all of which are inseparable.

The Aboriginal people of Australia have been here for a very long time, with some archeological evidence placing them here well over 40,000 years ago, and some scholars believing 100,000 years is more likely. Some of their cave paintings are carbon dated to over 20,000-years-old, and these paintings are also the first visual evidence of a series of ancient myths and stories that the Aboriginal people refer to as "The Dreaming."

The Dreaming is a concept somewhat hard for the Western mind to comprehend, but it is essentially a series of stories from the ancient historical past, when the Earth and all her creatures came into existence through an "autochthonic process." That is, everything "came out" of the Earth itself. The Dreaming is basically an indigenous way to describe the evolutionary process of life, using clever and often humorous myths and stories that help to explain the complexities of life on Earth. Each successive generation passes on The Dreaming through storytelling, painting, and of course through music. The stories are epic in their scope, and they often contain great moral truths that help to teach each generation of children -- and adults. It is in effect, the great Aboriginal gift to the world of holy scriptures, equivalent to the Veda, the Tora, the Bible, the Koran and every other great religious system the world has to offer.

And like the great holy texts of man, The Dreaming stories are full of beautiful symbolic metaphors that illustrate the complexity of life and the infinity of the Universe. Great ancestors who have passed from this physical existence have lit great campfires in the sky which become the flickering stars that remind us who is watching over the world. The seven stars of the Pleiades are seven famous sisters who grew weary of the follies of men and fled to their own private home in the sky. Fire was given to humanity by majestic teaching birds who help humans to evolve and learn, and crocodiles and rainbow serpents guard the billabong watering holes, where additional teaching stories are taught.

The Australian landscape itself was carved and sculpted by enormous serpents whose undulations helped to excavate the rivers, lakes, and valleys of the continent. Then came the great ancestor Jambuwal, who walks on water with his friend Wuimir the whale, and together they create the rain clouds that fill the lakes and rivers with fresh water. It is also believed that the oceans were originally fresh water, that is, until the great sea turtle ancestor Inibungei was speared by a careless fisherman, causing Inibungei to urinate in the water and salinate the oceans forever.

Now we know who peed in the pool. As I said, there is great humor in these Dreaming stories.

When it comes to aboriginal music, you have to think about the songs quite differently. These songs are carried through a musical system of communication called a "Songline", and these songs are like musical maps of ancestral history, peppered with additional myths and stories. These song-story-maps can be ancient, and are sometimes adapted to carry contemporary news and events. They travel across the Australian landscape in the same way that the stories of the American West traveled with pioneers, medicine men, and cowboy singers. In a way, they are thematically not that much different to some of the songs coming out of America today, where the lyrics are about beautiful landscapes and the people who live within them. The difference here however, is that an American song is probably not much no older than 200 years, whereas an Aboriginal Songline can go back several hundred and possibly thousands of years. Its an entirely different history, an ancient history.

I heard my first Aboriginal Songline when my father and I went to Alice Springs in the Red Center in the early 1990s. We went there to see the gigantic rock formations known as Uluru and Kata Tjuta, which you've seen on postcards and every TV commercial from the Australian tourist commission. Out near Uluru, we listened to a man from the local Pitinjara tribe sing a songline about the land we were visiting, his ancestor's land. He sang the song in his own language and then later explained that it was about the landscape we were viewing all around us. In the fading light, I saw a pack of wild dingos sneaking through the brush a hundred yards below the small hill where we were standing. The Aboriginal man saw my eyes following the dingos, and winked back at me in silent understanding. The dingos are in the Songline too.

These songlines are inherited and handed down generation to generation, as a formal acknowledgment of a person's connection to their land. And in some famous land rights cases, the songline of a territory in question was sung in Australian court as proof of ownership of a piece of land. Finally Australian law is starting to recognize that these Songlines are far more important than the scribblings of a banker on a piece of paper.

I wish I had a Songline that could work as legal protection against the condominium developers who are destroying my particular neighborhood in Ballard, Seattle, Washington.

Linguists have calculated that there were as many as 500 different Aboriginal languages in use prior to British colonization. Imagine all those songs, sung in 500 different languages, over the course of thousands of years. Unfortunately, by the late 20th century, there were only about 100 languages still active in Australia, and those languages are continuing to disappear. So many ancient things are collapsing under the devouring weight of globalization and economic homogenization. It is not worth what we are losing.

When you see a piece of Aboriginal artwork, you cannot help but be moved. Their paintings are so vibrant, colorful, and alive, because the subject matter is the living Earth itself. That is also why it is the most relevant art in the world today, because it celebrates Life. Just Google "Aboriginal Art" after you're done reading this post and you'll see exactly what I've been talking about. You can support their culture and their economic stability by purchasing this art and their music, both online and of course in the Australian galleries and music shops. That is one way you can help to preserve the indigenous world, by economically contributing to the support of their art.

Any musicologist or art historian will tell you that the music and art of a culture says everything about the culture itself. Just listen to any corporate radio station or visit your local mall and you'll understand exactly the cultural decline our western world is in. Perhaps this says something about our own decaying, materialist world, which devalues music and art and puts a higher value on plastic junk made in China, than it does on the workers who sell it under fluorescent lights at slave labor wages. We've turned "shopping" into a culture pastime, but we're really only buying worthless junk. When did we stop creating culture and instead started devouring it?

There is a great teaching in all this, and it comes from the things indigenous people have to share with us. It is something we all can learn from, something we can participate in. I think it has to do with stopping and listening to the Songlines of our own people, and looking at their art. But your not going to find it on corporate radio or in a shopping mall.

No, you're going to have to go dig for it.