The Makarrata Project

The Makarrata Project

Despite the success of Midnight Oil’s 2017 comeback tour, which saw the Australian outfit reunite after 15 years to play 77 shows around the world, there was one little niggle that was bothering drummer Rob Hirst. “I was frustrated that we hadn’t been able to record any new music for the tour,” he tells Apple Music. “I love the songwriting process more than anything else, and I was really keen for us to add to that catalog of songs we’d built up over the years.” That opportunity finally came in early 2019 when the quintet–vocalist Peter Garrett, guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey, bassist Bones Hillman, and Hirst–gathered at Hirst’s place to share their musical ideas. They found a common theme: the Uluru Statement From The Heart, the 2017 document calling for the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. Clearly the band’s long-held desire to shine a spotlight on First Nations issues, as evidenced by songs such as 1987’s “Beds Are Burning,” remained undimmed. “Quite a few songs were based on the Uluru Statement From the Heart, or the frustration about the fact that it had been criminally ignored by Malcolm Turnbull and co.,” says Hirst. “And there were other issues relating to the desert and First Nations people. So we realized maybe what we should do is keep all those songs as a separate project. That’s how The Makarrata Project mini-album was born.” The album takes its name from the Yolngu word Makarrata, which roughly describes a process of conflict resolution and peacemaking. Featured First Nations guests range from newcomers like Alice Skye to established performers including Dan Sultan, Troy Cassar-Daley, Kev Carmody, and Frank Yamma. The collaborators also stretch beyond artists—prominent First Nations people such as AFL footballer Adam Goodes and journalist Stan Grant feature on the spoken-word “Uluru Statement From the Heart.” And while tracks like “Gadigal Land” are quintessentially classic Midnight Oil in their driving rhythms and insistent horns, it’s clear, more than 40 years after forming in Sydney, that they’re still breaking new creative ground. Here, Hirst offers a track-by-track guide to The Makarrata Project. First Nation (feat. Jessica Mauboy & Tasman Keith) “I’ve had ‘First Nation’ for the last couple of years, and everyone I played it to said, ‘Oh, that’s a Midnight Oil song.’ This was when Midnight Oil had made moves to tour again and it looked like we were going to get back together, so I just kept it aside. The only thing lacking was to have someone like Tasman Keith come in and do that extraordinary rap. But also I wanted to have an additional voice, probably a female voice, and we were fortunate enough to have Jessica Mauboy, who’s such a delightful woman. She adds a seductive quality to it, and all those marvelous harmonies she did makes the track all the more intriguing. Like all the songs, our contributors came up with so much.” Gadigal Land (feat. Dan Sultan, Joel Davison, Kaleena Briggs & Bunna Lawrie) “I always wanted to find whether there were still some folks in the Sydney area who spoke in the Gadigal language, because it was a very small clan. So I came across Joel Davison, who is a Gadigal poet, and I asked him if he’d come in and have a listen to the song and if he thought that was something he could contribute to. He went away for more than a month and thought about it and came back and offered up that marvelous section in the middle. Dan Sultan’s amazing vocals really drove [the song]. That scream that he delivers before the horns come back in in the middle of the song, I hear 232 years of injustice and dispossession and pain all within it. And then we had Bunna Lawrie, Uncle Bunna, who I’d played with on a few occasions live with Coloured Stone, come in and add that ‘Wenyo! Wenyo! Wenyo!’ part, which is ‘welcome’ in [his] language. And he played some percussion as well, the clap sticks in the middle of that song.” Change the Date (feat. Gurrumul & Dan Sultan) “We got so lucky. Gurrumul’s musical director, Michael Hohnen, offered us some music, ‘White Cockatoo,’ that Gurrumul hadn’t used on his final album before we sadly lost him. And it turned out the meter of Gurrumul’s music, his double-tracked vocal, was very close to Jim’s groove on the ‘Change the Date’ demo. So with a bit of sonic doctoring by Jim, our resident studio genius, we were able to include Gurrumul’s amazing vocals on that track. Which, like all the contributions from First Nations musicians and artists, have made the song so much stronger. It’s still the song that reduces me to tears when I hear it, not only because of the beauty of Gurrumul’s voice, but because of the loss of a great artist too young.” Terror Australia (feat. Alice Skye) “It’s a very stripped-down song, just with Jim’s piano and Alice Skye singing. We didn’t know Alice before. She came up from Melbourne, and it must have been intimidating for her to walk into the studio with all of us just wandering around. But nonetheless she sat down, she did about two or three takes, all of which were perfect, any of them could have been the final take. Because it’s a fragile vocal, it adds so much to the power of the song. It’s one of the very few Midnight Oil songs that doesn’t feature Pete as lead vocalist. Years ago I sang ‘Kosciusko’ and ‘When the Generals Talk,’ but it’s been a long time.” Desert Man, Desert Woman (feat. Frank Yamma) “I think Pete had that song for a while. Frank Yamma and David Bridie did a duo at Hanging Rock on our 2017 tour, the Australian leg, and Frank was still incredibly strong in his delivery, so we asked whether he would sing this, and he did. And we get a bit of Frank as well at the beginning of the song in language, which is really strong.” Wind in My Head [Makarrata Version] (feat. Kev Carmody & Sammy Butcher) “It’s a song by Jim along with Sammy Butcher, and with Neil Murray. Actually Jim has recorded this song twice before, but it’s a song we all loved and thought immediately it’s got to be part of the album. So once again it’s a song that was cut together over quite a period of time, and the length and arrangement of the song was moved around as these contributions came in. But I love the groove of the song.” Uluru Statement From the Heart / Come On Down (feat. Troy Cassar-Daley) “We were so fortunate to be able to get superstars like Adam Goodes; Stan Grant; Troy Cassar-Daley; one of the architects of the Statement, Pat Anderson; Ursula Yovich, who’s a vocalist and actor as well—all reading parts of the Statement. Jim and Martin added a kind of soundscape while they read their parts, and then after each of them has read their part, it morphs into quite a simple song, one of the simplest songs Jim’s ever written, ‘Come On Down.’ It’s perfectly placed to finish the album with something direct like that, and the campfire sing-along.”

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