… singing up Australia …

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Music Australia grant funding of First Peoples’ musicians and composers may remain restricted to 3% of all arts grants for several years, under the new First Peoples First Cultural policy. Australian media playlists are still stacked with non-Australian music, so the suppressed songs of all Australian Stolen Generations people and their descendants may never reach mainstream media in time for coming generations to learn and transmit them. Only a handful of these songs have reached mainstream media. These truth telling stories need to be told, they’re not going away. They are remembered, and they will be taught and sung locally in communities. By rights, they should be heard right now, across Australia and the world.

Who now knows the songs of Uncle Roger Knox, Auriel Andrews, and Dawn Hippi? The Indigenous creators of Stolen Generation songs were removed from Country, force fed with imported musics by missioners, slaveowners, reserve managers and church officials, and banned from speaking and singing in their own languages. But many survivors hung on to their cultures, and survived. Australians of many races have worked with Indigenous Elders to regather these suppressed musics, and reconstruct them. Various methods were used to do this – transcription, collecting remembered words and song fragments, recomposing colonial transcriptions, or fusing cultural content with imported genres such as band songs, country music ballads, R&B songs, hymns, oratorios and operas. This cultural work is undervalued, and sometimes denigrated, and the reconstructed songs shouldn’t be buried in archives, as they are part of Australia’s history. Confident professional performances of more Indigenous Australian songs and theatre productions on global media platforms and world stages, would improve Australia’s human rights record, by demonstrating that many non-Indigenous Australians opposed racism in colonial times.

It is a fact that a minority of land-grabbing politicians and government-funded colonisers enforced the culturally genocidal policy of erasing Australian First Peoples music cultures and identities for over two centuries, to break Indigenous Australian peoples’ connections to Country. Proof of Indigenous song continuity is now used in Australian law courts, to establish First Peoples land claims. The colonisers’ scheme to silence all Indigenous songs didn’t succeed, because many brave people, black and white, defied the Indigenous language and song bans. One white mission teacher at Ernabella Mission in northern South Australia, Nancy Sheppard, who I knew personally, defied racist prejudice and taught her students to speak and write in both Pitjantjatjara and English. She is still remembered at Ernabella, with gratitude. At Hermannsburg Mission (now Ntaria) Carl Strehlow, Elder Moses, Carl’s son Theodor Strehlow, and Catherine Ellis worked to preserve Pitjantjatjara culture, and due to their work, and the work of many other respected Elders and researchers such as Linda Barwick and Jennifer Newsome, the Strehlow Centre and CASM were established in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and Adelaide. The songs of the Ntaria Choir Songkeepers, the Tiwi Strong Women, the Gay’wu Womens Group, Madjitil Moorna Choir, Yothu Yindi, Gurrumul Yunupingu, Ngarra Burria, the Warumpi Band, Uncle Ossie Cruse, Uncle Joe Gaia, Seaman Dan and similar First Peoples’ musicians, are reviving many Indigenous Australian music cultures. Immigrant communities who inhabit monocultural musical fortresses while living on Australian First Peoples lands, have a duty to provide equitable, non-segregated performance spaces for these musics.

Despite the continuing presence of diligent, thorough, skilled Australian First Peoples musical traditions, and the work of Indigenous recording studios, only a few hundred commercial albums from Australian First Peoples communities have been widely distributed and heard in Australia and overseas. There should be many more. The large repertoire of hundreds of Pitjantjatjara hymns translated and sung for generations by the Ntaria Choir may never be fully recorded, because Australian government policies still preferentially fund foreign musics. Apart from a few token albums, the songs of the Stolen Generation are generally excluded from Australian government funded recordings, publications and school lessons. This neocolonial music policy masks culpability for past massacres and cultural censorship, and is also driven by a Western music industry paradigm that cynically treats songs and performers as harvested, captured, marketable, disposable investment commodities. Indigenous Australian songmaking traditions have transmitted our histories truthfully for millenia. They have sustained foundational networks of responsible, emplaced lifestyles on Country, and maintained resilient human societies, but they are still being demeaned, displaced and silenced.

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