Solid Rock: Solid white out

30 years ago Shane Howard, frontman of the band Goanna, was walking around Uluru. Not long before a big mob from Amata, a community in the North West corner of South Australia, had set up a tent at the base of Uluru to sell wood carvings to tourists. When Shane was walking the Amata mob were performing inma at Mutitjulu, the community at the eastern edge of the Rock. Inma is community ceremony; they were celebrating the wood carvings tent. Shane wandered over and was invited to sit down. The experience moved him. In 2002 he told Goldmine Magazine it made him realise “this country that I grew up in, that I thought was my country, wasn’t. I had to reassess my whole relationship with the land and the landscape, and understand that we had come from somewhere else, and we had disempowered a whole race of people when we arrived.”

He wrote a song about it, Solid Rock. 30 years ago a bunch of whitefellas singing about the dispossession of Aboriginal people would’ve been a big deal even if The Oils had been around for five years by ’82. Solid Rock was probably the first Australian rock song containing ‘genocide’ in its lyrics. Goanna’s label were reluctant to release it as a single because of its weighty content, but they did and it was a hit, peaking at number two and hanging around the Top 50 for 26 weeks. Solid Rock became an iconic Australian protest song and yesterday at Mutitjulu, Shane Howard, along with Archie Roach, Dan Sultan, Neil Murray, Bart Willoughby, Warren H Williams, Natalie Pa‘apa’a, didg virtuoso William Barton, Emma Donovan and John Butler celebrated its 30th anniversary by recreating it in three versions and singing songs of their own. Other Side of The Rock was free and despite it being held in a community usually closed to unrelated outsiders, everyone was welcome.

On Friday afternoon I read an article on The Monthly website called Desert Songs: Thirty years of Australia’s hidden hit parade by Paul Kelly. It concluded with a mention of Solid Rock and the concert. “Also singing it with Shane Howard will be Archie Roach, Dan Sultan, Bart Willoughby and others, in English and Pitjantjatjara.” How had I not heard about this!? Excited, I called Mum and asked if she knew about it. She did, but didn’t have the energy for the 500k drive. I rang a friend whom I had an inkling would be going and he was, but wasn’t returning until late on Monday – no good for me to grab a lift because of work. I figured I’d make it out somehow though and we joked about how it was gonna be dead easy to spot each other as we’d be in the minority. I then got a text from Mum: “We should go. X”

Whitefellas in the minority? I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When Mum and I wandered in at 5pm there was a sea of white faces and hundreds of cameras and iPhones in the air. It looked like almost every other festival I’ve been to. White girls in singlets with severe sunburn, white girls in tiny frayed denim shorts. I couldn’t spot my friend anywhere. I couldn’t see any Aboriginal people anywhere, except for a bunch of kids playing in the portaloo truck. We were standing on red dirt in Mutitjulu, but where were the locals, where were the Anangu? It looked like every other festival I’ve been to apart from the fact I was standing on red dirt next to a vast red field at the base of Uluru.

The sea of white faces made me feel sick and strange.  This was a concert to celebrate 30 years of an iconic song about Aboriginal dispossession, yet the only Aboriginal people I could see without scouring the peripheries were the old painted up women performing a ceremonial dance in the centre of the white sea. A dance so sacred the MC wasn’t able to give any explanation of its meaning because of the whitefellas present. The cameras snapped away, including mine.

I figured everyone who was staying at Yulara, the tourist resort at Uluru, was at Mutitjulu that afternoon. There was a free bus and the National Park fee of $25 per person was waived so of course every tourist would’ve jumped at the chance to catch a free concert at a community they would never normally be allowed to see. What a shock they would’ve got, travelling from one side of The Rock to the other. But I don’t know why I got such a shock at the number of whitefellas compared to Anangu – hadn’t I jumped at the chance too?

Other Side of The Rock

I was shocked because my expectations of a community concert were quashed. I’ve been to community concerts and whitefellas were few and far between. But even though Other Side of the Rock was being held as part of the weekend long Mutitjulu Community Carnival, which according to the poster is “a family celebration of our culture, sports, dance and music”, it wasn’t really a community gig. It was a white man’s gig. It was a celebration of a song written by a white man, and even though Shane Howard shared the stage with Aboriginal music luminaries Archie Roach, Bart Willoughby and Warren H Williams, as well as the incredible voices of Emma Donovan and Dan Sultan who could give Aretha and Elvis a run for their money, there was no Mutitjulu representation whatsoever. Do people at Mutitjulu listen to John Butler? Nup.

John Butler’s song towards the end of the night was the most cringe-worthy moment I think I’ve ever felt in my life. I’d already shed a few sad tears to Dan Sultan’s achingly beautiful black-timbered voice while I was standing on the far left boundary where a small group of Anangu had gathered (Dan started off by saying “I’ve been laughing and I’ve been crying, I’ve been crying while I’ve been laughing.” Did he feel the same?), but John Butler made me feel toxic. The irony broke my heart and scratched and clawed at my guts. He performed Kimberley, a cowboy tale in which the Kimberleys are anthropomorphised into a girl who was a “special, rare and wild soul / Nearly every man who met her, their hearts she always stole”. Even though it was a song about a sacred land grab its trite narrative was entirely untranslatable. I had to look up to the stars to stop my tears as Butler got the white sea to sing the chorus with him:

I said yes I am and I belong
‘Cause I got my land and I got my song
Yes I am and I am strong
‘Cause I got my land and I got my song

Every now and then Shane Howard would say “Nyuntu palya?” Are you ok? in Pitjantjatjara. There were some barely audible replies.

The only musically redeeming moment for me was the little choir of kids from Pukutja (Ernabella), which is in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia. They joined everyone on stage for the big finale of Solid Rock and sang the chorus in Pitjantjatjara. Their high-pitched voices pierced the pomp and polish and they had a great time while they were at it, singing at the top of their lungs through big smiles.

Why wasn’t there more of this?

Why wasn’t Iwantja Band from Indulkana in the APY Lands, who are enormously popular in Mutitjulu, on the bill?

Why were the Anangu sticking to the shadows when the concert was meant for them?

It was the Anangu who invited Shane to sit down and share their ceremony 30 years ago, but he didn’t exactly invite them to share his ceremony, at least not in an effective way, not in their way. He invited all the tourists at Yulara though, and readers of The Monthly like me. What, then, was the point?

Irony was everywhere

This afternoon I called a friend who lives and works at Mutitjulu to ask her what she thought. “We were just talking about it,” she said. She agreed there was something sad and strange about tourists pushing the Anangu out. “The Anangu don’t rush the stage like that, they have protocols for these things. They always stay a bit back and leave a space up front for the kids to dance. Everyone loves to dance, young and old, but they always leave a space so the kids can see the band and have room to move. So when all the whitefellas got up to dance and filled the entire area, that was it. It was an invasion.”

Natalie Pa‘apa’a of Blue King Brown was the only one who thanked the Mutitjulu community at length. All night props were almost entirely going to Shane. Natalie was also the only one to acknowledge the fact she was singing to a sea of white faces, and told the audience to “take this feeling of unity and disperse it across the nation.” But how could anyone feel unity with the Anangu when they were barely anywhere to be seen but on the boundaries? When I was standing on the left boundary wiping a tear away while watching Dan Sultan I asked an old man in a wheelchair where everyone was. He shook his head and gestured towards the crowd. “We just bin keepin’ away.”

The moment the concert was over Mum and I walked in the opposite direction to the crowd. We hadn’t parked with everyone else but driven through Mutitjulu and stopped at a different gate where there were far fewer cars. The majority of the tourists wouldn’t have seen what I did during that short drive. I’ve been to communities and town camps before but that doesn’t mean the dilapidation and detritus is any less confronting. It was made even more so having just driven through pristine Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park and past Yulara, immaculate tourist town. As we walked away from the site dozens of Aboriginal people walked towards it; women pushing prams, women with babies on their hips, men in wheelchairs, kids and dogs. Once the concert was over and the whitefellas were on their way out the Anangu came streaming in. Hopeful, I asked my friend living at Mutitjulu whether there was an after party purely for locals. “No, the after party was at Yulara.”

Of course Shane Howard and everyone involved didn’t intend for Other Side of The Rock to go down this sad, strange path. Naturally everyone had the best of intentions. But perhaps if Anangu protocols were followed, rather than Anglo protocols of sunburn, strapless dresses and space invasion, the transcendent power of music may have lifted us all that night, together.

Goanna – Solid Rock:

Out here nothin’ changes, not in a hurry anyway
You feel the endlessness with the comin’ of the light o’ day
We’re talkin’ about a chosen place
You wouldn’t sell it in a marketplace, well
Well just a minute now

Standing on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line
Right down the line

Round about the dawn o’ time, when dreamin’ all began
A crowd o’ people came
Well they were looking for their promised land
Were running from the heart of darkness
Searching for the heart o’ light
Well it was their paradise

But they were standin’ on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change were blowing cold that night

They were standin’ on the shore one day, saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting, white man, white law, white gun
Don’t tell me that it’s justified, ’cause somewhere, someone lied
Yeah well someone lied, someone lied, genocide
Well someone lied

And now you’re standing on solid rock
Standing on a sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line

Solid rock, standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowing down the line
Solid rock, standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line

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