Deadly Hearts Showcases Indigenous Artists Performing Iconic Australian Songs

Mitch Tambo covers Vanessa Amorosi on the latest compilation from Deadly Hearts.

What is Australian music? Does it have a signature sound? Ask anyone from Arnhem Land to Arakoola, Melbourne to Mungo, and you’ll get a different response. What can’t be denied is that the original owners of Australian land had their own language – both literally and musically. In the last decade, there’s been a push by government and remote regional councils to preserve records and document Aboriginal languages, to recognise that the many languages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Australians define the land, the spirit of place and people for generations of families and communities.

Recently, the National Indigenous Music Awards showcased the diversity and wealth of talented Indigenous artists of all genders, ages and musical genres. The latest Deadly Hearts compilation (and third in the series) features many of those artists. Versions of Vanessa Amorosi’s joyous pop song “Absolutely Everybody”, Crowded’s House sadly sweet “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and the political ferocity of Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning” are all given a fresh interpretation.

The Deadly Hearts series began in 2017 as a platform for a new generation of Indigenous Australians to respond musically to the question: “What song has spoken strongest to you about growing up an Indigenous Australian?” The 12 tracks on the original album combined synth, jazz and hip hop to reimagine songs that each of the artists had a personal investment in. Jimblah covered Warumpi Band’s “My Island Home” with an electro vibe, while Birdz turned Yothu Yindi’s “Sunset Dreaming (Djapana)” into a hip hop ode. Deadly Hearts 2, released last year, featured accomplished artists Alice Skye and Dan Sultan as well as upcoming artists Tia Gostelow, Electric Fields and Dallas Woods.

The latest drop from the series, subtitled Walking Together, comes ahead of NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week 2020. NAIDOC began as a week long event in 1975, an observance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians’ history, culture and achievements.

Ziggy Ramo opens the comp with “Tjitji,” a soulful hip hop track that combines a trippy beat with a harrowing, vulnerable rap about contemplating and handling suicidal thoughts (“I see your pain, I felt the same. If you want real change, you gotta play the long game”). Just as he did in a recent performance for the Sydney Opera House Live series, Ramo skillfully blends the personal with the political even as he sings words originally written by Anangu/Torres Strait Islander Miiesha, who is also featured on the track.

She appears again backed by handclaps and a Woorabinda choir on a rendition of Brooks & Dunn country classic “Neon Moon,” raising it to the level of spiritual sanctuary. There is a lush spaciousness, where the voices are so divinely in harmony that you might be convinced Miiesha has been performing this for a lifetime. It’s quite a departure from Miiesha’s soulful debut album Nyaaringu, an award winner at the National Indigenous Music Awards this year, but the singer says, “We go mad for country music up here so picked one of our favourites.”

Miiesha covers Brooks & Dunn for Deadly Hearts, and features on a Ziggy Ramo cover of her own song, “Tjitji.” Photo Credit: Clare Nica

Stan Walker and Isaiah Firebrace duet on the gently compelling, lovely reimagining of Crowded House’s 1986 hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Walker’s voice sounds close to breaking into tears, while Isaiah introduces traditional language, an unexpected, fresh element to such a well-known song. Walker has just released an autobiographical book that reveals his experience of sexual and physical abuse growing up in New Zealand – while it isn’t imperative to know his history and life stories to be moved by this track, it does give it an additional layer of meaning and heartbreak. Firebrace was Australia’s Eurovision contender in 2017. Together, the pair highlight the original song’s subtle message of resilience.

DRMNGNOW is the moniker of Naarm/Birraranga-based Neil Morris. The Yorta Yorta MC and instrumentalist applies his poetic rapping skills to a simple piano-beats-synth backdrop on a cover of Archie Roach’s “Get Back To The Land.” Morris recently told Double J’s Tim Shiel, “It doesn’t appear that people fully understand the depth of Indigenous spirituality and the power of this country… We need more anthems. If people aren’t aware, maybe we need to put some anthems out there for that. Also for the empowerment of our people; to feel strong and empowered, that there’s anthems that represent them.” It makes sense then, that Morris would gravitate toward Roach; both hail from Mooroopna, and the song resonated with Morris in the years he spent “living off country on Wurundjeri land.”

As a member of the Steering Committee for Kimberwalli at the Western Sydney Indigenous Centre of Excellence, Sydney-based soul singer Mi-Kaisha is politically active, advocating for young Indigenous voices to be heard. But it is her own flawless acapella, paired simply and perfectly with piano and nothing more, that stands out loud and clear on Bee Gees cover “How Deep Is Your Love.” The Darumbal Murri and Tongan woman was also the NAIDOC Youth of The Year in 2019 – no surprise with a talent that rivals Beyonce and Christina Aguilera for stadium-worthy, diva vocals.

Other highlights include a riotous pop tribute to “Absolutely Everybody” the anthem of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, sung by Mitch Tambo. He sings in Gamilaraay language, also adding the rich, deep bass sound of didgeridoo throughout the track. And Aodhan, a teenage Dharawal artist who won Triple J’s Unearthed High Indigenous Initiative in 2019, channels Elliott Smith on his strummy, acoustic version of Tia Gostelow’s “Always.” So thoroughly gorgeous is his rendition, it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it himself – a sensation embodied by many of the tracks on this wonderful album.

Southeast Desert Metal offer an explosive rendition of Midnight Oil’s classic Indigenous Rights anthem “Beds Are Burning” on Deadly Hearts.

As if Midnight Oil’s ferociously political “Beds Are Burning” wasn’t driving home the message enough when it first came out, a brilliant version by Southeast Desert Metal ramps up the riffs and the volume to blow minds and speakers. Based in Santa Teresa, an hour from remote Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory, the Eastern Arrernte band showcase their influences proudly. Raised on a meaty diet of Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, the four-strong members released a debut self-titled album in 2015, following it with their Break The Silence LP in 2018. Both works aimed to meld Indigenous culture with heavy music.

“I just want to send a strong message to young people today,” singer Chris Wallace told Blunt magazine last month. “They don’t seem to care about their culture anymore; they’re just sort of going on their own paths, doing the wrong things. I grew up with my uncles and all that, [with a] cultural way of living. That’s the reason why I just wanted to share a bit of the story that I was told. I just wanted to pass it on through music.”

Deadly Hearts: Walking Together is uniquely poised to accomplish that mission, not just with “Beds Are Burning,” but with its entire tracklist. If you love this album, which may happen on the first listen or the fifteenth, it makes a great jump off for discovering a wealth of Australian artists past and present – and when you’ve explored Walking Together thoroughly, there are still two previous Deadly Hearts compilations to delve into.

Baker Boy Wins Big at the National Indigenous Music Awards; Plus Top Honors to Archie Roach & More

Baker Boy Photo Credit: Freya Esders

Last month, the National Indigenous Music Awards honored dozens of Australian musicians despite pandemic restrictions, as the ceremony was broadcast from Darwin in the Northern Territory to participants and audiences around the entire country. Top honors of the night went to Former Young Australian of the Year, rapper Baker Boy, who won three of the 10 awards. For the second year in a row, he was awarded Artist of The Year.

The Yolngu rapper from the Northern Territory won the award against a competitive field of fellow Indigenous artists, each of whom has released critically acclaimed albums and singles in the past year: pop singers Jess Mauboy and Thelma Plum, roots artist Emily Wurramara who sings original music both in English and Anindilyakwa, hip hop artist and rapper Mau Power, and electro-soul duo Electric Fields (Zaachariaha Fielding and Michael Ross).

Baker Boy, born Danzal Baker, won Song of the Year and Film Clip of the Year for his track featuring Jess B, “Meditjin,” which translates as “medicine” in Yolgnu Matha. The song reached number one on the Australian Indigenous Music chart. In a statement made when the song was released in November 2019, Baker Boy said, “Music is the best meditjin. It brings everyone together, makes you want to dance, love, laugh, vibe and feel. I wrote ‘Meditjin’ with just that in mind. It’s about making people feel the music and express themselves.”

Album of the Year was won by Victorian Archie Roach, whose album Tell Me Why dovetailed with the release of his memoir as an activist who has campaigned for the rights of Indigenous Australians throughout his 64 years of life and career. The album revisits song spanning Roach’s career, including “Took the Children Away” (from his 1990 debut Charcoal Lane), which laments the Stolen Generations – Indigenous Australian children forcibly removed from their families and placed with white Australian families.

Roach was one such child; at the age of four, he and his sisters were taken from his parents by Australian government agencies and bounced from orphanages to unsuccessful foster care placements before finding some semblance of peace in the home of Scottish immigrants Alex and Dulcie Cox in Melbourne. Alex taught Roach how to play guitar and keyboards, also encouraging him to join in on singing traditional ballads. Though haunted by his traumatic childhood, Roach became internationally renowned, playing shows with Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman and Patti Smith.

Roach met his future wife, Ruby Hunter, at a Salvation Army drop-in centre when she was 16 and he was 15. Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri woman, had also been removed from her family and fostered by white parents at a young age. She often performed with Roach and the two ran workshops and events for Indigenous youth around Australia before her premature death, aged 54, in 2010. Though later than ideal, she was inducted into the NIMA Hall of Fame this year.

Writing songs in secret while raising a family and working at a hostel for homeless Aboriginal girls and women, Hunter emerged as a songwriting talent alongside her husband when he discovered a song she’d written, “Down City Streets,” and recorded it on Charcoal Lane. She was offered a recording contract on the basis of “Down City Streets,” the first Australian Aboriginal woman to sign with a major record label. Ruby was central to the formation of Black Arm Band, a company of leading Indigenous and non-Indigenous performers from around Australia. Black Arm Band tours and presents Indigenous performances at major festivals in capital cities and in remote Australian communities.

The National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMA), which importantly celebrate new and emerging artists as well as recognising and honoring established artists, were established in 2004 as an association between MusicNT and the Northern Territory Government. The other contenders for Album of the Year were a testament to the incredible diversity of Indigenous music being made throughout Australia.

Miiesha hails from a small Aboriginal community in Central Queensland (north of Australia) called Woorabinda. She debuted in 2019, supporting Baker Boy, Briggs and Thelma Plum as well as performing at Melbourne’s Laneway Festival, she’s proven popular as both a live artist and on community radio stations.

Miiesha’s debut Nyaaringu is the natural result of her passion for soul, gospel, R&B and hip hop. Though only 29 minutes, the collection of songs prove her skills as a soul singer and an extraordinary vocalist and songwriter at only 20 years old. “Nyaaringu” translates as “what happened” in the Pitjantjatjara language. Miiesha attributes the title to the inherited stories, grief and hope that have been passed down through her grandmother via stories and shared musical experiences.

Ray Dimakarri Dixon’s album Standing Strong Mudburra Man combines English and Mudburra languages. Dixon lives in the Northern Territory, a community 700km from the major city of Darwin. The area is threatened by fracking, which devastates the land and ruins wildlife habitats. Dixon’s album is ultimately a protest for his country, and a strong case against mining and fracking.

“You can support people like myself – people who are standing strong. There’s also an outfit called Lock the Gate that comes out to country and helps us,” he told Melbourne university, RMIT.

The awards are a nationally recognised celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. NIMA’s creative director, Ben Graetz, sees a silver lining to hosting the event virtually this year. “The great thing about virtual events is it allows people access to it, people with disabilities that probably aren’t able to get to the event, people living in remote communities that aren’t able to get to this event,” he says. “It’s a way of bringing our community together, our mob together, but also… celebrating all of our great musicians.”

Check out a full list of NIMA’s finalists for 2020 below.

The full list of Finalists for 2020 is below.

Artist of the Year
Baker Boy
Electric Fields
Emily Wurramara
Jessica Mauboy
Mau Power
Thelma Plum

Album of the Year
Archie Roach – Tell Me Why
Jessica Mauboy – Hilda
Mau Power – Blue Lotus The Awakening
Miiesha – Nyaaringu
Ray Dimakarri Dixon – Standing Strong Mudburra Man

Song of the Year
Alice Skye – “I Feel Better But I Don’t Feel Good
Baker Boy ft. Jess B – “Meditjin”
Briggs ft. Tim Minchin – “House Fyre
Electric Fields & Keiino – “Would I Lie
Kee’ahn – “Better Things
Thelma Plum – “Homecoming Queen

New Talent of the Year
Dallas Woods
Mitch Tambo

Film Clip of the Year
Baker Boy ft. Jess B – “Meditjin”
Briggs ft. Tim Minchin – “House Fyre”
Dallas Woods – “If It Glitters It’s Gold
Miiesha – “Drowning
Tasman Keith – “Billy Bad Again

Community Music Clip
Booningbah Goories
Bwgcolman Mob
Githabul Next Generation
Iron Range Danger Gang
KDA Crew
Ntaria Connect

Indigenous Language Award
Rrawun Maymuru & Nick Wales – Nyapililngu (Spirit Lady)
Stuart Nugget – Nayurni (Woman)