For millennia, song has been the principal conveyor of language and story in Aboriginal culture. Thanks to a visionary project hatched only a couple of years ago, it is now set to play a pivotal role in the preservation and revival of languages.
The Song Peoples Sessions has thus far handed a lifeline to two endangered northern Australian tongues, and it’s hoped that the template conceived by Patrick McCloskey, to bring together contemporary indigenous singer-songwriters with traditional song people from their clans to create new music and conserve the old, can be applied to other communities around the country.
In the interim, Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu/Together We Are Strong looks as though it will generate at least as much interest and as many accolades as the ARIA-nominated double CD that last year launched the Song Peoples series. Winanjjara, which teamed Warren H Williams with the Warumungu Songmen of the Barkly/Tennant Creek region, put the focus on the language of the country singer’s paternal grandmother. The second release has Shellie Morris performing in tandem with the Borroloola Songwomen of Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria country in the Yanyuwa tongue of her grandmother’s family that is spoken fluently these days by less than a dozen people.
The format is the same for both albums. CD1 in each pair has the contemporary artists creating fresh forms of cultural expression in collaboration with the elders, under the expert eye of ARIA Award-winning music producer and sound engineer Tim Cole, who also mixed and mastered both of the Song Peoples’ CDs. The second CD on both albums has an anthropological bent, focusing exclusively on the delivery of song cycles in time-honored fashion.
The principal disc on Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu involves the utilization of ambient keyboard pads and judicious electronic beats meshing with strings and percussion. This atmospheric platform allows Shellie Morris’s soaring opera and gospel-trained voice and the otherworldly harmonies of the song women to combine quite beautifully in celebration of stories, melodies and rhythms informed by her ancestral clan.
The symbiosis is sublime in songs such as ‘Jiwarrmanji’ [The Wind Is Blowing] and ‘Ngabujiyu a-Kurija’, a song honoring the memory of Morris’s late grandmother. Both tracks evoke an emotional response similar to that engendered by Gurrumul’s albums. CD2 comprises no fewer than 58 short tracks containing traditional song poetry recorded by the 11-piece Borroloola Songwomen.
In recent years there have been a number of high caliber collaborations between contemporary white Australian musicians and traditional indigenous singers — 2009’s Paul Grabowsky driven Crossing Roper Bar being a prime example — but none has been as ground-breaking or as significant as the government and NGO-funded Song Peoples Sessions albums. As executive producer Patrick McCloskey has observed: “Many of these old song people might only be around for another 15 to 20 years. Already a lot of songs have been lost, so there is an increasing urgency to record songs.” The Sessions’ mastermind argues that song people are the most important custodians of culture in most Aboriginal communities. “The singers often say the painting and the patterns don’t exist without them, they don’t exist without the songs. The song is the thing that binds it all together.”
Musical director Tim Cole, who has helped produce such acclaimed indigenous albums as Frank Yamma’s Countryman, claims the Song Peoples Sessions is a model for all future cross-cultural projects to follow. “From Patrick’s ground work to the execution of the sessions, the thoroughness of research, language details, respect to the community, ownership over the songs, and royalties, always the community has come first.”
For Darwin-based singer-songwriter Shellie Morris, who was adopted by a white family and raised in Sydney, the project was genuinely life changing. “To be reconnected with my Aboriginal family and to sing in my grandmother’s language is one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” declares the dual National Indigenous Music Awards [NIMA] ‘Female Musician of the Year’ recipient. “The album reiterates our story in our language, a dying language. Now every child in Borroloola, regardless of their clan roots, sings those songs. So much thought went into the music around those traditional songs. It was like holding the most precious gift ever.”
Morris, who has performed alongside such legendary artists as John Cale and Sinead O’Connor, was busy touring internationally with the Black Arm Band when the project was first raised. She knew she’d be making an album with her family but had no inkling that it would be done entirely in language. A background conducting workshops in remote communities helped her rise to the challenge. As she says: “I had learned to sing in many other languages other than my own.” However, it was no easy task. First, Morris had to fully understand the stories before writing new stories that matched the ones in the traditional songs. Then she had to get them translated into Yanyuwa and learn the language before finally recording the re-worked songs. She acknowledges the assistance of Melbourne anthropologist Professor John Bradley, a fluent speaker, in that process.
The modus operandi in the first Song Peoples session release was a little different. For Winanjjara, Warren Williams wrote his songs first, the Warumungu men listened to them and then chose traditional songs with similar storylines to match them with.
Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu, which was actually recorded before Winanjjara although the latter was released a year earlier, required a certain amount of blind faith. As Tim Cole admits: “We had to achieve the project’s goal, without a map.” Morris concurs: “We didn’t have much idea how it would sound. We recorded all the traditional songs acapella because that’s how they’re performed in the bush. We recorded them on-site in the studio we built at Borroloola. Using headphones was a bit awkward for the song women. It was alien for them to ear their voices in their own ears. Then we had to establish what key we’d do the songs in. Some of the melodies weren’t in the Western scale at all; I would have needed a Middle Eastern keyboard to do that.”
Although the album took two weeks to record, Morris emphasises that it wasn’t a stressful process. “It was a very beautiful journey, with lots of laughter and lots of cups of tea.” She reports that the crunch time came when they brought the ladies back into the studio to listen to the first track they’d recorded, ‘li-Anthawirriyarra’ [Saltwater People Song]. “The reaction was overwhelmingly positive,” declares Morris, re-living the moment. “They burst into tears and said it was the most wonderful thing they’d ever heard. I think we played that track five hundred times that day [laughs]. Then they understood the whole concept of mixing traditional with contemporary sound.”
The process and protocols, Morris indicates, were beyond reproach. “I don’t think there was one note that was played on the album without everyone’s approval — it was very important that everybody was happy with what was happening. When English is not the main language, things can get lost in translation, so we were very careful to consult with the ladies at every stage.”
Shellie suggests that a Western Australian community would be a prime candidate for the next Song Peoples Session project. She’s hoping to make a follow-up album with The Borroloola Songwomen next year. In the interim, according to the grapevine, Shellie and the Songwomen will be performing at this year’s Woodford Folk Festival, a prospect that excites her greatly. “The response we received at the Darwin Festival last year was fantastic, so emotional. We were overwhelmed with the response. People waited around for an hour to get autographs and just to say hello. The ladies are loving being in the limelight.”
Performing at the Deadly Awards at the Sydney Opera House with eleven ladies from Borroloola Morris describes as the proudest moment of her life. “Someone told me I was up for an award, but it didn’t matter. There was no better reward than doing a song in Yanyuwa with the Borroloola Songwomen. People who were there that night are still talking about our performance, including Peter Garrett.”
While there is already international demand for the act, the women’s advanced age will make overseas’ tours all but impossible. All is not lost, though. Shellie Morris reveals a plan is afoot to use modern technology to present the show offshore by beaming the ladies in, in the form of a hologram.
• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.