Aboriginal song as non-traditional research?

By Dr Clint Bracknell

Recordings of endangered music are especially important to cultural sustainability in Aboriginal communities because of inherent connections between Aboriginal songs, language, knowledge and the well-being of people and Country. Since colonisation, an estimated 98% of Aboriginal song traditions have been lost in Australia [i] where just thirteen of more than two hundred Aboriginal languages are strongly spoken today [ii]. Researchers and observers have captured some songs performed in such traditions, with much of this material stored in archives such as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) collection. Fittingly, the repatriation of archival song material to Aboriginal communities is now a common research practice in Australia amongst ethnomusicologists.

Research projects on Aboriginal song can function to enhance the vitality of local Aboriginal performance cultures by providing access to archival material and funding to support practice and performance.

In communities where few senior people remember songs, archival records can have a fundamental role in informing efforts to revive and perform repertoire. Given that various disruptive – rather than supportive – factors associated with colonisation have adversely impacted on the vitality of many longstanding Indigenous musical traditions, the focused revitalisation of such idioms is most productively understood as the reinstatement of cultural continuity. Research projects on Aboriginal song can function to enhance the vitality of local Aboriginal performance cultures by providing access to archival material and funding to support practice and performance. Singers at Wadeye and the Daly region in the Northern Territory utilise digital song databases – produced as the result of research – to practice songs and glean inspiration to create new repertoire [iii]. Increased access to archival recordings and performance opportunities has also bolstered community involvement in Junba performances in the Kimberly, Western Australia and Arrernte and Warlpiri song performance in the Northern Territory [iv].

Moreover, in recent decades, Aboriginal researchers – including Joseph Neparrŋa Gumbula, Marcia Langton, Linda Payi Ford and Steven Wantarri Jampijinpa Patrick – have worked as Chief Investigators on ARC research projects dealing with archival songs. Responsibilities to home communities often motivate these projects, which frequently aim to ensure cultural sustainability and the maintenance of intangible cultural heritage. I am working on one such project with my uncle Kim Scott and mentor Linda Barwick in partnership with Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Inc. – an Aboriginal cultural organisation based in Albany, Western Australia – seeking to find ways to use archival recordings to encourage the recirculation, performance and vitality of Aboriginal song in the urban/rural context of Western Australia’s south coast. Research outputs from Aboriginal song projects often include scholarly articles, chapters and books, mostly based on the results of linguistic and musical analysis or advances in archival dissemination strategies/technologies. While this enquiry is certainly valuable, the main point – in my mind – for projects on Aboriginal song is to help get the right people together and fund the necessary time and space so singing can happen.

... the main point - in my mind – for projects on Aboriginal song is to help get the right people together and fund the necessary time and space so singing can happen.

This can be hard to quantify as research, but it certainly requires problem solving, innovation and tricky intellectual labour. Furthermore, it is no easy task for singers operating in longstanding Aboriginal traditions to master and deliver songs, embodying the social and ecological connections they create. Considering how creative research is currently judged in terms of impact and prestige, I wonder how the academy will cope with eventually being asked to consider performances of Aboriginal song on Country as non-traditional research. In a daring and unprecedented move, Catherine Ellis appointed senior Pitjantjatjara songmen as senior lecturers at the University of Adelaide in the late 1970s. I wonder what these men may have thought about the academy referring to the practice-based research they had been doing for generations as ‘non-traditional’!

 
[i] Aaron Corn, “Now and in the Future: The Role of the National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia in Sustaining Indigenous Music and Dance Traditions,” MUSICultures 39/1 (2012): 231–50.

[ii] Doug Marmion, Kazuko Obata and Jakelin Troy. Community, Identity, Wellbeing: The Report of the Second National Indigenous Languages Survey (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2014).

[iii] Allan Marett, Linda Barwick and Lysbeth Ford, “For the sake of a song: Wangga Songmen and their Repertories” (2014), http://wangga.library.usyd.edu.au; Linda Barwick, Allan Marett, Michael Walsh, Joe Blythe, Nick Reid and Lysbeth Ford “Wadeye Song Database” (2013), http://sydney.edu.au/arts/indigenous_song/wadeye/.

[iv] Sally Treloyn and Rona Googninda Charles, “Repatriation and Innovation in and out of the Field: The Impact of Legacy Recordings on Endangered Song-Dance Traditions and Ethnomusicological Research”, in Research, Records and Responsibility, edited by Amanda Harris, Nicholas Thieberger and Linda Barwick (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2015); Myfany Turpin and Rachel Perkins, “The Arrernte Women’s Music Camp”, in Recirculating Songs: Revitalising the Singing Practices of Indigenous Australia, edited by James Wafer and Myfany Turpin (Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, 2016); Aaron Corn and Stephen Patrick, “Pulyaranyi: New Educational Contexts for Transferring Warlpiri Knowledge”, UNESCO Observatory Journal 4/2 (2015): 1–27.


Dr Clint Bracknell is a senior lecturer in ethnomusicology and contemporary music at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, The University of Sydney. He is active in researching the sustainability of Aboriginal Australian song and the continued global impact of popular music while simultaneously maintaining a program of creative research as a musician, songwriter and sound designer. His Aboriginal family from the south-east coast of Western Australia refer to their clan as ‘Wirlomin Noongar’.