“North East Arnhem Land is home to music royalty,” Yirrkala heir apparents East Journey tell me. “There is no other region that has developed as many successful Indigenous bands and musicians as North East Arnhem Land.” Such a conviction holds water even in the national context – some of the area’s breakthrough acts include Australian household names Yothu Yindi and Gurrumul.
For the record: East Journey, a Yolngu band nine members*-strong and several musical genres-wide, are representing themselves in a united front for this interview. A jointly authored document responds to questions I emailed their manager the day before she was to “go out bush” to meet up with the band. Although it’s an unreliable phone reception and a pinching deadline that make for this somewhat impersonal correspondence, the ensuing six pages of collective thoughts quickly make it clear that East Journey are not only a band with a lot to say, but one that actively aims to speak both to and for a lot of people.
“We sing our traditional stories and songlines about nature, land and sea, about our ancestors and the place where we come from, so people can see who we are and appreciate our culture,” East Journey write. “We want to be role models for the new generation and teach them to recognise other people’s beliefs in the knowledge that our culture is so strong. We want people to know that education is important in both ways learning, that to move forward in life, we need to embrace both Yolngu and Ngapaki [white] ways.”
East Journey’s recent, critically acclaimed, debut album Guwak further cements the band’s approach to their music as a medium for open communication. The album is named after Guwak, a sacred message bird that features in much Yolngu ceremonial art and song poetry.
Bolstering the Guwak analogy is East Journey’s sound itself: an expansive creation, welded together from the new and the very old, along with various musical styles sourced from environs both local and further afield. “East Journey started with a saltwater reggae sound,” the band reveal, effectively tipping their hat to the saltwater reggae stylings endemic to the North East Arnhem Land music scene, before adding: “But we have deliberately moved towards a rock sound meshed with acoustic and the traditional sounds of the earthy yidaki [didgeridoo] and bilma [clapsticks] to create a fresh, vibrant and new direction for Australian Indigenous music.”
East Journey’s commitment to cross-cultural dialogue is expressed further yet by their own spin-off organisation: the East Journey Aboriginal Corporation (EJAC). EJAC proposes to advance Yolngu music and culture both domestically and internationally, as well as foster and develop musical talent amongst Yolngu youth, and use music to promote social ideals, including education, employment, and health. “We had our guides like Mandawuy Yunupingu [Yothu Yindi], and we hope to be able to also mentor other young aspiring musicians, building up our Corporation so we can help the next generation tour with us.”
East Journey have steadily gathered kudos from across the country, recently receiving a positive review for Guwak in the pages of The Australian, and a performance spot at the prestigious 2012 National Indigenous Music Awards. Despite such sure steps toward the North East Arnhem Land musical throne however, East Journey clearly intend to share the crown around. It’s an approach that hints of even bigger things to come.
*Rrawun Murmuru (lead/backing vocals); PJ White (electric rhythm/lead guitar); Malngay Yunupingu (backing vocals/dancer); Ngalkanbuy Mununggurr (yidaki, bilma, dancer); Arian Pearson (acoustic guitar); Ses Fury Frank (electric rhythm guitar); Banul Garrawirrtja (keyboard); Manharrngu Marawili (bass); Gathapura Mununggurr (drums)
Published at Off The Leash