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‘Blak Country’ Is the NAIDOC Week Event Not to Be Missed

‘Blak Country’ is bringing the icons and rising stars of Aboriginal Australian country music to Volume 2024 this Wednesday

Liam Keenan

Liam Keenan

Jon Zerger

When the program for Volume 2024, The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ pioneering music series, was announced in May, it was easy to get distracted by the luminaries on the lineup, from Sonic Youth legend Kim Gordon to award-winning rapper Tkay Maidza.

But at the heart of the program, fittingly set to take place in the middle of NAIDOC Week, is a fascinating event called ‘Blak Country’.

The first of two free Wednesday night events during Volume, ‘Blak Country’ will feature the icons and rising stars of Aboriginal Australian country music today, including Jarrod Hickling, Kathryn Kelly, Roger Knox, Kyla-Belle Roberts, Loren Ryan, and Frank Yamma.

It’s set to be a night of meaningful music in myriad ways. In between the live performances, a playlist compiled by assistant First Nations curator and Volume co-curator Liam Keenan will be heard throughout the Art Gallery.

Titled ‘Music From Malabar Mansion’ after the nickname given to the Long Bay Correctional Complex, Keenan’s playlist features songs that have been written, performed, and recorded by men and women in NSW correctional facilities as part of the ‘Songbirds’ project run by the Community Restorative Centre.

‘Blak Country’ will be held this Wednesday, July 10th, but before then, read our conversation with Keenan below, discussing the importance of ‘Blak Country’, his curated playlist, the impressive collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at Art Gallery of New South Wales, and much more.

Find out more information about ‘Blak Country’ at Volume 2024 here

Rolling Stone AU/NZ: How special will it be to have ‘Blak Country’ taking place right in the middle of NAIDOC Week?

Liam Keenan: It’s the perfect crossover, especially since this year’s NAIDOC theme is ‘Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud’. Celebrating with a massive night of live and loud Indigenous country music feels like the perfect way to honour that theme.

It’s in such a beautiful venue too! What makes the Art Gallery of New South Wales the ideal venue for an event like this?

We have a world class collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art that is always on display and free to the public. As we move towards staging ambitious music performances and projects like Volume, we’re in a unique position to bring the worlds of music and art together in unique ways.

Indigenous artists we’re working with who might be performing music at the Art Gallery often see the artworks of their friends and relatives on display while here, and this creates a deeper experience for the artists and the audience.

We’re also able to layer in community engagement in meaningful ways. Our Indigenous education team reached out to Camdenville Public School and Marrickville West Primary School to arrange for their Indigenous students to paint a collaborative banner, celebrating black country music culture, which will be used as a stage backdrop at Blak Country.

How strong is the Aboriginal Australian country music scene in 2024? Any artists our readers should be listening to?

It’s been a huge couple of years for country music in general across the globe, and it’s been quite surprising to see how much it has entered the mainstream world of popular music across different cultures and continents.

I think on the back of this, there is more potential and young talent among Indigenous Australian artists than ever before. I really like the fun catchiness of Loren Ryan’s latest single “My Favourite Summer”, which features Wiradjuri man Nathan Lamont, who is another Indigenous country artist from regional New South Wales.

Tell us about ‘Music From Malabar Mansion’. Firstly, can you explain the meaning of the title?

‘Music From Malabar Mansion’ is the name I’ve given to a special playlist I’ve put together that features country songs written and recorded by Indigenous men in correctional centres in New South Wales, as part of a program called Songbirds, which is run by the Community Restorative Centre. At the ‘Blak Country’ event, this playlist will be heard across both buildings, between the live performances and as people arrive.

The name ‘Malabar Mansion’ is a nickname for the Long Bay Correctional Centre in the suburb of Malabar, Sydney and is also the title of a country song written by a previous inmate. It was made more famous in Indigenous communities across the state when the late Dunghutti/Ngaku musician Mac Silva recorded a version in 1988. My nan filmed the music video for Mac’s version, which shows him walking around the block in Redfern.

How important is a project like ‘Songbirds’?

‘Songbirds’ is an important program that deserves more attention and funding so we can continue to facilitate creative restorative work with people in correctional centres. The program is run by Murray Cook who has played with bands like No Fixed Address, Mental As Anything, and Midnight Oil. He’s been a music educator in Long Bay Jail for more than 20 years and knows how beneficial and impactful these kinds of creative program can be.

How did the participants enjoy taking part in the project?

You can hear the enjoyment in the songs. The inmates really pour everything into the music. I think that the country songs that come out of the ‘Songbirds’ program are some of the most original and unique examples of Indigenous songwriting anywhere in the country right now.

What kind of songs were the participants producing? Stomping country-rock songs? Slower ballads?

There is a wide range and diversity across the songs. Some are funny and cheeky rockers with a full band sound and others are intimate ballads that are really moving. One of them is an epic shoutout to Wilcannia Football Team. I always have these songs stuck in my head!

Was it difficult to curate the playlist? Did you have to narrow down the selections?

On each ‘Songbirds’ compilation that Murray eventually puts out on Bandcamp, there is a mix of genres and styles. There are tracks that delve into more hip hop and R&B influences as well as punk and spoken word stuff. I wanted to pick out the best country songs from each compilation and celebrate how important country music has been for Indigenous communities.

Away from music for a moment, tell us about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the gallery.

We’re lucky to have one of the best collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art anywhere in Australia, and we display these works in multiple spaces across both of our buildings, enabling Indigenous perspectives and forms of expression to be in a layered dialogue with other diverse works from our collection.

Do you have a favourite painting in the collection?

The late Wiradjuri artist HJ Wedge is one of my favourite painters in the collection. Not many people know this, but he actually made the stage backdrop art for Perry Farrell’s band Porno for Pyros when they played Sydney Big Day Out in 1996. I always loved that connection. Last year when Jane’s Addiction were in town, they came into the Art Gallery for a tour and I ended up connecting with them and we all went out for dinner that night.

Finally, what do you hope attendees get out of ‘Blak Country’ this week?

I’m hoping people of all different ages and backgrounds come along on the night as it’s free and all ages. There is a strong family aspect to the night as well. Quite a few of the artists are performing with family, whether it’s cousins, grandsons, or parents. I’m excited to be bringing attention to a group of talented artists from regional New South Wales and to be raising awareness around the long and important history of Indigenous country music.