16 – Aborigines Advancement League (2 Watt St. Thornbury)

Images: (a) Entrance to the Aborigines Advancement League and the Sir Doug Nicholls Sporting Complex. Photo by Miguel Paraz. (b) Stray Blacks and (c) NAIDOC Week Flag Raising Ceremony. Images courtesy of AAL. (d) Aunty Esme Bamblett with the Fitzroy Stars in 2020. Image previously appeared on facebook.com/FitzroyStars

16 – Aborigines Advancement League (2 Watt St. Thornbury)

Featured track: Stray Blacks- Melbourne Blacks


Narrator: You’ve arrived at 2 Watt Street Thornbury home of the Aborigines Advancement League.  AAL is a meeting and ceremonial ground for the Victorian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community here in Darebin.

Established in 1957 by Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls, Doris Blackburn, Stan Davey and Gordon Bryant. Pastor Nicholls initiated the League in response to the shock he experienced by the high level of disadvantage he witnessed on his travels with the Victorian representative side of Australian Rules Footballers in 1935.

The League became a safe space for Aboriginal people to lobby for citizen’s rights throughout the Commonwealth. The achievements of the community were also celebrated with many Aboriginal organisations in Victoria implementing a general policy of advancement for Aboriginal people. We can’t forget the historical impacts of colonisation where many venues including bars and theatres even today, do not allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to socialise.

A warning to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community that people mentioned in this audio piece are now deceased. Permission has been given by Aunty Esme Bamblett for us to produce this segment for Fuse Darebin.

Tony Lovett: Socalisation is a big part of what we do you know, everyone travels down. The League was one of those places that held cabarets back in the day and it was a great place for the mob to get together and socialise and celebrate and just connect with each other. I recall a No Fixed [Address] concert there on a Sunday afternoon. It was when they were touring, they were going pretty well, but wherever they went within the mainstream there was always that aggression from the mainstream crowd and stuff. But when they came to the League it was like playing in the backyard almost.

  In all the years we’ve down lots and lots of cabarets and concerts there. Its where the mob feel safe, it’s our venue. It’s a safe space there. 

I’m fortunately old enough to remember when Uncle Stewart Murray did a cabaret there and when it was time to finish that was it. As we went on a bit and Uncle Stewart left us cabarets then tended to go a bit overtime.

 Once again, that feeling of security, of being in our own space and mob.

Narrator: Gunditjmara musician Tony Lovett was raised in Ballarat and played in Stray Blacks from its inception in 1989 with the original members Elders Alf Bamblett, Janice Bakes and Torry Gorrie. The Stray Blacks are a household name within the Victorian Aboriginal and Torres Strait  Islander community and Tony has been instrumental in organising fundraisers, gigs and talent nights at the Aborigines Advancement League to support his community.

Tony Lovett: We sort of started in ’89 and it was purely through I sat down with Uncle Alf and we talked about music being one of those common things. For those people who know his story he had been quite a heavy drinker and he stopped drinking and music was one of those things. He had done it when he was drinking but he was more into when he wasn’t drinking. I was fortunate enough to be part of that journey with him back in ’89 when we started playing.

We actually started out in Fitzroy at the Eastern Hotel there. We eventually ended up running our own residency in Carlton at the John Curtin purely because wherever we booked a pub we found that once the Aboriginal crowd turned up there were security issues or people not allowed in and stuff. So we ran our own gig for quite a number of years. The residency there at JCs was famous, but we were always available for a community function so we did lots of cabarets and stuff at the League but also right across the state.

We weren’t the only ones, there were a lot of bands getting around. Everyone did a gig for the Funeral fund at some stage or another. Aunty Georgina and the likes ran that funeral fund back in the hard times. Peter Wright, Bear Johnson and Buster and Henry Thorpe and those guys. David and Wally Arden and the Koori Youth band with Pippy Rhys and stuff. Uncle Herb Patten and his gum leaf. The Tourists were playing at everyone’s gig. And of course the guys from Blackfire later on. Kutcha’s quite successful in his own right now. I remember the days when he wouldn’t look at a crowd. You’d try and work out how such an imposing figure as he was was too shy to talk to a crowd. Now he doesn’t leave the crowd alone at the show. Lots of people avoid eye contact. 

Narrator: The memories of different events at the Aborigines Advancement League are a reminder of the strong spirit of community and country here in Darebin. Amongst the many challenges that First Nations people face, it is the love, respect and memories of the Elders and family that has always been at the heart of the community.

Tony Lovett: One of our favourite gigs of all time has been the Elders lunch held at the League. Whether it’s a NAIDOC one or a Christmas one everyone in the band just looks forward to it. Mainly because its just that opportunity to play for the Elders and see some old faces. Once again, back in the day when everybody was coming in from across the state it was huge and we had Lovett corner over there with Aunty Georgie and the mob. It was something quite special and it certainly put things ion perspective when as you get on a bit you realise, “Hang on, that table over there is a bit lighter this year because there’s not as many of Elders sitting around there.” A lot of country areas stopped travelling so much but you also realised you were losing older people and losing that story, those connections.

The Rumbalara Line Dancers were a great one too. They came down from Shepparton and they’d do their line dancing at the Elders lunches. That was just amazing to see. It was an Elders activity they ran at Shep.

Everyone there was connected to someone else in the room, there was family there. But once again, sadly just to watch the numbers dwindle. You’d be able to sit down and take in the opportunity to have a yarn with those older people about their memories of the League that they have.

I know around the walls in the main hall they have photos of different bands up there that include the Stray Blacks and Blackfire, Kutcha and Uncle Herb. Harry and Wilga Williams used to play there back in the day. They used to have the dances at the Advancement league. Uncle Alick Jackomos would help organise those dances. All the Elders, as I say back in the day everyone played a gig for the funeral fund at some stage, that was one of the things we’d all do.

It’s that place where the mob would feel safe. Over the last few years VACSAL [Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association Ltd] have run the variety night on a Thursday night in NAIDOC week. You just realise the talent pool in the community is vast. It goes from the little kids doing a singalong to the latest Disney classic, whatever it may be, then you get into the teens with a Hip Hop song or a dance and then the older ones with their confidence growing doing their original material add that cultural component to the event as well. I’ve watched that grow over the years and seen some great artists come through there. Allana Atkinson, I still remember her as a young girl just starting out with this mighty, mighty voice.

Also brothers and sisters from across the country, as I mentioned No Fixed came and played a gig there and Amunda, a band from central Australia many, many moons ago. In ’93, the Year of Indigenous People, we had a big concert out there at which Shane Howard played.  In 2008 they had the WIPCE conference (World Indigneous peoples Conference on Education) there and had a big cultural festival out on the oval. One of the beauties about the Advancement League is you have the indoor stuff as well as the outdoor activities, whether it’s on the oval or in the hall. 

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