Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Friday, 26 May 2017

Yarning Circle of Reconciliation

In memory of Ruby Hunter, October 31, 1955 – February 17, 2010
La Perouse, a south-east Sydney suburb, January 26, 1992

NATALIE and I gratefully got out of the cab of my EH ute which had no air conditioning. We had the windows wound down all the way from Brisbane. The breeze rushing past the EH had been warm as in the Australian word for bloody hot. ‘Warm enough for you?’ is a typical comment when the weather is a scorcher. Nat and I adjusted our sunglasses and our broad-brimmed hats.
‘Buddha it’s hot on Australia Day,’ I said, as I put my arm around Nat’s thin waste.
‘Survival Day,’ My Cucumber corrected.
Indeed it was and we were about to become punters at the first Survival Day Concert held in Australia.
We had read about it in Drum Media, a Sydney street paper, which some Brisbane alternative music stores ordered from Sydney in limited quantities. The papers were free so it was thoughtful of Brisbane music stores such as Skinny's and Rocking Horse to put aside the .profit motive for these items.
The Brisbane street press itself was cut-throat at the time with Time Off, Rave, the more dance-music oriented Scene and the downright weird satire/ cultural reviews in the Bug. The free mags vied for advertising chasing the dollars of an alternative crowd who had a huge appetite for live and recorded music but who in the main had limited financial means to fully indulge.
Nat and I liked to know what was happening in Sydney and Drum Media duly obliged with news of the Survival Day concert in honour of the holiday known by most as the more flattering Australia Day. Some Aboriginals and Islanders knew Survival Day as the even less flattering Invasion Day.
These three monikers stemmed from different retro views of January 26, 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip rode a refreshing breeze through Botany Bay to set up a penal colony. A few arrogant English still call us White Australians ‘convicts’ but that is just a cover for their having carelessly lost an Empire in the space of about 50 years. An irreverent rock band touchingly called Queen is doing all the anthems now. Well they were until lead singer Freddie Mercury inconveniently died, during the November just gone.
The first names to strike us in the Drum-Media concert ad were Archie Roach and his wife Ruby Hunter. Nat and I had seen Roach and Hunter play in Brisbane and we liked what we heard.
Ruby was one of the Stolen Generations of kids considered to have enough white pigment to be able to breed out the blackness over time. The genetic-cultural script went wonky for Ruby and she ended up on the streets where she met another homeless kid, Archie. With the help of music, they turned their lives around together.
Cross-cultural dance band Yothu Yindi was on the bill. In 1991, they had a hit with Treaty. A meaningful treaty between Black and White Australia was never going to happen but the song was a joyous blast of compressed air blowing away the pop rubbish from radio airwaves.
Aboriginal opera singer Maroochy Barambah, also one of the Stolen Generations, would be on-stage. Opera and country are the two musical genres I do not get but Natalie was excited by the prospect of Maroochy’s performance. As for country music, Aboriginals loved it, both from America and White Australia. That was until the youngsters discovered reggae and later hip hop. Then it was ‘bye bye Charley Pride; see you later, Slim Dusty’.
But the winds of change had not swept across Botany Bay to La Perouse. Prominent on the newspaper poster was a photo of a performer I had never heard of: Roger Knox. Above his photo was the tag-line, the Black Elvis. Funny, I thought Presley was the Black Elvis with a paint job. Underneath the photo was a smaller appellation: The Koori King of Country. That was more like it. Kooris are Aboriginals from New South Wales. Queensland Aboriginals call themselves Murris.
At La Perouse, a crowd of thousands had gathered early. To welcome us Brisbane visitors a cooler breeze had sprung up from the northern point of Botany Bay. Feeling good.
We looked for a comfortable spot near the stage. A tall Aboriginal man with curly black hair bumped against my left arm. ‘Are you lost?’ he said in a helpful voice which had an undertone of menace.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘This is the famous French restaurant, Lapérouse, isn’t it?’
‘Natalie dug her fingers into the left flesh of my waist. That was one of her signals which silently said, ‘Don’t start, Steele.’
The Aboriginal man smiled but you could see he made neither head nor tail of what I had said.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked. I told him Brisbane.
He pointed north and I saw he had a stack of leaflets in his right hand. ‘That’s a long way,’ he said ‘You must be carrying a lot of guilt.’
Natalie dug in the fingers.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Left the guilt at home. We came for the music.’
Natalie must have been somewhat satisfied with my response as she released the pressure.
The Aboriginal thought about that before he thrust two leaflets towards Natalie and me. ‘Something to read between sets,’ he said.
‘Ta,’ I said while Natalie responded with the more formal thank-you.
The man watched as we found a comfortable spot about 30 metres from the stage. I looked around. ‘There are plenty of White people here; what was he having a go at me for?’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘Did you think he was having a go at us?’
‘Yair, I did,’ Natalie said. ‘Maybe it’s your Bob Marley T-shirt.’ ‘I like Bob Marley.’
‘Awlright,’ she said. ‘Let’s forget about it.’
I agreed and looked at the leaflet which turned out to be a folded six-page brochure.
‘That’s pretty cool,’ I said. ‘This bloke died five days ago and they have already put out a tribute to him.’
There was an empty rectangle above his name, date of birth and death. ‘Looks like they could not find a photo, but,’ I said.
‘Edward Koiki Mabo,’ Natalie read from her leaflet. She continued to read, silently, before putting the leaflet on the ground. ‘He was a Torres Strait Islander. I don’t think they allow pictorial representation during the mourning period.’
She picked up her leaflet and we read on in silence.
It seemed Eddie Mabo and four other claimants contested ownership of Mer Island in the Torres Strait on behalf of the Merian people. They took the action before the High Court of Australia way back in May, 1982. Success could spark other land-rights claims not just by Torres Strait Islanders but Aboriginals throughout Australia as well. The decision was to come down later that year. Poor Eddie, after 10 years of fighting the Man, he died, maybe a few short months before the outcome.
The brochure went on to have some stuff about ‘terra nullius’ which I skipped to read his bio.
In one part it said Eddie Mabo was president of the Yumba Meta housing co-operative which bought houses throughout the Townsville area so Aboriginal and Islander people could live in any suburb they chose. This broke down the barriers of Black suburbs, Australia’s unofficial apartheid.
I put the leaflet aside to think about something else. Earlier that month, on January 11, 1992, Paul Simon was the first major recording artist to play South Africa after the lifting of the cultural boycott of that apartheid nation. Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress and South African president F.W. de Klerk were in discussions about ending apartheid. The lifting of the UN ban was encouragement of fruitful discussions.
What was kind of weird about Simon rushing to play was he had been accused years before of breaking the ban, a charge he denied.
The UN ban was passed in 1980 though the British Musos’ Union had a bar on touring South Africa for more than a decade before that.
In 1984, Queen broke both bans by playing a series of gigs at Sun City in South Africa. Sun City was a casino resort which held more than 6000 people in one concert venue.
Sun City was a funny one. It was in South Africa but it wasn’t. The republic of Bophuthatswana was given independence as a ‘homeland’ for the Tswana people because South Africa looked after its minorities unlike those hypocritical western countries such as the U.S., England and Australia which bagged apartheid. At least, that was how the ruling White elite of South Africa saw it.
Another funny thing about Sun City was, because it was independent, it allowed casinos and topless dancers, both illegal in the righteous Republic of South Africa. Sun City was only a two-hour drive from the Big City of Johannesburg. Buses travelled from Jo’burg to the casino resort. The Big Smoke of Pretoria was even closer to Sun City.
Queen went to Sun City and the Big Bopper of the world’s street press, London’s NME, canned the band mercilessly for it. Queen’s guitar genius Brian May mumbled something about the band not being political and playing for anyone who wanted to listen. But most of us thought they had taken the money and flew over. We rock punters can be very unkind.
Maybe Paul Simon did not read NME. The next year, he travelled to South Africa to hook up with Black African musicians such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo for his planned album, eventually a triumph called Graceland. None of his fellow musicians doubted that Simon’s intentions were good but he had clearly infringed the boycott. His excuse that he didn’t play Sun City (or anywhere else) was lamer than May’s.
The next year, 1986, Steven Van Zandt, formerly of the E-Street Band, put together 50 artists for the protest anthem, Sun City. Van Zandt did not invite Queen or Simon but otherwise it was a group from Alternative/ Crossover Heaven.
Australian Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil was in that number as were Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, jazzmen Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, hip hop outfit Run DMC, DJ Afrika Bambaataa, Pat Benatar, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, metal-heads Motley Crue, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, U2, Darlene Love, Keith Richards, reggae lad Jimmy Cliff, Pete Townshend of the Who, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Geldof, and Joey Ramone.
The chorus of I ain’t gonna play Sun City reverberated around the world. So it was kinda weird that Paul Simon was the first major artist to play Sun City, post boycott in 1992.
I felt a nudge in my side. ‘Whatcha thinking about?’ Natalie asked.
I looked at the leaflet in my hand. ‘Nothing,’ I said.
‘I hope Eddie Mabo wins his case,’ Natalie said. ‘That terra nullius is the stupidest thing I ever heard.’
‘I didn’t read that bit. It means nothing country, doesn’t it? A bit insulting.’
‘It means ‘land belonging to no one’ and it’s the reason Eddie is being denied justice.’
‘I thought Aboriginals and Islanders believe they are part of the land.’
‘That’s not a concept under British law. They are saying because
Aboriginals were nomadic they didn’t own any particular part of Australia before the invasion,’ Natalie said.
‘I wouldn’t have thought Torres Strait Islanders would be particularly nomadic.’
‘That’s not the point, Steele. Terra nullius is just bullshit. Who do you think will win?’
‘Nat, the authorities have been stringing it out for 10 years. I reckon they will just bumble along until all the claimants are dead.’
‘I hope not.’
‘So do I Nat.’
I thought about Paul Simon and the decisions he made. ‘Nat, do you think we are just a pair of do-gooders?’
She spoke softly. ‘No-one thinks you are a do-gooder, Steele.
I kissed her on the side of her cheek. ‘Thanks, Nat.’

THE High Court of Australia, on June 3 1992, overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius and found the island of Mer belonged to the Merian people.

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