Nothin’ To Lose
If the Red Hot Chili Peppers had injected themselves with a few litres of truth serum instead of enough smack to kill a blue whale, they could well have ended up sounding like largely Indigenous Australian band Zennith.
Both build righteous rap and rock on reggae foundations, but Zennith swap the Chilis' dreamy, stoner poetry for clear-eyed political consciousness.
But whereas the Chilis have only one Australian Aboriginal member - funked-up bassist Flea - Zennith have only one non-Aboriginal member - dubbed-down bassist Isaac Crowley.
Zennith guitarist Willie Brim, an Aboriginal elder and traditional custodian of Kuranda’s Indigenous Bulwai tribe, raised Crowley alongside his sons Aden, who is the band's lead singer, and Astro, its songwriting vocalist-percussionist.
“The adoption policy has existed in Australia for thousands of years by many tribes,” Brim tells Green Left Weekly.
“Isaac happened to find himself in a position where we have acted in the same way as our forefathers would have. He is treated and respected the same as any other family member.”
It's a welcome contrast to the story of Australia's Stolen Generations and a sign that they do things differently in Zennith's home of Kuranda.
The rainforest village in far north Queensland is far removed from Australia's urban-dwelling, consumer-obsessed mainstream, as illustrated by the title of Zennith's new album, Nothin' To Lose.
“In this day and age people are accustomed to worldly material possessions,” says Brim. “Most Aboriginal people don’t have, use or need or even want these things, so really if you don’t want or have it, you can’t lose it.”
But there is plenty to lose when it comes to their natural environment - a subject they tackle head-on on one of the album's catchiest tracks, “Poison”.
The song's lyrics declare: “You sail in on your evil trip with your plan of attack / To chop down all those trees and hope that they don’t grow back / You bring in the heavy machinery, exposing her skin to the sky / Dig deep holes in her body where man-made mountains stand high / The brown snake is moving, he’s awake, he’s opened his eyes / You’re on a path to destruction, to us that’s no surprise / It’s spreading like a disease / It’s concrete / It’s toxic / It’s poison.”
It's a subject Brim is well used to. As a respected elder and traditional custodian of the Bulwai tribe and the land around Kuranda, he has long been involved in conservation.
He trains Indigenous guides and still does bush tucker tours, lectures and wildlife guiding as well as practising land management.
He has won the Cassowary award for nature-based tourism and the individual Indigenous tourism prize at WAITOC’s Gnunkai Awards.
“Our main sacred sites are at threat from people who have no idea or connection to this spiritual area that we live in,” he says. “The rainforest is still being interfered with by developers who ultimately need government approval for these projects to go ahead.”
But the threat isn't just from non-indigenous players. Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson is still trying to roll back the Queensland government's Wild Rivers legislation and open up the Cape York peninsula to development. What does Brim make of that?
“Any man, group or organisation who wishes to interfere with mother nature in changing her natural ways, in my eyes, are people who have no heart or true consideration for the real world we live in,” he says.
Stepping back to see the bigger picture, the album's single, “Simplified” asks: “When you look across the country, what do you see?”
So, what do Zennith see?
“We see that Australia is suffering in a big way,” says Brim. “Double standards are still alive and not well.
“We as Aboriginal people are still waiting for the day when true actions and acknowledgement of who we really are take place. Saying sorry was a start, but it simply is not enough.
“The fact is that all Native Title and Aboriginal departments are set up by the government and the government do not set things up that will disadvantage themselves.
“Most Australians are not aware of genocide in this country due to the fact that it wasn’t recorded as a part of Australia’s true history. Therefore, the truth has not been taught in the schools.”
Australia's genocide is highlighted on the new album in the song “Long Time”: “We’ve been round for a long time, we’ve dropped so many tears / We’ve been round for a long time, over 60,000 years.”
The struggle to survive continues, says Brim.
“Survivors are still facing what we call a subtle form of genocide today,” he says. “You can witness this from looking at the latest Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies map of tribes of Australia, where many Aboriginal tribes have been erased from history.
“This includes ours, the Bulwai tribe.”
Yet remnants of the Bulwai tribe have survived against the odds and come out hollering.
Their resilience and resistance come to the fore in the fuck-you lyrics of “You Knock Me Down”: “So what’s this you put in front of me? / All your laws and your policies / They’re made of glass, so I can see / Right through the other side / Where dark secrets hide, like genocide.”
Spreading that historical and cultural knowledge has been a lifelong mission for Brim. He helped develop the Tjapukai dance and song lines, started up the Tjapukai Dance Theatre Company in the 1980s and is a founder of the multi-award-winning Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns.
Brim and his sons have performed around the world, spreading indigenous knowledge from New Zealand to New York via Africa and the Pacific.
Zennith have performed seemingly everywhere, from the Australian festival circuit to Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.
“Vanuatuans still have a strong cultural connection to their roots,” says Brim. “We had a chance to witness this by listening to their languages, seeing dances and magic men and eating traditional foods.
“We also noticed trees and bird species that we share. Tribal ways are still intact after the wave of Christianity. This is where we saw some parallels where culture and its practices are affected.”
Closer to home, culture and its practices continue to be damaged by the Northern Territory intervention, a travesty Zennith know only too well.
“Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory is one of the places we love playing, simply because of the high Indigenous population and the true appreciation of our music,” says Brim.
"For a start, why is it a territory and not a state? What makes it different from all the other states? The rules and laws should be the same for everybody no matter who you are. What's good for one is good for another."
Unfortunately the federal government has taken that a little too literally, rolling out aspects of the intervention to other parts of the country in a move contested by Aboriginal activists that Zennith consider heroes.
“There are many,” says Brim. “Gary Foley, Murrandoo Yanner, they are all Aboriginal warriors and leaders in the campaign for equality and human rights.”
Zennith also have many heroes in Aboriginal music.
“Bart Willoughby and his band No Fixed Address were one of the first bands to take the message of struggle through music international.
“For us up in far north Queensland, Mantaka was the pioneer band, entertaining people with their great original music.”
Brim started his musical career with Mantaka in 1978 and went on to be a pioneer in the scene.
He helped create the Kuranda Cultural Festival in 1982, went on to tour the country with the legendary Warumpi Band and helped start the Mona Mona Fest in 1992.
He has gone on to play in many bands, including Astro's underground hip hop outfit Ancient Instincts and Willie and the Poor Boys, who have a rousing funk anthem named after them on the new album.
It's been a long journey that at times must have seemed like a battle. But the perennially positive Brim does see hope, starting in his unconventional home town.
“The Kuranda population are true defenders of the rainforest,” he says. “And the big turnaround factor is that the majority are European.”
[Green Left Weekly has a copy of Zennith’s latest album Nothin’ To Lose to give away. Send your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org before the publication of the next GLW. Winner will be picked at random.]
"Simplified" by Zennith.