The 1967 referendum remains a watershed moment in Australia’s civil rights history. On the 50th anniversary of the result, that saw over ninety per cent of Australians vote in favour of including First Nations people in the Commonwealth constitution, a special performance will pay homage to the era and its activists at the 2017 Sydney Festival this month.

The event’s producer, Steve Richardson (co-founder, along with Aunty Ruby Hunter, of Black Arm Band) describes 1967: Music in the Key of Yes as a concert with theatrical elements woven in. ‘We’re trying to create atmosphere and empathy rather than tell a didactic story’, he says. Richardson invited award-winning Aboriginal author Alexis Wright into the creative process early on and says that her input provided valuable historical context, in terms of the influences on the thinking of Australia’s civil rights activists. ‘It’s all about paying respects and tribute to the people who went through that time’, he says.

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Rehearsals for 1967 at the Bakehouse Studios in Melbourne

The resounding Yes in the vote meant that changes were made to the Commonwealth Constitution that bestowed new powers on the Federal Government to make laws that applied to Australia’s First Nations peoples.

‘The change was sort of a very technical change. It wasn’t a big, broad brushstroke statement or anything. It was actually quite a technical legislative change, but the campaign behind it was really symbolic’, says Flanagan. ‘The penny dropped and Australia went, “the Blackfellas are getting a raw deal here. What can we do abut it?” Nobody thinks we solved it all, but it was certainly a significant moment.’

The performance includes archival film footage, important words from people at the time, soundscapes of poetry penned by Indigenous writer and political activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and a raft of songs performed by some of Australia’s most promising and renowned contemporary Indigenous artists. ARIA-award winning Dan Sultan is in there, as is Radical Son, Leah Flanagan, Emily Wurramara, Yirrmal, Thelma Plumb, Ursula Yovich and Alice Skye among others.

Richardson says his production team was strategic in approaching artists: ‘We were really keen to try and set all this work on a new generation of artists. The original pioneers of Aboriginal music are getting on a bit, but also there’s increasing relevance to take this story forward. Particularly on the 50th anniversary, where there’s not too many artists that were around at that time still, sort of, current. So settling this work on a new generation of Aboriginal artists is really important.’

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Artist Dan Sultan rehearsing

The songs performed will be a mix of old and new tracks, curated to recapture the feeling and spirit of the times. Iconic songs from older Aboriginal artists like Vic Simms and the Warumpi Band, as well as songs written by Aboriginal allies like Shane Howard and Midnight Oil, will be interwoven with material from international artists like Nina Simone and The Beatles. There are also songs written specifically for the performance.

‘We’ve got an original from Dan Sultan. A beautiful piece about Vincent Lingiari called ‘The Drover’. And Alice Skye has written an amazing original piece’, says Richardson.

Leah Flanagan says it’s nice to be able to honour the songs she grew up listening to. ‘A lot of the songs we’re singing are by artists that have played a role in our development as musicians, as well as being inspirational voices of those times. I’m singing a Curtis Mayfield song called “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”. It was a significant song released just after the civil rights movement in the US.’

Flanagan says honouring civil rights activism of the past is important to the production’s young ensemble. ‘We’re all politically aware. We know that without their push, without those activists of the ‘67 era, a lot of opportunities wouldn’t have happened for a lot of our mob who live in the bush, who didn’t have that voice’, she says.

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Artist Yirmall at the Bakehouse Studios

Aboriginal singer Radical Son says the performance is a celebration, but questions how far Australia has come since the acclaimed referendum result. ‘I couldn’t tell you if Blackfellas have benefited from it since then. What do the statistics say? Do we have more imprisoned now? Have we fully realised yet what those “new rights” meant? Was it the right to practice our culture on the land? I think it’s important, but has Australia celebrated the result every year since it happened? Why is it something that we’ve consigned to history?’

1967: Music in the Key of Yes will premiere at the Sydney Opera House on January 17 as part of the 2017 Sydney Festival

This piece is the second in a series by Jack Latimore on Indigenous productions at the 2017 Sydney Festival; the first is a review of Nathan Maynard’s play The Season.

Jack Latimore

Jack Latimore is an Indigenous journalist, researcher and writer. His work has appeared in RealTime, Voiceworks, Farrago, The Citizen and the anthologies GeekMook and Paradise to Paranoia. He has worked for the ABC and Guardian Australia and is currently employed by the Centre for Advancing Journalism.

More by Jack Latimore ›

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