Dot writes: one of my facebook friends posted a link to this video recently. I’d never heard it before, but I thought the song was beautiful, if faintly cheesy. Apparently it’s a bit of an unofficial anthem for Australians, and Christine Anu (the singer in this version) performed it at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Well, I played it to Ken and he clicked a few pages on in youtube and came up with the original version, which is by the Warumpi band:
The differences between the versions struck me as very interesting. The Christine Anu version is much more accomplished as a vocal performance; it’s sweet and stirring and conveys a longing for home that lots of people can happily wallow in. The Warumpi Band version is rougher, rather slower, and has a more political edge. The words are different: this man is stuck out in the desert, ‘West of Alice Springs’, not in the city; he’s living a much harsher and more deprived existence than Anu’s urban exile. The song seems to speak about the displacement of native peoples, especially since the singer is aboriginal. And while it’s less immediately emotional than Anu’s performance and there’s a slightly gauche jauntiness to the faster guitar and drum rhythm that comes through later in the track, there’s a sense of powerful feeling just below the surface; the very lack of emoting gives it a raw, honest quality. It’s less sing-along-able, but much harder-hitting.
So, while if I’m honest I probably prefer Christine Anu’s version anyway, I was tempted to see this as an instance of prettifying and commercializing a song that started out much more challenging. However, I did some research (thanks, Wikipedia) and discovered that, contrary to preconceptions, the song was written by the white songwriter of the Warumpi band when he himself had been living for some years in the desert but had just spent some time with the black singer in his home on Elcho Island. And Christine Anu is herself a Torres Strait Islander. So the aboriginal face in the Warumpi band video is not that of a displaced islander, but Christine Anu really is (or was) an urban exile from the sea. Which I think teaches some kind of lesson in what counts as authentic emotion – or rather in how one comes to perceive emotion as authentic; because somehow stoical expressions, guitars and string vests seem more sincere than a swimming-pool backdrop and a drum machine.