Published 08 July 2019
I have been involved with Ngarukuruwala and the Tiwi Strong Women’s group since 2007. Although my involvement began as a musician, it broadened to include archivist, producer, researcher, composer, arranger, manager, cook and bus driver. Notwithstanding all of that, my fascination and thrill for Tiwi songs always comes into most clear focus when I work with the ladies as a musical colleague. I should say at the outset that I use the word “ladies” without concern and on purpose — it is perhaps an old-fashioned word and potentially thought of as patronising, I am aware, but I have discussed the issue with the group a number of times over the years and they feel that it is the most polite way of referring to them. Indeed, “old lady” is a term of respect that is used widely in the Tiwi community.
Singing on stage with the women is always a fascinating experience. They are not performers; this is not a choir in the sense of the community chorale that rehearses on Thursday nights. They will sing through a new song as they are composing it in the weeks leading up to a trip, but they sing when and where they are when they feel like singing. Around a campfire at home, on the plane heading to Sydney, in the minibus sitting in traffic, at a picnic or sitting on the floor in their hotel room.
It is truly inspiring to me to watch these women be unwaveringly un-forced, non-contrived and without pretence. To the regular woe of the venue technicians, they tend to be least feeling like singing at soundchecks. Why sing to empty rows of chairs? In every context they are true to themselves. This is not to say that as Western professional musicians and performers we aren’t true to ourselves, but we do generally create with an outcome in mind, for an audience. We’re performing, acting, projecting, presenting the result of our carefully honed practice.
It is perhaps sounds a little trite to say these ladies, by contrast, ‘just sing’, but it is closest to the point. Rather than aiming for near-perfect renditions of pre-planned work, they sing what they know and what is true at the time. We have in twelve years never done a concert that has stuck to the playlist. The women sing what they feel on that day – and the band aims to respond in ways that will enhance and celebrate the Tiwi essence.
The ladies hold dozens of songs. Some are very personal and would only be sung in the country places they belong to and in their own company. Sydney audiences won’t hear those. Others are happily shared as important items of heritage and are performed in Sydney with the quite deliberate purpose of showing a wide audience what Tiwi song culture is about. Some are topical ‘crowd pleasers’, like the Yilogaor Football song, a favourite around the Tiwi AFL Grand Final weekend.
Some songs are, in terms of derivation, what the women call ‘traditional’ – long passed down stories of ancestors, country places, ‘dreamings’ – so on our playlist is always a collection of ‘standards’ such as Yirrikapayi (Crocodile), Kupunyi (Canoe), Ningawi (Bush Spirit people) and Tikilaru, Purukapali andWunijaka – songs in the voice of the Ancestors and theCountry.
At home they sing Healing songs (sadly too regularly) at smoking and funeral ceremonies and for people who are ill. Each song, while having a well-known melody, holds words that only belong to the person and their family, place and ancestors for whom they sing. While they are beautiful musically, lovely for the band to play with and very moving to experience in the room I always feel torn knowing the very real double whammy of emotion the ladies experience as they sing. Wanting to bring healing and peace for the audience and knowing how uplifting it is, while also feeling the pain of every word, as each rendition of a healing song is heavily burdened with the grief they are feeling as human beings, quite beyond their experience as musicians or performers.
At the Sound Lounge in March, we were on stage, mid concert. I looked at a particularly fun and upbeat song next on our set list and looked at the women’s faces and I knew something was wrong.
We had been in a gentle state of worry and sadness all day. It was the funeral today for a sister (the actual sister of some and the culture sister for all of them) an elderly lady who had been dying for a week or so. Until they left for Sydney, they were sitting with her, singing healing. We had numerous phone calls back and forth about whether they could come to Sydney at all. In the end, she died a few days before they left. On Thursday evening, we sat in the hotel room singing healing (as they would be singing the night before a funeral) and on Friday they felt very keenly that they were not there as they should be.
Across the stage, I whispered to them that they should sing healing instead, if they wanted to. Perhaps they would have pushed through and sung the next song with serious faces and the audience would have been none the wiser.
Some in the audience might have found it confronting to watch the women weep as they sang under stage lights, being applauded as the song came to a close. Yes, it did stir up questions about why we make music, art, song and why we make a distinction between a performing a song and singing a song. The reality is that the women live in a remote town a long way from our theatres, so their complex, rich and beautiful songs are seldom heard outside their own community. If we feel uncomfortable about the context in which we get a chance to hear the Tiwi ladies sing then that’s our problem, not theirs. Their singing is as much for themselves as it is for any audience, and even though we were on a stage 5000 kilometres away, as they sang, the women were both at home with their sister and bringing their sister to them.
As the societal context of those who create and perform Tiwi songs has changed, so too have Tiwi songs. The women involved in Ngarukuruwala see this as a positive cultural and artistic phenomenon, which allows the art of Tiwi song to remain a vital and relevant part of Australian contemporary music. Through intertwining indigenous song, with modern jazz, the Strong Women continue to preserve Tiwi traditions and stories, while developing a new form of music-making.
Genevieve Campbell is a 2019 University Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute and Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Since 1988 she 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. She now juggles horn and running a high school Ensembles program with her commitment to helping her Tiwi colleagues share their song culture.