What’s Your Flava? – Highlighting diversity within the Australian music industry (Part One)

In Australia, we are lucky to be exposed to such a large variety of musical and artistic talent from artists who come from many different backgrounds. A multicultural national creative community for sure, it is fair to say that the Australian music scene is showing more and more signs of diversification in recent years than we have before.

Strides forward are being taken by artists of different ethnicities – some who were born in Australia, others who relocated to this part of the globe from vastly different cultural environments. A love for music may have stemmed from an early education via their parents’ record collection, it may have started in church.

While many, many more steps toward a universal acceptance of cultures in Australia still need to be taken, within artistic circles, it’s been encouraging to see a much more ready embrace of the different by the wider music and creative communities – an acknowledgement that there is so much we can be learning from others, right in our own backyard.

We reached out to some of our favourite artists to find out about when their love for music first began and what’s exciting them, making music in an industry in flux.

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High Tension frontwoman Karina Utomo relocated from her birthplace of Jakarta, to Canberra with her family in the early 1990’s. With a love of music stemming from her upbringing within traditional Indonesian customs and through her brother’s embrace of nu-metal in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Utomo recalls how her relationship with music grew stronger as she entered her teens.

What is your heritage?

I am Indonesian – Javanese, to be specific. My family relocated to Canberra in 1992 (I turned eight that year). It was a temporary migration, as my parents received scholarships to complete their doctorates; our visa allowed us to stay until the end of 1997. Most of the family moved back to Jakarta from 1998-2000, a tumultuous era with the monetary crisis, demise of the Suharto era and the 1998 riots. Part of my family moved back to Canberra in 2000 on temporary visas until we were eventually granted permanent residency, five years later…

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“My parents encouraged our participation in traditional arts and this continued when we moved to Canberra,” Karina says of her childhood. “There was a focus on traditional Indonesian dancing plus, like a lot of atypical middle-class Asian families, my siblings and I took piano lessons. It wasn’t until 1999, when I landed the first rank in my class (Indonesia has a very competitive schooling structure), or what a lot of parents called becoming ‘the champion’ of my class, that I was rewarded. I asked for an acoustic guitar and learnt how to play covers from my class mates. I remember being very impressed when my Mum grabbed my guitar and started playing American folk songs; she didn’t tell me prior, but she played in an all-girl band when her family temporarily lived in Washington when she was a young girl.”

“My parents were always very supportive of our musical endeavours, but always saw music as a ‘hobby’. That same year, I got my first guitar and my brother started playing in a nu-metal cover band (he played in the school marching band as a starting point and also, nu-metal hit Indonesia in a big way!). I remember being so annoyed every time he practiced as his room was not soundproof. Years later, I benefited from all the racket he made, because we were able to play in a band together (Young & Restless) and realised our dream to tour Java, Indonesia with that band.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“I definitely feel we’ve seen a lot of progress in recent years and music fans are welcoming of this diversification. It is also good to see every day activism from the wider music community to eradicate any backwards attitudes that sadly still exists. Personally, it’s exciting for me when I meet switched-on Australian metal heads who have listened to our albums and the usual banter turns to immersive conversations about the Lapindo disaster, or the tragedy and impact of the anti-communist purge in Indonesia, or the Australia government’s treatment of asylum seekers.”

Photo: xingerxanger
Photo: xingerxanger

Adelaide producer Motez has been making a name for himself locally and internationally for some time now, most recently wrapping up a North American tour off the back of his new tune, “The Vibe”. Raised on US and European pop music, the young Motez Obaidi was influenced by both his traditional Arabic roots as well as the contemporary Australian society he’d relocated to with his family…

What is your heritage?

I am Iraqi, born and bred. My family and I relocated here 10 years ago and my dad was an asylum seeker.

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“My Dad always played music on the family stereo,” Motez remembers. “It was mainly non-Arabic music that he played (lots of Boney M, Tom Jones, ABBA, etc), but I guess I got a good sense of rhythm and swing from the Arabic music that I was surrounded by. My first memory of really enjoying music was how much I loved Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer””.

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“The diversity of the Australian music scene and its musicians is a direct result of how mixed Australia is. It provides richness and depth. There are lots of exciting Australian artists at the moment; I’m loving NGAIIRE’s album at the moment and I’m a big, big fan of Client Liaison and The Meeting Tree.”

Photo: George Fragopolous
Photo: George Fragopolous

Hailing from the Top End, James Mangohig has been making music for years with a variety of projects. Recalling inspiration from a diverse range of Australian music in his teens, Mangohig would go on to dabble in experimenting with sounds of his own, eventually playing bass with TZU, helming production with Kahibaloo,  reaching nationwide attention with future-soul outfit Sietta and more recently, as part of the ARIA-nominated Melbourne electro/hip-hop duo, Damn Moroda (nominated for the Best Producer ARIA Award for their work on Daniel Johns’ album, Talk).

What is your heritage? 

My father is Filipino and my mother is Dutch. I was born in Australia and so was my mum. Her parents moved to Australia after the Second World War. My father was born in a remote village in the south of the Philippines and came to Australia in 1978.

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“I grew up in a church and around Filipinos,” Mangohig says of his upbringing. “I was constantly surrounded by music. There are two huge moments in my upbringing though, that stick out to me. There was so little representation of Asians, both in the media and music industry, that when I was 16 and saw Quan from Regurgitator on stage, it completely blew my mind! I felt the same when I saw Dexter in The Avalanches, more so because I found out he was Filipino too.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“I think it is becoming more diversified, but there’s a long way to go. What excites me is that we’re not being silent anymore. The scene has been white too long and those who are down for the cause are getting louder and understanding it’s about creating platforms and increasing the quality. It’s a very exciting time right now.”

Photo: BlaqPop
Photo: BlaqPop

Melbourne R&B vocalist Thando is proving herself to be dynamite presence on the scene – fusing passion akin to Jill Scott and Angie Stone in with electronic elements and deep beats, Thando brings a unique groove her own to a music scene that has embraced her alternative R&B stylings and creative boldness. From reggae to electronica, the Zimbabwean songstress comments on the ambition of artists making new music in the industry today.

What is your heritage?

I’m Zimbabwean and my family relocated here in 2001.

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“I didn’t really have a musical upbringing, to be honest,” Thando admits. “My sisters and I would put on concerts for our parents and that was all until I started singing in church when I was about 12 years old. My friend lent me a copy of Delta Goodrem’s first album, Innocent Eyes, and I taught myself all the songs on piano. My Mum enrolled me in music lessons from there.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016… 

“I am enjoying seeing musicians from different cultural backgrounds diverting from music not typical to their country of origin, due to stereotypes. I’ve been in a reggae band and now I’ve done a 180 and I’m [now] fronting an electronic outfit.”

“I have no idea what to expect for my career moving forward, and it keeps me hungry. It makes it so exciting, because the industry here is a mixed bag and we all continue to surprise and inspire each other when we veer out of our own lanes.”

001_joelistics

Sydney MC and multi-instrumentalist Joel Ma has been performing as Joelistics since 2011 saw him release his acclaimed debut album, Voyager. In his first step into solo career territory outside a successful career with TZU, Joel has toured all over to a large and passionate fan base. Most recently, Joel wrapped up a national run around Australia with The Smith Street Band on a line up that was as eclectic as it was talented, including Luca Brasi and the Jess Locke Band.

What is your heritage?

My father is Chinese and my mother is Anglo-Australian. I was born in Malaysia and moved to Australia when I was six months old. I grew up in the inner city of Sydney and was surrounded by music. I grew up with an older sister who was obsessed with Prince and Madonna and both my parents loved the music and the arts.

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“Both my parents were hippies in the late 60’s and early 70’s, deep into music.” Joel says. “When I was in high school, I started playing drums in punk bands and my folks were happy for me; they never preached the ‘get a real job’ philosophy and were probably quite relieved that I became a musician. They still both regularly come to my gigs, whether it’s a hip hop night, punk or experimental electronica. Growing up, my father was into jazz and 60’s rock and my mother was into soul music. I grew up hearing Al Green over Sunday breakfasts, Miles and Coltrane through the week and Bob Dylan all the time.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“I don’t know if the Australian music scene is becoming more diverse, I guess it is. It would be hard for it to become less diverse. In Australia, there’s still a glaring imbalance of male to female artists on festival line ups and there’s still a strange lack of non-white artists in most scenes, except for hip hop. Diversity is super important when you’re growing up looking for artists to identify with.”  

Quan from Regurgitator and Ray Ahn from The Hard Ons were two influential figures for me, as much as for the music they made as for the fact that they were of Asian heritage like me, and they were fucking cool. When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of mixed race or Asian faces anywhere in the Australian media landscape, so seeing those two guys absolutely own the shit out of punk, stoner rock, quasi-rap and metal meant the world to me.”

001_kira

Newcastle raised, Melbourne based vocalist Kira Puru has risen to prominence within local music circles as having one of the best new soul voices currently doing its thing. Along with making her own music (keep an eye out), Puru has been seen collaborating with the likes of IllyPaul MacUrthboy and more in recent years. As she recalls, the influence of her Māori upbringing on her music was most definitely a strong one.

What is your heritage?

I’m Māori. My family are of the Ngãti Mahuta hapū of the Tainui tribe, from the Waikato region on the North Island of New Zealand. My dad came to Australia in 1981 to work and met my mother in Bondi in 1982. They married in 1984 and relocated to Newcastle, where I grew up, after my brother was born in 1987.

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“I had always enjoyed singing as a child,” Kira remembers. “I was every inch the clichè, belting Mariah [Carey] into a hairbrush in front of the mirror. My parents bought me a little Casio when I was really young and I distinctly remember writing songs on it as a kid and making everyone in the house sit down and watch me perform them.”

“My mother has always been encouraging when it came to my brother and I embracing our Māori heritage and often took us to learn and rehearse songs with a local kapa haka group in Newcastle. Literally translated, kapa haka means ‘line dance’ and is an umbrella term for traditional Māori performance that incorporates singing, dancing, poi and haka. Though I had performed in choirs as a child, it was around this time when I was performing with the kapa haka group that I gained the confidence to start performing contemporary music on my own.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“I would say it’s likely as diverse as it’s always been – however, there is slowly more room being made for non-white people to enter the higher profile spaces in the scene. Unfortunately Australia still has a very long way to go in terms of celebrating the music of it’s non-white people, especially in genres that were pioneered by black people and have distinctly black origins.”

“I’m excited and inspired to be making music in this country at a time when the conversation around the whitewashing of the Australian music industry is at a peak and I’m honoured to be sharing the national stage with incredible artists of colour like Thelma Plum, Briggs, NGAIIRE, Sampa the Great, Yeo, Tkay Maizda, Remi, Okenyo, Mojo Juju and Ecca Vandal.”

001_citizenk

 ARIA Award nominated hip hop rising star Citizen Kay has been quick to whip up a frenzy surrounding his music on a local level since his debut album, With The People, landed him further within the hearts of Aussie hip hop lovers. Relocating with his family to Australia from Ghana at a young age, Kay notes the differences in cultures and how growing up in Oz further enabled his love for making music.

What is your heritage?

I was born in Ghana, West Africa, and moved to Australia when I was about six.

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“I don’t think it [my childhood] was really consciously musical,” Citizen Kay says. “Ghana has so much music, especially percussion, and rhythmically that happens just about everywhere you look! My Mum also loved singing, while Dad just loves a huge variety of music. Generally speaking, Ghana isn’t really a place that’s crazy about a career in music although, of course, once you’ve made ‘it’, people are all about the support. Moving to Australia and having that Ghanaian background, but also being in a place where it’s a bit more acceptable to chase a risky dream, like a career in music is for sure, where thing became a bit more ‘informative’.

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

 “We’re really seeing so much and coming cultural diversity infused with living in Australia, which gives such a unique flavour and story to the music coming out of here. Honestly, just the idea of not only making music and being a part of this growing scene, but also the feedback, excites me. You know, actively seeing and hearing that people are engaging and actually willing to hear what this Ghanaian born Canberran has to see. The Australian scene is for sure on the come up!”

Stay tuned for Part Two of our feature, coming soon!