ABC Classic FM’s 2023 NAIDOC Week broadcasts have included music from a wide range of Indigenous composers, including (among many well advertised others) Dharawal Inuk woman Sonya Holowell, Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham Fraillon, Kalkadunga man William Barton, the Tiwi Strong Women, the Pitjantjatjara Ntaria Womens Choir, Noongar Yamatji man Aaron Wyatt, Gadigal man Matthew Doyle, and many of my own Noongar instrumental and vocal tracks from the Ngarra Burria concerts and Songs from the Heart
. Click on the link above and to hear Aaron Wyatt’s clouds music and go to 20.12 to hear three of my pieces, with a background commentary on them.
Music by Rhubee Neale (Anmatjere Arrernte) & Elizabeth Sheppard:
As I Walk, Keep Guard of our Dreams
Music by Elizabeth Sheppard:
‘Cross Country, Kaouwi Two Children Cooee, As I Walk, Gathering, The First Sovereign Nations, Sovereignty, Ngaala Maaman (The Noongar Prayer), Noonakoort Karnya Respect, A Rightful Place, Enshrinement, Makaratta, A Better Future, Keep Guard of our Dreams, Koorlangka Children, Land of Sunshine
Music by Sonya Holowell:
Never Extinguished, We Here, A Way, This is the Torment of our Powerlessness, Like You Can, Become Like Children
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.
Click on this WordPress Podcast to hear about the Australian research behind the Warlpiri Encyclopaedic Dictionary, recently published by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Songline terms and references pervade Warlpiri culture. Linguistics researcher Mary Laughren describes the terrible poverty and disadvantage that neglected Warlpiri First Peoples communities have endured for hundreds of years of colonial rule, and her research with brilliant American linguist Ken Hale, (who followed up in the linguistics work of Elkin and Capell, described the phonology of Warlpiri in consultation with Warlpiri Elders, and compiled the first Warlpiri Dictionary) and many other researchers.
My compositions usually combine Indigenous and Western traditions, but in 2019 I ventured into experimental phonetic choral composition of “New Music”, and produced “Untitled”, that was recorded by The Song Company and performed at the Sydney Opera House. In this piece I reflected the anguish I felt at Australia’s utter neglect of First Peoples’ communities and musics, and to warn of inevitable consequences.
If a concatenated set of random or patterned “new music” sounds or noises claims to be an “identifiably Australian” composition, it should be subject to culturally competent assessment, before being canonized as such. The practice of foreign judges applying foreign music criteria to assess the cultural integrity of a piece of Australian music, seems to me to be nonsensical. If a piece of music has no recognizably Australian features or origins, how can it be Australian? If an immigrant origin composer shuns, neglects, overrides or presumes to denigrate all Indigenous Australian music cultures, and insists on prioritising imported foreign and coloniser music models and paradigms, heritages and theories in their works, their music promotes only foreign cultures, and foreign economic interests. And when an immigrant composer whose music promotes foreign traditions and interests claims their music is Australian, without any evidence of connecting respectfully with Indigenous Australian communities, this offends Australia’s First Peoples. Yet this illogical, culturally offensive music policy is the very policy endorsed by the Australian government. Immigrant musics that are based entirely on non-Australian heritages, models and paradigms should be classified by their origin, as foreign music, and registered as such in their composer’s place of origin.
Due to colonial assimilation policies, many Indigenous Australian compositions sit in between Indigenous heritage traditions, and foreign music traditions. Mixed race Australian Indigenous descendants have adopted culturally approved ways of making our music uniquely Australian, by contextualizing our pieces, as I did with my choral piece Gandangarragal, and as William Barton does when he depicts his Kalkadunga culture. In 2020, shocked at the terrible destruction the Australian bushfires inflicted on ancestral lands, I composed this commissioned choral piece to sing the fire scarred Blue Mountains, the Country originally called Gandangarragal by Gundungurra First Peoples, back to life. It was premiered in 2022, after the pandemic lockdowns of 2020-2021, by the River City Voices Choir, conducted by Dr. Sarah Penicka-Smith, at Riverside Theatres Parramatta. Working respectfully with and for the ancient Country and First Peoples that hold the First Contact, Colonial Era and Post Colonial stories of this continent, is what makes our music Australian.
In 2023 many factional divisions in Australian society have been exposed and discussed, in truth telling workshops and rehearsals, in online media, and in hard talk dialogue sessions. Australians have gathered together to help those affected by disasters, through constructive community action and songmaking, but the ultimate Reconciliation is still pending. Many Australian composers and music fans have come to believe that only uniquely Australian, home grown music that’s grounded in Australian Indigenous Country, and demonstrates deep respect for one or more named Australian Indigenous cultures and its Elders, can gather and voice the soul of Australia. We’ve come a long was from March 2020, when the Covid pandemic hit us. In 2023 Australia’s musicians are still faced with huge challenges, but now we’re much better prepared to deal with them.
In 2020 I’d just begun Postgraduate music studies at the Australian National University School of Music, after completing nine scored pieces for my Ngarra Burria First Peoples Composer internship in 2018, and composing two commissioned pieces (Karlinkiri Hearth and Untitled) in 2019, that were performed at The Australian Museum and the Sydney Opera House. In 2020 my creative output increased; I surprised myself by drafting three new pieces in quick succession, and revising four earlier drafts. This momentum increased in 2021 and 2022, when I completed eighteen commissioned works and many more drafts, and the music continues to flow in 2023, with my latest EP album of Australian carols and interludes, Karollini, professionally recorded by Antony Pitts and Tonus Australis, due for release in September 2023. AProf. Christopher Sainsbury, Ensemble Offspring, The Song Company, River City Voices, Sydney Living Museums, Dr. Sally Walker and Dr. Scott Davie have continued to support and guide my composition studies, and I extend my sincere thanks to them.
In 2016 to 2023 my music has been tested, professionally performed, recorded, produced and released in partnership with Mooghalin Arts, Anmatjere Arrernte Songwoman Rhubee Neale, Dharawal Inuk composer and soprano Sonya Holowell, Biripai opera tenor Elias Wilson, conductor and baritone Antony Pitts, Reconciliation for Western Sydney Inc., Eora Aboriginal College of TAFE, the Australian Music Centre, Ensemble Offspring, Roland Peelman, the RAN Band Wind Quintet, Dr. Scott Davie, Dr. Sally Walker and harpist Emily Granger, River City Voices Choir, The Song Company and Tonus Australis. This music was produced with assistance from the Indigenous Composers Initiative program, an ANU AGRTP Postgraduate Scholarship, and the 2021 ANU School of Music Indigenous Music Scholarship. Eora and Tranby Aboriginal Colleges have also supported my music with musical, cultural and legal training.
This has been a time of environmental turmoil, community reflection and impending change, that I and many other Australian composers have tried to depict and ease in our music. Through music, many factional divisions in Australian society have been exposed and discussed, in truth telling workshops and rehearsals, in online media, and in hard talk dialogue sessions. Australians have gathered together to help those affected by disasters, through constructive community action and songmaking. The ultimate Reconciliation is still pending. All Australians have taken part, in various ways, in live and online community gatherings, and this intensive process is ongoing. During this time, many Australian composers and music fans have also come to believe that only uniquely Australian, home grown music that’s grounded in Australian Indigenous Country, and demonstrates deep respect for one or more named Australian Indigenous cultures and its Elders, can gather and voice the soul of Australia.
The proper judges of “Australian-ness” in music are the skilled Songmen and Songwomen of the Country, people and languages that have, since time immemorial, made the unique music of this Great Southern land we now call Australia. Acultural sonic “new music” concatenations, unless composed in close consultation with an Australian First Peoples community, authorised by accredited First Peoples Elders, and tested in a performance attended by the Elders who consulted on and authorised the music (and consequently have shared rights in it), cannot possess the integrated cultural power and raw presence that an accredited Australian First Peoples song possesses. A song that has no personal or communal connection to any Australian Indigenous Country, can’t communicate the unique sovereign character and nationhood of Australia to its listeners.
Yet Western music notation, althougb deemed unnecessary, and even corrupting, by some Indigenous Australian musicians, can be used ethically in assimilative scenarios, to support and promote Australian Indigenous music. To be sure, Western music notation is a blunt and irredeemably colonial instrument, but a necessary one, if intercultural communication and musical peacemaking is to thrive in Australia. However, Australian First Peoples are regularly plagued with barriers to writing and publishing the songs we own. Commercial agents and cabal monopolies have profited hugely from recording, producing and selling digital files, CDs and published scores of our music, while promoting the outrageous lie that all First Peoples are condemned to musical illiteracy forever. However, Indigenous Australian composers of many traditions are currently learning to use AI technology for fast music transcription and editing, so these self-paced learning systems may disempower the overpriced music products and services of the cabals. But right now, restrictive cabal practices are blocking widespread distribution and teaching of a large repertoire of high quality Indigenous Australian music.
An increasing number of Australian First Peoples’ communities are publishing funded songbooks. The Austranesia songbooks from Queensland, the Tiwi Murli La songbook, the Madjitil Moorna choir songbooks, the songbooks of Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse, the Dhungala Choir Songbooks, and the Magabala Books audio songbooks, are boosting Australia’s overseas reputation as a country that’s proud of its Indigenous musics. The Australian Music Centre has joined the act, by publishing Australian First Peoples compositions, and the ABC has recorded many Indigenous Australian compositions. But the apartheid musical colonialism created by colonial bans on Aboriginal languages, that has obstructed Australian music development for over two centuries, is still common in Australia.
The forced imposition of English on Australia’s First Peoples produced a large repertoire of Indigenous Australian music with English lyrics. These mixed genre resistance songs, combined with immigrant folk genres from Slim Dusty and visiting singers like Buddy Holly and Paul Robeson, quickly became part of Australian Indigenous oral traditions. These mixed genre songs, described in Amanda Harris’s Representation of AboriginalMusic, are now beginning to combine with revived traditional Australian languages. Recent government funding of Australian Indigenous language resources, spurred on by the 2022-2032 UNESCO Decade of Indigenous Languages, is intended to revive Australia’s music cultures. However, this is uphill work, because Australian media policies don’t support it. Take a look at the ABC’s Saturday Rage playlist. No traditional Aboriginal music there! That’s a whole morning of opportunities to revive and support healthy Australian community music, completely wasted. Australia’s musical grass roots past deserves much more attention, and much more government and commercial promotion.
Populat Australian First Peoples’ songs and performers, often heard on radio in my childhood, were dropped from Australian concert repertoires, radio and app playlistsm and soundtracks in the 1960s, when untariffed overseas music and cinema imports flooded into Australia. The Australian government still doesn’t promote pre-1960s Australian songs, or pay to have them performed. Scores of well loved Australian bush classics like Peppamenarti, the Wattle Day Song and Hop And Go One have been neglected and undervalued by cultural cringe policies and corporate agendas that funnel music consumer profits overseas. Occasionally these songs appear in research papers, and are performed and recorded at restricted conferences, then the scores and audios are archived away from public view. Many of these iconic songs were created by Indigenous Australians, and they have roots in Australian communities. They should be celebrated, regularly performed, and broadcast worldwide, to advertise Australia and bring much needed income to their Indigenous communities of origin.
Australian church music repertoires for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday (July 2 2023) provide many examples of how Australian First Peoples songs are excluded from non-Indigenous Australian venues. Uncle Jimmy Little’s joyful “Royal Telephone” and Uncle Tom Foster’s “My Thoughts” and “I’m Happy Today” are deemed liturgically unsuitable,, and shamefully banned, in these places.
Apartheid music segregation is also firmly in place in many public Australian venues and media outlets. Many Australian liturgical committees have banned Aboriginal music and languages from church repertoires because they believe that Aboriginals are immoral, drunken, criminal pagans. But most Australian First Peoples’ parents, grandparents and earlier ancestors were raised on church missions or reserves and Christianized. So (despite the terrible crimes of corrupt mission supervisors) many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Isalnder people have combined this Christian heritage with tribal music traditions. Australian First Peoples church songs successfully integrate Australian stories about family and Country with Christian teachings.
With a view to full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s call for equity and justice, the new Australian National Cultural Policy has claimed to put “First Peoples First.” However, in the first half of 2023, many more non-indigenous musicians seem to have been awarded Arts Council music grants than Australian First Nations’ musicians. As the Creative Australia policy doesn’t take effect until July 1 2023, and the allocated funds won’t be deployed until 1 July 2024, it seems that the ACA grant administrators have ignored the new policy. This prioritised funding of non-Indigenous musics contradicts cultural reforms that respect the rights of Australia’s First Nations cultures, such as the passing of the NSW Aboriginal Languages Bill in 2017.
When the NSW Aboriginal Languages Bill was passed in 2017, we hoped to be able to teach Indigenous songs in NSW schools, but no Indigenous music curriculum has yet been introduced, and only one Indigenous music resource (for secondary schools) has been published by the Australian Music Centre. Despite the excellence of this resource, to coordinate with and properly support staged Indigenous language teaching of all NSW languages, teachable K-10 music resources with First Nations lyrics are needed, first of all. Funds are urgently needed to support publication of these First Nations music curriculum resources.
In the first 2023 Arts Council grant round, generous grants were awarded to elite music projects located in foreign countries (e.g. the US and Germany). No reasons were supplied, for awarding these grants. On the local scene in Australia, these funds could have been devoted to training and employing First Nations community members to teach Indigenous languages through song. Ironically, Australian First Nations musicians who live on Country and work with inherited cultures, rather than overseas music genres, are often deemed ineligible for music grants, unless a non-indigenous scholar applies to study their music. Continued deprivation of coordinated Indigenous language and music education has perpetuated Indigenous cultural disadvantage in Australia. This legacy of colonialism is still blocking Indigenous self-determination and empowerment, which could and should be facilitated. As Dr. Cubillo has pointed out, we are a Songline based culture, and this uniquely Australian heritage should not be silenced.
Aboriginal Australians from Western Sydney, which has the largest and most impoverished Indigenous Australian population of any Australian region, are still battling to sustain Furst Nations cultures and arts here. Our young people were excluded from NSW government OCHRE Indigenous Youth Employment and Education programs until recently. The Greater Western Sydney Opportunity Hub, which provides transition programs for Indigenous secondary school students to work or further study, opened on 14 Feb 2023. The trouble is, only a handful of Western Sydney Indigenous students have made it to secondary school. Over the last ten years, First Nations communities in rural NSW were awarded prioritised funding to promote “real Aboriginal cultures”, while Indigenous city kids were coerced to assimilate into Western culture, and detained and incarcerated, with no recourse to juvenile diversion or rehabilitation programs, if they wouldn’t comply. This is still happening.
In Western Sydney, only privileged minorities can access high quality music and arts education, and schools provide only basic music training, if any. While rural and remote Australian First Peoples children are clearly in desperate need, so are oppressed, impoverished, unjustly incarcerated urban Australian First Peoples’ children. Without sufficient community music grants and published K-10 Indigenous cultural music education resources, these Indigenous children will continue to be deprived of opportunities for Indigenous music making. Western Sydney music teachers and Aboriginal Elders who advise AECG Head Teachers Committees in Western Sydney, have been requesting these Indigenous cultural music resources for many years.
The low number of First Nations arts and music grants awarded by the Australia Council for the Arts in early 2023 appears to be based on the 3% Indigenous population demographic, not on any principle of restorative justice. Dr. Franchesca Cubillo, Music Australia’s Head of Indigenous Music, is promoting the Federal government’s declared intent to prioritise First Peoples’ music. Meanwhile, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners in Western Sydney’s Silverwater Correction Centre, and in many other supposedly “correctional” institutions, are denied Indigenous music, arts, rehabilitation and social support programs, and First Nations deaths in custody are still rising.
Choosing between funding one or the other disadvantaged First Nations community is not an option for any Australian State or Federal government, as sufficient Federal funding has been allocated for all. But at the moment, funding administrators are still allocating token arts grants to a few cherry picked Australian First Nations communities, and reserving 97% of music grants to fund non-indigenous creation, performance and export of non-Australian music genres. And Australia’s most talented non-indigenous musicians are still funded to abandon Australia for prestigious overseas posts. In other words, Australia’s famed musico-cultural cringe, the pernicious habit of kow-towing to overseas cultures, is alive and well.
Australia has a new National Cultural Policy, and Creative Australia’s Music Australia, led by CEO Adrian Collette and the ACA Board, and Executive Director of First Nations Arts Dr. Franchesca Cubillo, is charged with building Australia’s music making capacity, and attracting investment to the full scope of the Australian arts sector. As a primary pillar of this new policy, the Arts Minister Tony Burke has announced a “First Peoples First” priority.
So who are the music makers who will produce a better future for Australian music? There seem to be three kinds.
1. Australian First Nations Musicians: First Nations people who have birth and ancestry from a named, well defined Australian Country, who maintain and express their identity in uniquely Australian Indigenous customs, organizations, languages, arts, music, and choose to maintain either apartheid or mixed kinship relationships.
2. Australian Expatriate Musicians: Immigrant origin musicians with birth and ancestry from a foreign country, whose families have travelled to and settled in Australia, and retain their right to maintain an expatriate identity, expressed in expatriate customs, organizations, languages, arts, music, and apartheid or mixed social relationships.
3. Australian Kriol Musicians: Culturally diverse musicians of mixed Australian First Nations and Australian Expatriate birth and ancestry, who have formed diverse intercultural and corporate alliances, created intercultural customs, organizations, languages, arts and music, and have generated uniquely Australian cultural identities and relationships.
EquitableInvestment in First Nations, Expatriate and Kriol “Songs of Home”
From a commercial viewpoint, Music Australia needs to know what skills, value and products Australian artists, musicians, dancers and craftspeople can supply, what their accreditations are, and what financial returns their products can bring to the country. To research this, the ACA Board sought submissions from arts practitioners and organizations across Australia. The submission findings showed that Australian arts, particularly First Nations arts. are currently under-resourced. This will not change until 1 July 2024, when the $35 million allocated to supporting First Nations arts will be deployed. Artist Blak Douglas has advised First Nations artists to guard against misappropriation of these funds by non-indigenous arts administrators, and has proposed a generic government grant for all graduating Australian First Nations artists.
How arts producers and their works are valued by Australian communities, may be quite different to how arts sponsors and investors assess the current and future potential of these artists and their products. At the moment, Arts Council Australia believes that the investors they attract, value Australian arts primarily as exportable commodities whose value can be translated into GDP dollars. But that’s only part of the story. Judging who are the best artists to represent Australia, and which is the best Australian music repertoire to invest in, requires a broad knowledge of the full scope and social capital of Australian arts, music, dance and crafts, what is needed to support the Australian musicians who produce it, and what uniquely Australian features attract Australian and foreign consumers to it.
Australia prides itself on being a multicultural country whose citizens tolerate cultural difference, respect each other, and work hard at maintaining peaceful intercultural communities. One reason for the boasted success of multiculturalism in Australia, is generous Australian government funding of immigrant music making, arts and social events. This pro-expatriate arts strategy aims to maintain social harmony. Meanwhile Australian First Nations, who are culturally and linguistically distinct from immigrant and coloniser communities, and from each other, have been expected to raise our own funds, and compete with government funded displays of immigrant and coloniser culture. Australian First Nations musicians can register as First Nations cultural suppliers, but may not be able to access corporate funding. Under pro-expatriate arts policies, Australian Kriol musicians have been pressured to abandon inherited Indigenous Australian musics, comply with global secular consumerism, and become imitators or adoring fans of foreign music stars and genres. Up to now, ACA’s music policies have supported Australian Kriol musicians conditionally; i.e. if they collaborate with non-indigenous expatriate partners and administrators.
Nevertheless, Australian Kriol communities have continued to privately create and develop fusion customs, arts and music that are distinctly Australian. The combined resurgence of Australian First Nations and Australian Kriol arts and musics offers an opportunity to forge a rightful place for these uniquely Australian musics, and the First Nations and Kriol musicians who produce them. This reaffirmation may enable alienated Kriol Australians and Expatriate Australian musicians to form stronger ally relationships with Australia’s First Nations musicians.
The Australian government supports and generously funds many expatriate communities, including (among many others) communities who have emigrated here from England, China, Russia and Ukraine. Many members of these communities have integrated into neocolonial Australian society. At the Australian Citizenship Ceremony they are also required to acknowledge and state their respect for Australia’s First Peoples. However, many expatriates have failed to follow through on their commitment to learn about and befriend Australian First Nations communities, through no fault of their own. They, and Australian First Peoples’ communities, are not supplied with sufficiently regular government support or education, to connect immigrant cultures and communities with First Peoples’ cultures and communities. So when government funds are received, they are much more likely to be used to preserve strict cultural apartheid, rather than promoting respectful enculturation into Australian First Nations host Country cultures.
For many years, spurred on by pro-colonial policies, Federal and State Australian governments have prioritised apartheid expatriate “Songs of Home” repertoires, apartheid music composition based on foreign music pedagogies, and apartheid music teaching. In effect, pro-colonial Australian governments have encouraged expatriates to undervalue Australian First Nations cultures, and silence the songs of the Countries they live on. Proudly imitating and praising non-Australian music and global music stars, while remaining completely ignorant of Australian First Nations musics, is still common in Australia. But as the Australian Citizenship Oath states, those who are awarded Australian citizenship, and the freedom to enjoy their own “songs of home” on First Nations Countries, still have a responsibility to respect, befriend and promote the music of the Australian First Nations that have provided sustenance for them.
In Australia, it should be remembered that certain inflammatory expatriate “songs of home” (e.g. “Rule Brittannia”) symbolize colonial terror campaigns to exterminate Indigenous people, erase our identities, and force assimilation on us. English “songs of home” were, in fact, deployed as a hostile propaganda arsenal, that tried to usurp the sovereign authority of Australian First Peoples languages and musics. Those who admire these “songs of terror” should think twice about the potential negative effects of re-endorsing and re-promoting colonial editions of them. It makes more sense to re-compose them in healthy ways, with reformed lyrics that assert and promote Australia’s emergent democracy, and its self determined independence.
The act of walking cooperatively and peacefully together into the future with Aboriginal Elders, may be, for many immigrant Australians, a step too far. Immigrant origin Australians often assume that this “walking together” requires them to utterly reject their inherited “songs of home”, which is simply not true. Everyone has a right to a peaceful musico-cultural inheritance, and first generation immigrants often find it hard to recover from the shock of cultural exile. “Songs of home” ease the pain of removal from Country, for all, when they are not censored. Disoriented and shocked by trauma and homesickness, expatriate communities often withdraw into “songs of home” for comfort and a substitute sense of identity. Australia’s First Nations were denied the comfort of “songs of home” for over two centuries, but by our own efforts we have now regained it. Immigrants to Australia eventually realise that the colonial regime that hosts them, has a history of attempting to exterminate its coloured First Peoples. Reactions to this revelation vary. Some coloured immigrants to Australia offer their own cultures to Australia, as an acceptably coloured substitute for supposedly exterminated or irretrievably weakened First Nations cultures. Others may reject Australia’s First Nations as uncivilized and unworthy.
When immigrant Australians treat First Nations Elders with ingratitude and rude disrespect, by prioritising expatriate cultures of origin in what they have been incorrectly told is the land of terra nullius, what should happen? Correcting the terranullius lie can only be done by a coordinated mass cultural education program, across alll age groups.
Research shows that third generation immigrants are able to enculturate fully, if their host Country has a stable, widespread national cultural identity. Stable national cultural identities are supported by affirmative education programs, that immigrants are assisted to enculturate into. In the absence of well coordinated cultural transition programs, immigrants cling together, and maintain their familiar cultures, in linguistically and musically isolated ghettoes. Since Australia has welcomed many immigrant communities, and will welcome many more in future, finding ways to work together, despite everyone’s past traumas and our cultural diversity, is crucial to maintaining Australian social coherence. Australia’s First Peoples are looking for, but not always finding, long term, trustworthy friendships with the immigrant communities they have Welcomed.
There are other reasons to ask these questions about over-attachment to foreign music cultures. Australian music fans are subject to constant media pressure from global media, to prefer imported music. Taylor Swift’s mass global fandom is only one example, among many. Australians often choose to listen to imported music. Fans of foreign music stars are usually unaware of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tracks, that are not necessarily registered on the apps they use, and are habitually tokenised on mainstream Australian radio playlists. Digital ghettoes flourish in Australia.
In Australia’s current social, cultural, economic, diplomatic and geographic situation, excluding equitable representation of Australian First Nations music from mainstream consumer playlists and apps is not reasonable, balanced, or constructive. No one is proposing to silence imported music altogether, but it is increasingly clear that exclusive, unbalanced consumption of foreign music supports overseas music markets, not Australian music or the Australian economy. This unbalanced consumer bias disadvantages the iconic Australian Indigenous song economy, and it offends Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, who have a right to sustain, revive and promote their songs. It also offends immigrant descendant Australians who have partnered with Australia’s First Peoples at their own cost, to forge recognizably Australian music genres. As my Dharawal Inuit colleague Sonya Holowell asked in her moving choral lament “Never Extinguished” – “how long! how long!” How long must we wait for justice, a fair hearing of our voices, and a better future? Another of Sonya’s Songs from the Heart pieces, “If You Can” casts a cynical eye on the hope of salvation, but concludes with the hope that the spark of fire in all Australian hearts will one day burst into a living flame.
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 resisteddraconian assimilativepolicies 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.
Well before the Uluru Statement from the Heart issued its call for Voice, Truth and Treaty, Australia’s iconic First Nations’ Treaty Call rang out in Aboriginal rallies and the media. In 2017 the Uluru Statement echoed this rally call in its proposal for a Makaratta Commission leading to an Agreement. In 2023, Australia is now, whatever the coming Voice Referendum outcome, moving on to a lasting peace Agreement. Music has played a huge part in Australia’s journey to Treaty, and Yothu Yindi’s famous Treaty Song will forever occupy an honoured place in this history. In all Australian First Nations communities, the right to speak and be heard in our own Indigenous voices goes hand in hand with working towards an honourable Treaty, based on Truth Telling. Yothu Yindi’s powerful Treaty song was crafted skilfully and ethically to promote peace, truth and justice in Australia. It did not criticise, accuse, tell lies, incite divisive race hatred, or provoke violent, divisive factionalism. No honest campaign for a true Peace Treaty ever does that. Yothu Yindi’s Treaty Call shows that, in Australia, as in other countries, well crafted, well performed, widely distributed music can exert a wise, steady, guiding influence on human decision making. When the Australian Paliament listens and responds to the proposals of a united, undivided First Nations Voice, an honourable Treaty will eventually be made, and for that reason, I’ve supported the Referendum Yes vote with my Noonakoort Karnya Respect chorus, my Enshrinement anthem, and A Better Future (on the Songs from the Heart CD at Hyperion Records, see link below).
In 2017 I composed my Kooranginy suite for Ensemble Offspring. At that time there were riots in Redfern, the Australian First Nations campaign for a Peace Treaty was under attack, and the revisionist terra nullius debate was still raging. I raised consciousness of the 1788 British Invasion of Australia by incorporating truth telling dialogues and calls for justice in Kooranginy. I followed this up in 2018 with five more pieces – Burradowi, Warangka Makialo, Wonthaggi, Kaya Mary and Mary Moorditj Ngaangk – which declare First Nations presence and perspectives, as it persists in two way Australian scenarios. I’ve used my music to urge factions divided by mischievous propaganda, to listen to the truth and resolve their differences. Polyphonic music that includes contrasting voices is the perfect vehicle for overcoming factionalism.
In March 2018 I had my first Total Knee Replacement operation, but I pushed on, and in November 2018 Burradowi, Warangka Makialo, Wonthaggi, Kaya Mary and Mary Moorditj Ngaangk, were performed by Ensemble Offspring and Dharawal Inuk soprano Sonya Holowell at the ANU School of Music Studio, and were included in a second 2018 Indigenous Composers Initiative concert at the ABC’s Eugene Goossens Hall. This completed my ICI Composer Internship at ANU. In 2019 I composed for Sydney Living Museums, the Royal Australian Navy Band, and The Song Company’s challenging Nineteen to the Dozen concert tour, producing Karlinkiri Hearth, a wind quintet that commemorates the discovery of an ancient Dharug Aboriginal Smoking Hearth at Parramatta, and a phonetic a capella bushland soundscape. These two works – Karlinkiri Hearth and Untitled, were recorded and premiered at the Australian Museum’s Songs of Home Exhibition, and the Joern Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House. I then enrolled in my current Postgraduate Composition course at ANU.
Over Christmas and New Year 2020 a series of massive bushfires, followed by smashing hailstorms, devastated Sydney and the Blue Mountains. Shocked by the terrible environmental destruction in the Blue Mountains near my home, I composed Gandangarragal, a choral piece for River City Voices, but the performances were cancelled due to Covid. On March 13 2020 Covid pandemic health restrictions were proclaimed in NSW and Canberra, and strict lockdowns were enforced. These travelling and performance restrictions posed huge challenges for creative work of any kind, including my craft of composition. However, we Australian composers and musicians are a tough breed. Despite tragic deaths of family members and friends, we rose to the challenge pragmatically, by providing mutual support, and maintaining disciplined safeguards and health routines. In 2020 my composition output actually increased; I completed four Coursework units at Masters level, drafted three new instrumental compositions, and revised four earlier drafts. This increased output continued in 2021 and 2022, as I completed my major Portfolio commission (43 min of a capella SSAATTBB choral music for The Song Company’s mainstage production Songs from the Heart), Minninup Pool, a string quartet, Gathering Yams, a chamber orchestra piece, and Karollini, a set of ten Australian carols. AProf Kim Cunio, AProf. Christopher Sainsbury, AProf Samantha Bennett, Dr. Alexander Hunter, Dr. Thomas Laue, Dr. Sally Walker, harpist Emily Granger and Dr. Scott Davie and my commissioners have encouraged and supported my composition work throughout and after the Covid pandemic restrictions.
This Christmas my long awaited set of ten Australian carols, Karollini, will be released on Hyperion Records. Recorded under my direction on December 21-22 2022 at 2 MBS FM by Antony Pitts and Tonus Australis, with audio engineer Joseph Goddard, these two way Australian carols were birthed from 2002 to 2008 as small “seed” guitar songs as I was singing as a Cantor at St Patricks Cathedral Parramatta, and simultaneously consolidating my Indigenous cultural connections to Country through reconnection studies in Australian Aboriginal song making, history, culture and law at Sydney’s Eora and Tranby Aboriginal Colleges. With ongoing composition mentoring from the ANU School of Music, I’ve arranged these carols as SATB and piano choral pieces. In October 2023 Parramatta’s River City Voices Choir, conducted by Dr. Sarah Penicka Smith, will perform several of my carols in the annual Ngarra Burria First Peoples Composers concert.
Musical composition, in modernist “Western” terms, is often thought of as a set of selected sound objects arranged in patterns that elite audiences can digest and comment on scientifically or technologically, without reference to human cultures or social justice. Colonial music education systems based on Western music theory, now integrated with AI composing software, also take this jigsaw puzzle approach to music making. Australian “new music” and “art music” composers often experiment with inharmonic noise, electronic sounds, and performance techniques that display the virtuosic skills of performers. My conventionally scored Indigenous music is traditionally based, but I am still fully aware of recent innovations in sound generation and their integration with vocal and instrumental musical performance.
The narrow stream of experimental music composition that fully funded “new music” groups compose for, supports an elite global “new music” market. Therefore, by its very nature, it is unable, and rather unlikely, to produce uniquely Australian music. In the field of Australian composition this marketed global music agenda is aggressively prioritised, by preferential Australian government funding of virtuoso immigrant performing groups. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, if Australia provided sufficiently stable, generous support for its own uniquely Australian music genres. But it does not. Unlike China, Russia, the USA, the UK, Germany, France, Mexico and India, Australia does not prioritise funding of its Indigenous musics and musicians, over and above immigrant and experimental musics. In fact, the opposite is true. Australia’s cultural presence and identity in global forums has been unreasonably diminished by this cultural cringe.
At present, Australia is in the throes of birthing its own unique musical genres. The Australian population, as a whole, has an opportunity to define and consolidate what our own music is, in our Australian places, in our Australian times. This is a personal, communal and national task, and documenting how we approach and achieve it, how we “do” music, is important. In doing this compositional task, the cultural guidance of Australia’s First Nations must rightfully take priority. There is no lack of great Indigenous Australian music in Australia. As the 21st century dawned, a cultural breakthrough, spurred on by the Reconciliation Movement and partnerships between Australia’s First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians, inspired many memorable Australian classics, such as the songs of the great Yolgnu singers Gurrumul and Mandawuy Yunupingu, and the music of Uncle Jimmy Chi, Uncle Archie Roach, Auntie Ruby Hunter, Uncle Jimmy Little, and Uncle Ken Carmody. These are just a few of hundreds of Aboriginal Elders who are famous in Aboriginal communities, but are not nearly as well known as they should be, outside those communities. Their stories and songs should be taught in every Australian school.
At present, Australia is in the throes of birthing its own unique musical genres. This transition means that Australians, as a whole people, need to define what our music is, and is not, for our Australian places, and for our Australian times. Not that we should set this definition in stone, for music making is an ever developing personal, communal and national task. But every country’s music has clearly recognizable features, and uniquely Australian music is no exception. Documenting how we’re working this out, how we “do” music in Australian places and periods, is just as important – probably more so – as studying how Beethoven made his music in Europe. In doing this compositional task, the cultural guidance of Australia’s First Nations must rightfully take priority. There’s no lack of Indigenous Australian music in Australia, and the cultural breakthrough that has occurred, spurred on by the Reconciliation Movement and partnerships between Australia’s First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians, has facilitated many constructive musical projects recently. Immigrant origin Australian composers like Paul Stanhope, Joe Twist, and Nigel Westlake have collaborated with with First Peoples communities and composers like William Barton, Christopher Sainsbury, Deborah Cheetham Fraillon and Lou Bennett, to produce uniquely Australian music.
What the transitional Australian music of our generation is, and what it could become in future Australian generations, actually has nothing to do with other places, and little to do with the histories of those places. Australian musicians of all origins are gathering resources, in order to forge and voice the soul of a nation, and to do so, we are increasingly adhering to and redefining our own places, our own times, in song. We may gather from foreign traditions, but the music we make here, in this place, should respect and connect indissolubly to the land that sustains us. Revealing this continent’s history, accepting the guidance of wise, visionary Indigenous leaders, and singing up Country, is our starting point. Western definitions of “composition” and “music” don’t sit easily with uniquely Australian ways of songmaking. They originated in faraway places, were imported to our Country by colonisers, and have an obligation to adapt to and serve whichever Country they are now required to indwell. Indigenous people call this sitting on Country, and the Bible calls it indwelling, entering in to the essence of a place. In Australian Indigenous cultures, our songs come from and voice our Country, our culture, our history and our law. When we sing, we voice our Country, which gifts us our songs.
Looking beyond the ever-so-long-coming Australian First Nations Voice Referendum, I hope to see Australia’s wonderful First Nations’ music cultures more diligently promoted. With better, more reliable marketing support, enhanced media presence of groups like the Tiwi Strong Women and the Ntaria Women’s Choir would quickly redeem and sustain Australia’s flagging national reputation. Short term grants are not enough – these amazing musicians are proven Living National Treasures who deserve ongoing, full time incomes. The human and Indigenous rights of Australian First Nations are greatly respected and recognised in UN and global forums. Reliable government support for their work, and relieving them from competing for short term grant income, would enhance Australia’s international standing. The great advantage of uniquely Australian music making is its easy, speedy dissemination; there’s no reason to refuse or delay funded production and marketing of this music.
PM Anthony Albanese’s acknowledgement of Australia’s First Peoples’ right to justice and a better future, echoed the Australian electorate’s endorsement of the full 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Since this was mandated by the outcome of the 2022 Australian election, the Uluru Statement must be implemented in full. Continent-wide, economy-boosting support for First Nations led music reforms is a top priority of the new Australian National Arts Policy. This prioritised agenda should be enacted globally, nationally, regionally, and at grass roots level, in all Australian schools and Universities. Just and equitable Australian government promotion of First Nations’ musics does not – as some have claimed – pose any threat to established immigrant Australian musics, which are all well established, generously funded, and highly competitive by corporate interests.
Introducing cultural reviews and equitable rebalancing of Australian school music curricula and music performance repertoires that have previously prioritised foreign music pedagogies, is not a difficult task. It doesn’t mean erasing immigrant music cultures, as First Nations communities agree that all musics have a right to exist and flourish. Australia’s First Nations’ musicians have demonstrated their willingness to work collaboratively and productively with immigrant Australian musicians for many years.
However, Australia’s immigrant musics alone are, by definition, incapable of providing the Australian state with a unique musico-cultural identity, because their content promotes non-Australian cultures. Immigrant music pedagogies and repertoires are therefore not entitled to exclusive monopoly rights that minimise or exclude Australia’s First Nations musics and languages from Australian schools and Universities. Australian First Nations music cultures, and their expert tribal and contemporary practitioners, should be centrally honoured and promoted in Australian music industry systems, not sidelined or exploited. Australian First Peoples musics are central to Australia’s global identity, and this brilliant, ecology based music, that supports sustainability, should be placed at the very centre of a uniquely Australian ecological music pedagogy.
Centralizing Australian First Nations songmaking in Australian schools and Universities is not yet a reality. Although Australian First Nations songmaking is booming in 2023, foreign music repertoires are still encouraged to predominate in Australian schools and concert halls. The influential Quadrant journal is still publishing indignant letters from conservative Caucasian listeners, who complain about invasive broadcasts of Australian Indigenous music contaminating classical playlists. In Canberra, attacks on the full implementation of the First Nations Voice, via affirmation of the full 2017 Uluru Statement, are confusing, and may impede, the proposal and enactment of just solutions. And on the government registry of new Australian compositions, Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander compositions are still obstinately misclassified as “Non-Traditional.” This is inexcusable, since Australia’s Native Title law courts have, in hundreds of cases, admitted that the contemporary (as well as the ancient) songs of the oldest First Nations cultures in the world are indisputable evidence of an ancient, continuous, firmly emplaced artistic tradition. However many Australian government officials seem to be obstinately ignorant of this fact.
Dharawal Soprano and composer Sonya Holowell, and Biripi opera tenor Elias Wilson, are established Australian Aboriginal singers with magnificent, rich voices, professional networks, and strong community connections. In September-October 2022 Holowell and Wilson performed the two lead roles in The Song Company’s successful tour of Songs from the Heart, its passionate musical response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The production received rave reviews from Classikon’s Pepe Newton (see link below) and Sydney Arts Guide’s Lynne Lancaster.
The official Aboriginal Consultant for this production, which was highly commended by Gadigal Elder and Director of ANU’s Tjabal Centre Aunty Anne Martin, was Darug Aboriginal Elder Leanne Tobin. The Song Company’s live audio recording of the Cell Block Theatre production of Songs from the Heart includes 17 tracks composed by Elizabeth Sheppard and 6 tracks composed by Sonya Holowell. The tracks were mixed and mastered by Antony Pitts, assisted by ABC Producer Stephen Adams, and released internationally by 1equalmusic.com via Hyperion, a division of Universal Music, on April 7 2023.
Over the last forty years or so, I’ve witnessed the escalating incursion of AI (Artificial Intelligence) into the domain of music created by humans. When AI began to generate music content, music scholars compared generated AI composition content to content made by composers and performers. As AI imitates human creations more and more closely, it’s becoming difficult to distinguish AI content from human content. Some believe that Large Language System AIs trained in all Westerners know about music, can already surpass humans in intelligent music composition. So do any differences remain between virtual AI composition and real time human music composition? Indigenous song systems based on evolving, adaptive oral systems of place have much to contribute to this ongoing debate.
The AI revolution has changed the way many humans engage with sound. Like written music, printed music, and musical instruments, AI is inert, not alive, but it imitates the organic creative strategies of living beings so well, and so rapidly, that it appears to be alive. So in Western cultures, instruments and scores are seen as an extension of human agency, with performers controlling sonic instrumental output by reading scores that channel composers’ intentions. The instrument is not the music, the score is not the music, the technology is not the music: these are powerful intermediaries, skilfully manipulated to activate passive performative codes that output expressive sound designs. So Western instruments, music scores, and their virtual counterparts, can be said to incorporate preconceived musical, and sometimes interpretive, AI algorithms.
So in contemporary Western music, and in Indigenous composition, AI software introduces a fourth actor into the aural / oral or written compositional mix – a generative, rule-based, invisible AI algorithm. AI algorithms are often derived from standardised “global music” genres. This AI genre standardisation renders AI algorithms incapable of imitating realtime human composition that is localised (connected to place) and personal. An AI algorithm may be created by one person, or a collaborative group, who usually maintain anonymity, and may blur their creative boundaries.
New forms of music copyright attribution are being developed to protect the rights of AI developers, as opposed to the rights of AI users, publishers and performers of AI generated music. The agency of Western music creation has rapidly shifted towards AI developers, and away from passive, non-creative AI users. So for composers, screen musicians and sound designers, it’s become essential to avoid passive AI user engagement with AI, and engage actively with AI systems as a creative AI developer. To comprehend and adapt to this cataclysmic change, it’s useful to review how AI entered our daily lives, and how it may or may not interact with non-Western Indigenous musical systems.
How should composers approach and relate to AI in Africa and Australia? In these places, all singing voices, instruments, and written inscriptions (whether the songmaker is conscious of this, or not) are embedded in complex Indigenous contexts. In Africa and Australia, sounding Country includes dancing, speaking and singing in channelled ancestral spirit voices, in songs received from ever-evolving, organic, living Countries. The spiritual power of Indigenous Australian music comes from this realtime organic integration with living Countries.
Guarding against invasive external AI corruption of the living, organic Voice of Country, is a custodial obligation for Indigenous peoples. To communicate this important cultural obligation, in 2004 I co-composed a song with Anmatjere/Arrernte singer-songwriter Rhubee Neale, called “Keep Guard of our Dreams.” At that time we had just been introduced to computer composition systems, and we were using Logic to mix and master our studio tracks on iMac computers, but we were also taught to handwrite our song scores, and were expected to sing from them in concerts. In 2006 Rhubee and I sang “Keep Guard of our Dreams” at an Eora Aboriginal College concert, at Petersham RSL Club. In 2007 we sang it at our Aboriginal Song Seminar at Reconciliation for Western Sydney in the Karabi Centre, Wentworthville NSW.
In September and October 2022 Dharawal Inuk soprano Sonya Holowell and Biripi opera tenor Elias Wilson sang the eight part SSAATTBB arrangement of this song with The Song Company, as part of the Songs from the Heart concert, in response to the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. It reached a huge audience when it was toured to Canberra, Parramatta, Newcastle, Wollongong and Sydney, and was broadcast on the Australian Digital Concert Hall. If it had been composed with an AI algorithm in 2004, it may have reached the charts, been recorded on a label, and heard more widely, before 2022. But it wasn’t composed with any kind of AI, it was composed in real time by two Australian women who poured out our love for our Country, in a small rehearsal room, strumming chords on a guitar, singing, picking out a melody on an old piano, and scribbling on a scrap of manuscript paper. In 2004, we knew this song was great, but we didn’t realise that AI pseudo-cultural control of radio playlist codes meant that it would probably be permanently silenced. I can’t help but wonder how many real time, living Australian songs have been silenced, and consigned to media playlist bins, because of bungled AI music coding that censors music and languages that don’t conform to algorithmic formulae.
In my Australian female experience, the escalating AI invasion of written and oral human music composition began around 1988, with improved access to software programs of two kinds. Before this, only small groups of academic music researchers – who were mostly men – had privileged access to this technology, and funding to compose using it. I was still using a tape recorder well into the 1990s. In global Western music systems, the first kind of AI compostion software (Finale, Sibelius) imitated hand written music scores, and the second kind (DAWs like CoolEdit, Cubase, Reason, Logic and ProTools) offered transposable chord pattern graphs, keyed to beats, and overlaid by recorded (but rarely previously handwritten) melody tracks. But since the DAW, not the human composer, “wrote” the first version of the music in binary code, studios began to claim mechanical song copyrights in recordings, unless the artist asserted their copyright by requiring the studio to sign a Master Release form. Notating composers who prioritised melody and interlocking polyphonic patterns bought Finale and / or Sibelius, while oral musicians who improvised tunes over chord patterns and used chord charts, found DAWs an easier, quicker, and much cheaper option. The advantage of notating with digital software was that, if used correctly, it was copyright friendly. Composers skilled in notating music could write their original scores by hand to establish their prior copyright, before entering their notated scores into licensed software, or recording their tracks. At the same time, musicians from non-Western cultures (e.g. India, Samoa, China) were translating non-Western notations and previously un-notated sound clusters into software that (unlike Western scores, DAW piano rolls and spectral studio tracks) integrated oral music systems with ornamented, expressively coded, modal sound fields.
When I used Finale Notes in the 1990s, I applied my acquired Western music handwriting skills to producing and printing digital scores of my own songs, on my Mac SE computer. The Finale scores I produced were not as sophisticated or as flexible as my handwritten scores or my graphic song charts; they were limited by the tasks and signs offered by the Finale software. In 1988 I’d explored acoustic spectral analysis of song using MacSpeech, by measuring sung vowel and phoneme durations and transitions, but MacSpeech didn’t graph sung pitch or intonations adequately, so its usefulness for song research was limited. I also tinkered with Hypertext, and made networks of linked files and folders. I replaced my manual typewriter, carbon sheets and roneo with a word processor, then a computer keyboard. By 1989 Australian composers like my contemporaries Martin Wesley-Smith and Barry Conyngham were grappling in earnest with the creative arts potential, and the limitations, of experimental AI computer music programs.
In the mid 1990s I was exploring the acoustics of pitched sung vowels via digital recordings, and Plomp’s European research into the mechanics of the singing voice had taken off. Linguists at Sydney University used acoustic speech research findings to develop AI speech systems that joined segmented vowels and consonants into clunky words and sentences. Their AI speech models had distressingly flat intonation and wobbly phoneme transitions, but were nevertheless tested on astonished commuters, in hilarious Sydney railway announcements. Overseas, in France, Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM acoustic music research centre, which I visited in 1993, was attempting to harness the power of computers to music creation and sound design, with various degrees of success. After observing these distant, costly projects, I decided to prioritise my own cultural heritages, and engage with AI and computer music only insofar as it was useful to my country-based living music goals.
As a trained church Cantor in the 1990s and 2000s, I worked with the interface of texts and neume formulae in Gregorian chant and Western hymns and anthems, singing in Greek, Latin and English. I studied how this chanted and harmonized interface had been adapted and simplified for metrical congregational performance, by Reformation musicians like Luther, Calvin, Merbecke, and the Bach family, who contributed many chant-based metricized hymns, chorales and psalm settings to the Scottish Psalter and English hymnbooks. This tradition of rearranging texts to metricized melodic formulae, and synchronizing accentuated lyrics in parallel languages, is part of my Scottish musical heritage. Familiarity with the rhythmic, accentuation and intonation patterns of any language makes expressive melodic text setting possible, so I can, with cultural guidance, apply this skill to text setting in Indigenous languages.
Like modal chant and tonal music systems, AI organizes formulaic fragments into layers, to develop new music. However, I have chosen not to use random, contextless collections of sound objects to assemble songs; instead I rely on intuitive, context driven reception of lyrical song melodies from Country. Some call this dreaming, but it is not an unconscious process. Like chant, AI algorithmic music is limited by the preconceived formulae and criteria that underlie it. If an AI program designed by an outsider lacks cultural content from my Country, or is derived from foreign music concepts, or doesn’t speak my inherited languages, or is not familiar with the birds and creatures of my lands, and doesn’t know about my people or our laws, how can it walk with, hear or sing the melodies my Country gives me? But I can certainly develop my own country-based AI codes and algorithms, create my own sound samples, and integrate them into my songs, as a self-determined Indigenous AI developer. Many Indigenous Australians are harnessing audio and video recording, AI resources and app coding to serve our cultures, in original ways. Drawing on external AI resources is unnecessary for us, since passive AI music, while easy and cheap to produce in comparison to the demanding, costly effort of creating and recording “real” human music, lacks the infinite, musing malleability and deep, rich cultural context of humanised, meaningful, emotional, language driven Indigenous music.
The intersection of algorithmic AI machine music with human music making has escalated at astonishing speed. From an Indigenous worldview, the genre coded sound objects that AI apps are spitting out, fulfil market expectations, but lack culturally grounded depth and richness. The current AI music genre paradigms are not uniquely Australian; most are imported from overseas. Australian Indigenous composers have begun to work with AI systems as developers, to retain control of the coding and marketing of our cultural musics. Traditionally, the only way a song can be birthed by an Australian Country is still through a human Songmaker embedded in Country. So as an Australian composer, I draw on the live, organic intersection between my trained sensory perceptions, the living inhabitants and features of my Country, and the stories of my human communities, as the primary sources of my creative songmaking practice.
Nevertheless, it’s totally clear that AI systems are not going to disappear. As long as AI is managed ethically, it offers amazing opportunities, but passive virtual embedment in AI systems (as opposed to active, organic real time embedment in Country) can be socially divisive, alienating, disempowering, addictive, and downright unhealthy. Digital obsessions have created social divides between generations, and widened the gap between the haves and have nots. People with financially privileged access to passive AI software and virtual gaming systems see no harm in boasting of their technological superiority over people with no access, or limited access.
It’s likely that indulgence in passive AI systems and virtual gaming will never be universally beneficial, unless manufacturers, in collaboration with governments, introduce rules to make it so. Until then, a substantial risk to human diversity and musical evolution exists. Addiction to AI systems that incite social division and conflict, and promote alienation from geographical and cultural contexts of origin, may develop. This risk is enhanced when AI systems promote passive attachment to globalised, regionally marketed music genres, and ignore the contextual needs of local populations. Researchers who create and demonstrate AI music systems need to think about the social effects that dislocated AI systems, and the genre coded music made with them, may have on clients, and on those without AI access.
At present, the primary driver of Australian composer success and playlist track selection in the AI environment, is how much money is made. This is determined not by live gig / concert income, but by how many times a track is played. Ethical obligations to enliven and care for human societies, plants, animals and community environments, by funnelling AI track income back to traditional landowners, are rarely met or promoted. Generating quick income from cobbled together mashups that attract viral click swarms, is considered legitimate. As long as a song can be slotted into a globalised music genre, and meets market demands, it ticks the AI box.
The AI exclusion of local music cultures from standardised global music codes appears to be driving a massively expanded cultural suppression campaign. Conformity to culturally impoverished AI criteria is rapidly replacing the obligation to compose ethical, altruistic music that promotes justice, aims to save threatened peoples, species and languages, warns against excess, reproves crime, or praises worthy things. Costly abstract sound designs stripped of cultural associations, with no discernable value apart from attention-grabbing innovation, are warmly praised for their nihilistic absence of attachment, fleeting audiovisual displays, unregulated extravagance, or eclectic pluralism. This utilitarian approach to music creation is, at the moment, a hugely profitable strategy, but there is little social responsibility, and certainly no future for humanity, in it.
Prioritising personally profitable, socially careless music criteria in AI is also reducing human attention spans, scrambling meaningful lyrics, and diminishing human hearing capacity. These are real risks that could be addressed and guarded against, with wise AI governance and expanded, free live music development programs for all ages. If, as musicians and composers, we aim to develop music that sustains healthy, intelligent human societies, that people can hear and respond to, we need to find ways to balance healthy, active developer interactions with AI, so it’s used responsibly to create peaceful co-existence, and isn’t permitted to foster hatred, or degrade human welfare and flourishing.
When it comes to racist apartheid in churches, Australia’s clearly a winner. Have a look at Australian Church hymnbooks. The official hymnbooks of all Australian Churches may have a token Aboriginal hymn (or two, or unusually, three). This token inclusion is often cited as proof that no racism exists in Australian churches. Indignant pastors, when accused of musical racism, may divert attention to the African or black American hymn repertoire, because they think of all coloured people as one homogenous group, and so they’re incapable of valuing our many Australian Aboriginal Church musics as unique repertoires. No Aboriginal psalm settings or liturgical chants are ever included in Australian Church hymnbooks, so to the casual overseas visitor, and to Australia’s large immigrant population, it’s obvious that those churches who have intentionally edited out the rich repertoires of Australian Aboriginal Church music, are deeply and selectively racist.
This ingrained racism has historical roots in the British Empire colonial mission era, when conversion to Christianity was linked with an all-pervasive campaign to civilize, enslave and assimilate the Australian First Nations populations that remained from the killing times. In the colonial era, Government bans on speaking and singing all Australian Aboriginal languages worked effectively to silence traditional Aboriginal music everywhere. That era has now passed, but malignant echoes of these inhumane bans on Aboriginal languages still infect many Australian State school language policies and curricula. Official over-promotion of English as the Australian lingua franca has, to a large extent, legitimized musical, conversational, and literary racism in Australian Churches. And paradoxically, immigrant languages are accorded privileged status in Australian Churches and schools, over and above Australian Aboriginal languages.
In 2017 the passing of the NSW Aboriginal Languages Bill opened a door to including Aboriginal languages in NSW school curricula. Revival of local Aboriginal languages such as Dharug, Wiradjuri, Gundungurra, Gambayngirr, Gamilaroi, Dharawal and Dhurga, on a large scale, suddenly became possible. Many NSW Aboriginal communities, inspired and encouraged by the example of the Aranda / Pitjantjatjara language Songkeepers Choir, are now reviving their languages and promoting their unique musical genres. New South Wales has led the way in changing the repressive legislation that banned Australian Aboriginal languages in our schools. If all Australian Churches follow this example, and begin promoting Aboriginal languages in parishes, and including Aboriginal hymns, psalms and liturgical music in their worship repertoires, the overt racism shamefully displayed in most Australian Churches every Sunday, may begin to recede.