Connecting culture to history and community

Mark Munk Ross is hip-hop guru Munkimuk
Friday, September 8, 2017

Mark Munk Ross is hip-hop guru Munkimuk — whose beats, rhythm, sense of humour and hard hitting themes have earned him the coveted title of “Grandfather of Indigenous hip hop”.

Mark has been working in a remote Aboriginal community at Brewarrina in north-western New South Wales, regenerating age-old fish traps that are the oldest known human-made structures, dating back farther than the pyramids of Egypt.  

He spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Rachel Evans about his recent projects.

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What project have you been involved in to rejuvenate the traps?

Redfern’s Moogahlin Performing Arts has been organising Baiame’s Ngunnhu Festival, an annual event held each April. This event will eventually be run by the local community. The festival is a celebration of the river and the fish traps over three days, with traditional dance, community project involvement and a concert.

Also the festival highlights the plight of the river. The river has been continually undervalued and poorly protected, with limited support to the Traditional Owners.

Firstly, the river needs to be cleaned up, which was last done in 2013. Secondly, maintenance needs to be put in place. The community is hoping this can be achieved in the next 5-to-10 years.

There is a widespread misconception that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities did not engage in sedentary farming practices. Fish traps disprove this. What is their history, were they widespread across the country prior to invasion? Are there other examples of built-up farming community practices?

The fish traps known as Baiame’s Ngunnhu are the oldest human-made structure in the world, residing where the Barwon River makes a curve at Brewarrina. These are an intricate series of rocks along 400 metres of river.

The fish traps were a gathering place for eight different tribes in the north-west of New South Wales and usually supported a population of about 3000 people. This site is of great importance. It is an ancient place depicted in the Dreamtime stories of surrounding nations and tribes.

Another misconception is there was no housing. In fact, in the region the Barwon River flows into the Darling River and where present-day Bourke is located, it is well documented that when European explorers passed through in 1829, there were about 70 huts on the Darling River housing about 15 people per hut. And yes, there are fish trap sites all across the country.

What is the condition of the fish traps now?

So much has happened, as you could imagine, since the paddle steamer days, the clearing of land, introduction of sheep and cattle, the rocks being used to build structures during white settlement, and the construction of the Brewarrina Weir. This is the culmination of 229 years of history — more specifically the drastic reduction of water flow in volume is a big problem.

You have been active in the Philippines in marginalised communities teaching hip-hop techniques to kids. Can you describe this work?

Over the past five years I have spent more time in the Philippines and Thailand than in Australia. Mostly I have been involved in music production and song writing in the Asian pop music scene. I have seen a fair bit of mainstream success in both countries, as well as in Indonesia where recently we had a song that was number one on the charts for 12 weeks.

I have been very lucky to work in these countries, and they aren’t easy markets for foreigners to succeed. Respect for the cultures and learning the languages is the most essential part, as nothing I have done there has been in English.

Hip hop is something I have been doing since the early ’80s and the genre in which I perform my own material. But for the past 20 years, I have recorded and produced everything from opera to death metal.

Having this success has also given me a pathway to move into the hip hop scenes in South-East Asia as well. The Philippines has had an active hip hop scene since the late ’70s, which is older than the scene here.

But it is only in the past 15 years or so that Filipino music in general has moved from being English-based to Tagalog. The reason for this is rooted in the colonisation of the country over the past 500 years, and Tagalog only being the national language since the Philippines gained independence.

My work there is not really teaching but more discovering the talent that is out there, especially in the marginalised communities. Hip hop is huge over there.

Getting into the breakdancing scene is also a bonus for me as some of the best breakdancers in the world come from these areas.

Battle rap is huge, and I am fortunate to have some connections with that scene. It has become a pathway for male and female kids all over the country to be seen, which has led to a heap of them then getting into the mainstream music scene.

The level of popularity is unbelievable. The YouTube channel for Fliptop Battle Raps has had 868,800,000 views — that is heading towards 1 billion views and there is no English involved.

So the kids are already right into the scene, which then gives them a chance to be seen, which then gives them a chance to get their actual music and songs heard, so it is an interesting way the scene has evolved there.

In Thailand, I’ve been working with some great artists there. One group to check out is an all-female three-piece indie-rock-punk band called Yellow Fang. Also I am about to feature on a release with one of the legends of Thai music, which will be my first venture into Asia as an actual artist as opposed to being a songwriter-composer-producer.

There is a whole world of music out there and I am blessed to be part of it all.

Anything else from your work you want to mention?

This year, I am super excited to be in Australia for the year and working on new material with my old group South West Syndicate. We will release our first EP since we started performing 25 years ago. Look out for that towards the end of the year.

I will also be working on an interesting project with [Aboriginal folk group] Stiff Gins, remixing a few songs with people like Daniel Johns and US band Work Drugs.

There are a few other little projects including a song and video clip with some young people about being proud to live in Lakemba. I will also be doing the odd show with my band Renegades Of Munk and a few solo performances around the place as well.

Lastly I would just like to say thanks to yourself and everyone out there fighting the good fight, standing up for what is right. Stand strong and never give up!

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