Published 10 November 2020
To our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers – please note that the following article contains the name and image of a deceased person.
This is the first instalment in the Sydney Environment Institute’s Interweaving Voices series, a collection of videos and written reflections by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Genevieve Campbell about her work preserving the songs of the Tiwi Islands.
The written preservation of an oral artform is challenged by entangled questions, motivations and aspirations. Both for Tiwi song custodians and for me as a non-Tiwi musicologist, analysing and describing Tiwi songs while also continuing to create and perform them makes for a dynamic and, by necessity, changeable ‘research methodology’ as the songs – supposedly the object of our research – add to and alter that research in real time.
In 2009 a group of Tiwi Elders and I went to Canberra to reclaim ethnographic audio and visual recordings made by researchers and visitors to the islands between 1912 and 1981, held in the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the National Film and Sound Archive.
Amongst these recordings are hundreds of unique songs, composed specifically for particular events, both ceremonial and secular. Together they form a rich historical and cultural archive and a meaningful social and personal record of ancestors, place and family. More than that though, they hold the voices of past knowledge holders.
In the context of a traditionally oral knowledge system that relies upon the passing on of language, lore and culture through song, these recordings have become a document – a proof – of Tiwi educational, artistic, spiritual and social systems and of poetic, musical and danced creativity.
The annual Kulama ceremony is held to ensure spiritual and personal health and wellbeing. Deceased loved ones are mourned and celebrated, babies are named, young people are taught about culture and ceremony. During the third day of Kulama, the Ayipa songs are presented to negotiate community affairs and to put current events and important news on record. Amongst the recorded archive are Ayipa songs announcing marriages, outside intruders, shipwrecks, shark attacks, the first electric light, a meteor shower, cyclone damage and the moon landing. Amongst the 1928 recordings is an Ayipa song about singing into a white man’s gramophone recorder.
So we come to Going to Canberra.
As a senior cultural authority and custodian of song practice, Yikliya (Eustace) Tipiloura was among the group in Canberra and was central to the repatriation of the material and to subsequent musicological and linguistic documentation. In the Kulama of 2010 Mr Tipiloura decided to present this song into the public oral record, because, he said, “we all know what you and us have done and how we’ve been to Canberra and all that, but it wasn’t official, you know?”
Eustace sang in the old language, now only used in song and only understood by a very few. Following the poetic traditions of song composition, the trip to Canberra and the long bureaucratic process of the recordings’ repatriation are presented in symbolism – a long journey across water and the “hard land” to collect what in the song is the yinkiti (food or belongings) that were the “stuff” of, the goal of the journey.
Eustace’s solo rendition of the song was re-worked in 2015 with his instructions and input.
Fragments of the archive recordings were added to bring the voices of the various protagonists (and their interactions) together. Interweaving the voices of the Tiwi singers, the researchers who recorded them and the archivists who catalogued the recordings, we’ve also captured their aural landscapes – the sounds of the country and the reels of the archive. Eustace chose certain old vocal recordings to add to his. At the time this created for Eustace a powerful and tangible connection with his predecessors as he sang Kulama with those past voices. The fact that he is now also deceased adds his voice to those of the ancestors.
Eustace suggested that I should be involved, on horn, taking the role of the Kulama Ampirrimarrikimili woman’s response that echoes the line of the male singer. As I would if I was a Tiwi woman at Kulama who was backing up his song, as I am now as I write.
The act of recording individual, contemporaneous, one-off songs risks changing what they fundamentally are – non-repeatable. This is a conflict that senior Tiwi singers and I discuss often as they find a balance between preserving near-lost song language and allowing for the ongoing innovation and currency that underpin Tiwi song practice.
Tiwi custodians tell me that as they sing the old words they are learning from, adding to and passing on their accumulating cultural story/history. A recorded archive makes that accumulated history tangible perhaps, but it was always there, regardless. What has become particularly fascinating for us working together, and what we hope will come through in this series, is that while we are studying the old recordings, transcribing the old songs and creating an ‘archive’ of written knowledge, the current holders of that knowledge are all the while adding to it.
Genevieve Campbell is a 2019 University Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute and Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Since 1988 Genevieve has played horn in many of the major Music Theatre shows in town plus everything from Musica Viva to Australian Idol, Opera Australia to the Wangarratta Jazz Festival and toured with Anthony Warlow, Barbra Streisand, Michael Crawford and (her favourite) Shirley Bassey. Ngarukuruwala and her close involvement in the discovery and repatriation to the Tiwi islands of archived song recordings led her to complete a PhD, working with elders to document and preserve Tiwi song language and melody. Her current focus is on documenting endangered song sets and the creation of new work centred around archival recordings of passed Tiwi composers and the words, knowledge and voices of current Tiwi Elders and young people.
Genevieve is the Research Lead on Tiwi Song Culture and Loss at Sydney Environment Institute.