It's been a while since my last blog. Over the last six weeks, I had been struck with another brutish bought of fatigue. While western medicine had frustratingly little to say about it, my recovery has been led by reiki, yoga, acupuncture and eastern medicine. Being child of mixed Chinese and European heritage, I feel very grateful to have grown up with both eastern and western philosophies and perspectives. I feel supported by both. Both feel like home to me. I am happy to have regained my energy and revel in my freely flowing chi!
Next week is NAIDOC week in Australia – a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture that will run from November 8 – 15. I'm particularly excited about the Djari Project – a collaboration between Galpu songman Jason Guwanbal Gurriwiwi and Netanela Mizrahi from the Darwin Symphony Orchestra. Together with a chamber ensemble and the Young Adelaide Voices choir, this powerful cross-cultural project unites musical influence from Galpu, Middle-Eastern and Western Classical traditions. Songs are sung in an inspiring array of languages, including Yolngu, Hebrew and English. My dear friends Kate Stephens and Nick Yates were also significantly involved in the creation of this work, and I continue to be inspired by their contributions to Australian musical life. The entire Djari Project album can be heard here.
I recently watched the beautiful 2017 doco The Songkeepers, which tells the story of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir and their tour of Germany. They performed the Lutheran hymns of their upbringing, sung in Pitjantjatjara and Arrernte translations. The voices, stories and spirit of these singers is riveting and their humour and joy in song is incredibly life-affirming. It is also interesting and heartening to see a positive legacy left by white missionaries interacting with Indigenous peoples. Often missionary projects in Australia, such as those at Cummeragunja in NSW or Coranderrk in Victoria, became centres of cultural dispossession and destruction. The Songkeepers demonstrates a beautiful exception to this.
I was able to see this first hand in 2008, when I spent some time in Amata - a remote community in this same region of the Central Desert. I was part of a cultural exchange to the Anangu-Pitjantjatjara-Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands about 500kms south-west of Alice Springs. The local language is Pitjantjatjara and my fellow visiting pirimpa (whitefellas) had to learn the rudiments of it to get by.
Pitjantjatjara language and culture remain strong in these communities. They are the pillars on which their resilience is built. The local arts centre is home to a number of significant painters and the regular regional footy carnivals (played on a bare earth oval) bring friends and relatives together from as far afield as Pukatja (Ernabella), Mimili and Docker River. Walta wiru – family is great.
These towns originally grew from Lutheran and Presbyterian missions. However, the missionaries in Arrernte and APY communities never banned the use of local languages. Instead, they translated hymns and the Bible into local languages, helping to uphold and preserve them rather than destroy them. Neither did they insist that tribal people wear unfamiliar western clothes or renounce their traditional practices. One choir member in The Songkeepers even describes how the missionaries protected half-caste children, keeping them with their families and away from the state-sanctioned kidnapping that was the Stolen Generations.
I saw that legacy in Amata. The local school embraced bilingual education and kids of 10 years old spoke English and Pitjantjatjara fluently, code-switching with ease. For the most part, locals held strong Christian beliefs alongside their traditional Tjukurpa or Dreaming. God was all around them, in everything, infused into all things. A person is considered indivisible with their spiritual totem, so that a person may point to a mountain and say “That tjala (honey-ant) is my Grandfather.” This is why the destruction of sacred sites like the Djab Wurring trees in Victoria or Juukan Gorge in WA are such appalling tragedies. They are both devastating cultural and personal losses.
Songlines connect tjukurpa across the country, encoding both sacred and practical knowledge. In a similar way, the hymns in The Songkeepers connect this wonderful choir of desert people to German villagers on the other side of the world. When the choir sings in Pitjantjatjara and the German audience, recognising the hymn, joins in in German, there is an overwhelming sense connection and unity – of being one big human family. Walta wiru!
Singing together can do that. Music has that power. When we sing together, we connect with each other. We resonate with ancient songs, echoing generations of singing humans who have gone before us.
And by God, sing! For nothing. Singing
Is origin. Out of that modulated trembling, cosmic
And rooted in the primordial, quantum and concealed
In the temporal, all forms come to be.
Each thing, born of the myriad in concert, is one song
Variously sung. Each thing flourishes by singing
And returns to vanish into song.
Li-Young Lee, from his poem The Undressing