New outlet for Indigenous song people

Published The Age, 30 Aug, and Sydney Morning Herald, Arts, Sep 23, 2011


The centrality of song in Aboriginal culture has been largely ignored by western audiences hung up on Aboriginal painting.

In traditional Aboriginal culture, story is enacted by song and the song precedes the painting and dancing. The custodians of traditional song are accordingly perplexed by the popularity of painting. 

Patrick McCloskey, manager of a new indigenous recording project in Tennant Creek, said song people were the most important custodians of culture in most Aboriginal communities.    "The singers often say the painting and the patterns don't exist without us, they don't exist without the songs. The song is the thing that binds it all together," he said.

McCloskey is manager of the Song Peoples Sessions, a visionary project that has brought two leading indigenous singer-songwriters home to the countries of their grandparents to compose music with traditional song people.   

Country musician, Warren H Williams, worked with the Warumungu song men of the Barkly region and Black Arm Band singer, Shellie Morris, worked with the song women of Borroloola and Macarthur River. The first two albums, a collaborative album written by Williams and an album of 19 traditional songs by Warumungu songmen, will be launched on 2 September during the Desert Harmony festival in Tennant Creek (26 Aug - 4 Sep).

Other Australian musicians, including Paul Grabowsky, have worked with traditional singers but this is the first project to help contemporary indigenous musicians learn traditional language and record music with song people from their own families. The songs on the two collaborative albums are powerful, accessible blends of traditional and contemporary indigenous music sung in two rarely heard but beautiful indigenous languages.  It is call and response music that spans thousands of years.

For Shellie Morris, a circle is now unbroken.  Morris' grandmother was a child of the stolen generation and Morris was adopted by a white family in Sydney. She learned opera singing before she began recording folk and rock ballads. Now she has recorded an album in the language of her grandmother backed by the traditional singing of Borroloola women. Morris said the project "will affect my songwriting for the rest of my life."

Melburnian, Tim Cole, ex Not Drowning Waving, engineered the recordings and the four albums produced by the project in just six months. Over 50 traditional songs were recorded in studios and in Gulf island country. Melbourne anthropologist, Professor John Bradley, a fluent Yanyuwa speaker, translated the lyrics into English so Morris could "write a new story that matched the story in the traditional song."   

Morris spent three weeks learning Yanyuwa pronunciation and studying the traditional songs. Then with guidance from the song women, she wrote ballads that celebrate Yanyuwa stories, melodies and rhythms.   Traditional singers overlay rhythms to produce hypnotic patterns not unlike those in Aboriginal painting.  

Many indigenous languages are endangered and the Song People Sessions project, supported by Barkly Regional Arts, has helped maintain and reinvigorate two languages. Children were singing the songs on the streets soon after the recording sessions. One of Williams' ballads was played at the funeral of an elder before the CDs were cut.

"Many of these song people might only be around for another 15 to 20 years," said McCloskey. "Already a lot of songs have been lost. So there is an increasing urgency among the people to record songs". There are just 5 fluent native speakers of Yanyuwa. Only 15 of the 100 or so surviving indigenous languages are strong and spoken by three generations, according to Bradley.

Williams wrote one of his ballads about hearing the last Warumungu songman sing. He wrote songs first and the Warumungu men chose traditional songs with similar storylines. Then the song men sang and recorded songs, often in perfectly matching keys first time. "I wrote a song about a lonely boy returning to Tennant Creek and they said that's like the Cockatoo song, it's about a lonely boy, let's sing that one," Williams said. They have over 500 songs from song cycles that criss-cross their land.

McCloskey said, "Indigenous music is an important part of the world's cultural heritage and Australia has some of the strongest living examples of this culture."

Williams will keep learning Warumungu and now wants to teach his children the language. "There are a lot of languages in Australia that we should all be proud of, black and white," he said. "I was humbled by my culture."




Readers can listen to three sample tracks online or at http://soundcloud.com/song-people-sessions


Edited versions on line at www.theage.com.au/entertainment/new-chapter-for-ancient-songbook-20110829-1ji6a.html 









© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.