… singing up Australia …

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2023. All Rights Reserved.

According to Australia’s new National Cultural Arts Policy, the purpose of Australian arts, music and theatre productions is to assimilate Australian First Peoples’ music into coloniser and immigrant music genres. The irrational neocolonial prejudices that birthed and still perpetuate this assimilative policy are opposed by First Nations musicians who maintain, own and manage the unique tribal musics of this continent. We don’t slander, vilify, denigrate, override or try to erase the music of non-Australian cultures, and we do expect that all who come to our Countries will respect, honour, listen to and make a genuine, courteous attempt to connect with the music and artists of the Indigenous Country that generously hosts and sustains them.

Most countries in the world require immigrant musicians and composers to respect, honour and refrain from infringing the legitimate rights of the Indigenous traditions of their host countries. Australia’s neocolonial arts demagogues, and many immigrant musicians, have not even considered that possibility. The new Australian National Cultural Arts Policy, while claiming to put “First Peoples First”, still aggressively prioritises and funds production and marketing of secularised and imported music pedagogies, performers, and music genres that cannot be identified as Australian. Australian and international media outlets continue to diminish Australian presence and viewpoints in international discourse, on the grounds that our sovereign Australian identity has been extinguished. This is an injurious falsehood. Australia’s First Peoples’ have consistently and successfully resisted draconian assimilative policies that promote the cultural erasure of Australian First Peoples musics and cultures, with unregulated attempts to swamp our Country based Songline systems with a flood of imported music genres and “stars” from elsewhere.

This befuddled music policy is disadvantaging Australia on cultural and political world stages. Australian First Peoples song cultures are now well known, named and fully documented in AIATSIS / the Ngurra Centre. There is no excuse for Australian arts officials to misrepresent, discriminate against or neglect these nationally significant repertoires, or ignore their commercial potential. The recent Referendum No vote provides no justification for silencing or diminishing Australia’s only truly national music repertoire. Enforced cultural assimilation into imported musical traditions does not confer lasting benefits on Australia’s First Peoples’ communities, it just inflicts yet more cultural pain and attacks our Australian identity. All Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have already suffered grave psychological and cultural injuries inflicted by Indigenous song and language bans. We have consistently resisted irrational cultural bans, and our descendants will continue to assert our human rights to maintain and practice our Indigenous Australian cultures. The United Nations has supported us by defining enforced cultural music erasure by coloniser assimilation, as a form of systematic cultural genocide.

The fact that Australian First Peoples’ cultures are structured around our emplaced Songlines, has made the destructive impact of coloniser-enforced musical and linguistic assimilation much worse than otherwise. As enforced colonial and immigrant musical assimilation gradually expanded within Australia throughout the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries, surviving Australian First Peoples resisted this invasion by passing on treasured fragments of languages and tribal songs, and wherever possible, integrating features of foreign music genres into our cultural ways. This process produced a steady stream of First Peoples’ fusion songs, that were performed throughout Australia. Despite each successive coloniser invasion of culture, and despite massacres, incarcerations and removals from Country, our songmaking continued to prioritise connections to Country and community. Our songs appropriate whatever musical resources are needed for our cultures to survive, without compromise. When we connected with sympathetic non-Australian visiting musicians (such as the Fisk Family Band in Victoria, Buddy Holly in NSW, and Paul Robeson in Western Australia) their song styles were integrated into our emplaced songline repertoires, in linguistic and cultural ways unique to each Australian tribe. We appropriated elements of these imported repertoires, and made the resulting songs our own, by Country-based structural recomposition. When we compose, we have always turned coloniser, immigrant and visitor musics back on themselves, and assimilated these musics into our own culturally revived First Peoples contexts, song genres, and communities. This is a proven, effective peacemaking song strategy, that over generations can also be taught to exiled descendants of colonisers and immigrants who have been deprived of, and are in urgent need of, a culturally stable homeland. No music that prioritises a foreign music making method, technique or tradition, can possibly substitute for or replace Australia’s pre-eminent, unique native musics. The well advertised, proud adherence of many eminent immigrant composers from elsewhere, to the music of their countries of origin, affirms our cultural music rights.

The cultural damage done to Australia’s First Peoples by violent, coloniser enforced assimilation policies has never been fully assessed, but extensive research and documentation has shown that enforced assimilation and identity erasure of First Nations community members has been systematically pursued in Australia for over two centuries. This crime is widely practised in Australia, with impunity. Forced musical assimilation of Australian First Peoples into colonial music systems escalated in the nineteenth century, and it became a significant, entrenched method of enacting Australia’s colonial assimilation and brainwashing programs. Forcibly imposed Church and military music repertoires, strengthened by continent wide coloniser radio programs and other 20th century coloniser technologies, formed the vanguard of this culturally invasive assimilative propaganda. Yet culturally deprived Australian First Nations songmakers continued to make music outside and even within these restrictive contexts. By appropriating and adapting imported genres such as hymns, choruses, ballads, country music and jazz, and passing our songs on orally, we kept our Australian Indigenous music traditions alive.

Many claim there is no racism in the Australian music industry. They are mistaken. Australian music festivals, religious musics, media outlets and demographies are predominantly racially segregated, with token Indigenous participation in some coloniser genres. Attempts to break this apartheid musical segregation are resisted by entrenched black and white vested interests. In Western Sydney, a monopolistic corporate cabal, funded by a divisive faction, declared a fatwa “cultural ban” to prevent publication of Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) sponsored songbook scores and CDs in the local Dharug Indigenous language. Manipulative strategies to suppress promotion of Australian First Peoples musics abound. For instance, there are no government subsidised Australian Indigenous music retailers in Sydney, as there are for all other cultures. At seminars and conferences, academics discuss how to revive Indigenous song, and dole out intermittent grant money to white researchers who conduct short term research on Indigenous communities. Even if their research finds unmet Indigenous needs, no remedial government systems will ever address them, because in Western coloniser academic systems, total assimilation into coloniser cultures, along with erasure of Indigenous cultures, is regarded as an unalloyed benefit, never a detriment. The gift of Western music culture is regarded as a beneficial, non-offensive fait accompli, and any attempt to deny that this is so, is reframed as a threat, and suppressed.

Contemporary Australians are so accustomed to assimilative music usurpation practices that many consider them normal. Coloniser Australians habitually feign ignorance of the cultural deprivations they inflict every day on Australia’s First Peoples. The Australian Government rewards only selected performers who promote idolated pueces of unwritten Aboriginal music, but it does not fund or promote mass publication of Indigenous musics or language textbooks. Some compromised Australian Aboriginal Elders have even been paid to take part in erasing their own music cultures, by discouraging recording, publication, teaching and performances of Indigenous cultural songs. Pro-assimilation coloniser groups are fulsomely praised and rewarded for monopolising local arts scenes, while Indigenous music cultures are segregated in scandalously expensive outback fringe festivals like Nhulunbuy’s Garma. Once a year, members of Australia’s wealthy white elite, bolstered by academic funding, travel to Garma to salve their consciences by passively observing and creating marketable video content of underpaid Indigenous Australian performers. Prominent Australian politicians attend this festival, to demonstrate their cultural connections. Meanwhile hundreds of neglected Indigenous children remain languishing, incarcerated and ignored, and totally deprived of cultural music education and participation, in soulless urban detention centres. Another one died last week.

Australian government arts policies, corrective services, and corporate interests remain focused on maintaining privileged expatriate apartheid culture bubbles and segregating deprived Indigenous ghettoes, at huge cost to millions of artistically capable and skilled Australian First Peoples. Preferential government funding of assimilative coloniser and immigrant projects, prioritised corporate patronage and government grant funding of coloniser and immigrant music, excessive promotion of globalised music repertoires and uncritical endorsement of assimilative coloniser and immigrant literatures and musics, is still mandating and accelerating disrespectfully invasive cultural amnesia in Australia.

In the field of neocolonial Australian music education and performance this cultural bias is glaringly obvious. Australian music examination lists, radio playlists and concert programs are bursting with foreign and coloniser genre music. Token Indigenous compositions are occasionally performed, but apart from a few promoted Indigenous figureheads, Australian grant funding programs overwhelmingly favour imported music and Western trained performers. Ironically, the ultimate form of promotion for favoured Australian performers, whether Indigenous or non-indigenous, is exporting them overseas. In the new National Australian Curticulum, a few books by Australians First Nations authors have been included in subsections of assimilative cultural literacy courses, and occasionally a spoken Welcome, or a First Peoples’ song, is permitted at an official school event. That’s completely insufficient. Radical restructuring of Australian music pedagogy and funding is needed, to avoid descent into a cultural void.

Until 2016 there was no Aboriginal music course in any Australian University. Even now, the pilot music courses we have, are still deemed unaccredited trials, because of intransigent racist opposition from dominant coloniser music faculties, pedagogies and repertoires. In Australian community life this musical apartheid is also starkly evident. Check out the list of Australian choirs on the Australian National Choral Association (ANCA site) – this organization lists 616 Non-Aboriginal choirs, yet it claims to be a national organization. Some Non-Aboriginal choirs have adopted Indigenous language names, but only one Australian choir (Rachel Hore’s Big Sing) has invited and sponsored members of Australia’s First Nations to sing with them, and then only at two token annual events, for which singers pay fees.

It’s the same in Australian churches, whose hierarchies fund a few token apartheid First Peoples church groups and token First Peoples ministry jobs, while neglecting intensive communication and cultural education with local First Peoples communities. Many Australian neocolonial churches still praise and celebrate historical colonial figures who committed violent crimes against Australian First Peoples, and religious leaders, newsletters and literatures still teach discredited coloniser versions of Australian history.

Each Australian church worship management committee issues an annual list of “approved worship music”, from which Australian First Peoples’ church music (which abounds in First Peoples communities and on the internet) is generally excluded. Spurious reasons for this discriminatory exclusion are often given, i.e. that Australian First Peoples’ music is either

1. theologically and doctrinally “unsound” in its origin, and therefore constitutes an unacceptable risk of “contamination of the faith”, or that

2. Indigenous Intellectual Property Protocols forbid licensing of Indigenous songs to non-indigenous performers.

The first reason is unsustainable, and the second reason is demonstrably untruthful, as all Australian First Peoples church worship songs are licensable, non-secret public songs with few performance caveats. Australian First Peoples’ church music is examined and approved for doctrinally sound use in worship by culturally accredited First Peoples clergy, whose judgement, like that of officials who govern immigrant church musics, is not open to question. Australian First Peoples composers, like all other composers, also issue performance, copying, cover recording and synchronization licenses for their music, to whomever they wish, for whatever fees they set, and under whatever conditions they determine, as the well respected Yolgnu Yunupingu family have done. As with all other song owners worldwide, our property rights in the copyright songs we have created, and our market access rights to license performers and recordings as we choose, under our own legal terms, are indisputable, and must be respected.

Meanwhile, many Australian mainstream and fringe coloniser churches who impose this irrational music censorship, continue to preach love, goodwill and equity to all. Their “approved worship music” lists include hundreds of songs and languages from immigrant communities, while their censorship policies target Australia’s First Peoples alone. This hypocritical, unreasonably censorious practice is inconsistent with fundamental church doctrines and values, and it certainly does not go unnoticed by Australia’s First Nations churches.

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