Thelma Plum is the new girl on the Australian music scene. Beautiful, fresh-faced, a devastatingly talented songwriter and guitarist and with a delicate voice that makes your most desperate woes simply ebb away, she is what showbiz pundits would classify ‘a complete package’.
She also happens to be Aboriginal.
Winner of this year’s National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMA) and the indigenous category of the Queensland Music Awards (QMA), Thelma Plum is definitely on a roll. But is it because she is both exceptionally talented and Aboriginal?
Listening to her music, knowing that she is barely shy of her 18th birthday and seeing this impressive brace of awards already gracing her resume, it takes little to see that her heritage, while cherished and proudly proclaimed, has little to do with her success.
“I think the media and the public think, ‘she’s an indigenous artist, she’s aboriginal so she must have clapsticks and play tribal music’” she reflects. “Well, no – I’m just a songwriter. I’m also Aboriginal but, just because my music isn’t traditional, it doesn’t make it any less indigenous. I think it’s just a perception and it’s not at all like that. We have beautiful music made by indigenous people, like Busby Marou, and you could almost mistake them for being from Nashville or somewhere, but it’s still indigenous music.
“It’s about the perception of what people think Aboriginal music ‘should’ sound like, but it shouldn’t really sound like anything other than whatever you want it to sound like because you’re a songwriter, just like any other songwriter.”
It is a curious concept to address. After all, nobody pays the slightest attention to the heritage of artists such as Julia Stone, Missy Higgins or Sarah Blasko.
Traditional music has, however, always played a large part in Plum’s life, her parents were avid music lovers and her brother is a traditional Aboriginal dancer. But she sees her place in the stratosphere of musical influence as one of uniting cultures. Not bringing traditional indigenous music to a contemporary listener – after all, why should an Austrian musician try to break onto the music scene by emulating the work of Mozart – but to show both sides as part of the same whole.
She writes the songs and plays the music she chooses to with little direct influence from her heritage. She has received superb acclaim from the national music community, based purely on her skills, but has also been recognised for her part in bringing indigenous talent to mainstream culture.
“A lot of people have been really amazingly supportive,”she says. “I think it’s exciting that there is indigenous music that is gaining a lot of attention not for just being indigenous music.”
As part of this year’s Boomerang Festival, Plum has been given the unique opportunity to share her music across that great divide. Incorporating some highly traditional music, dance and performance, as well as a wealth of contemporary entertainment, the Boomerang Festival unites indigenous culture from a host of nations with a more mainstream influence and audience.
“I think it’s great that we have something [such as the Boomerang Festival] that can showcase so much indigenous talent at one time, so I think it’s pretty special. It’s also a really great way to expose more Aboriginal and Torres Strait artists and bringing it more to mainstream attention, instead of just being in a separate indigenous music world.”
Thelma Plum is, without a doubt, a perfect poster girl for this cross-culture movement.
She is still a teenager. She is soon to be releasing her second EP, is continuing to gain awards and acclaim across all aspects of the music industry and has a dazzlingly bright future ahead of her and none of this has come about because of her cultural heritage. But, if her genetics mean that she will be performing at this year’s Boomerang Festival alongside a gamut of renowned indigenous talent, such as Gurrumul, Archie Roach, Busby Marou and Shellie Morris, I for one am wrapped she’s a real Australian.
The Boomerang Festival takes place on the long weekend of October 4th -6th at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm.
Visit www.boomerangfestival.com.au for further information and bookings.
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Sep 5, 2013