Opinion

Tiwi+Jazz

“We have performed and recorded together whenever we have the opportunity, with the core aim being to share musical ideas and create new versions of old songs, for fun and entertainment but also, for the women, with the firm purpose of keeping their songs alive.”

Elders’ visit to Canberra in 2009. Photo by Tamara Amatto.

On Friday 13 July, Genevieve joins the Sydney Environment Institute and the Planetary Health Platform for ‘Tiwi+Jazz: Ngarukuruwala – we sing’. This NAIDOC Week 2018 concert presents an evening of song, stories, dance and laughter, in celebration of the essential role of song in maintaining language, ceremony and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For more information, and to register, click here.

I first heard Tiwi Kuruwala songs in 2007, and very quickly fell in love with them and with the wonderful elderly women who sing them – the Wangatunga Strong Women’s group. We formed the group ‘Ngarukuruwala’ (we sing) for our first performance, at the Darwin Festival in August that year with some loose arrangements of old Tiwi songs that we’d created during two days of collaboration between the Tiwi women and some Sydney musician colleagues of mine. Since then the old ladies and I have been meeting up whenever we can to sit, talk and share stories – and always threaded through that the women sing. We have performed and recorded together whenever we have the opportunity, with the core aim being to share musical ideas and create new versions of old songs, for fun and entertainment but also, for the women, with the firm purpose of keeping their songs alive. As I learned more about Tiwi song types and their ceremonial, social and cultural functions and the complexities of the melodies and the song texts I found myself becoming a researcher as well as a co-musician and the women became co-researchers, passing on their knowledge – both of song practice and of the deep-past ancestral lore that is held in the texts.

In 2009 eleven Tiwi elders and I visited the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra to reclaim field recordings of Tiwi songs, collected by anthropologists over the last century, the earliest made by Baldwin Spencer in 1912. This was a significant and moving experience for the group as they heard the recorded voices of great-grandfathers, mothers and even their younger selves, for the first time. The repatriation of this material has informed all our collaborative work since and has had a great impact in the community as elders use it to maintain ceremony and language. It also led to my PhD, which presents the first written transcription and analysis of the twelve distinct Tiwi song types, created in close consultation with senior Tiwi songmen and women who are the last half-dozen holders of Tiwi song language and composition procedures.

Over the past eleven years, Ngarukuruwala has developed into much more than a ‘show’ or a ‘project’. It is a group of people – Tiwi singers, elders and increasingly also younger women and men, and non-Tiwi classical and jazz musicians – who come together occasionally to make new music. It is also the on-going bond between us with the preservation of an endangered piece of Australia’s artistic heritage at the core of everything we do together.

All our music starts from the Tiwi original. Some charts closely follow the metrical and melodic structures of the traditional song form while others re-work old melodies with a healthy amount of improvisation thrown in. A defining feature of Tiwi music is that it has always been ‘contemporary’. Song-texts use the first person and present tense, placing each song (and so each recording) ‘now’, every time it is heard. Tiwi+Jazz comes out of a recording project called Ngiya awungarra – I am here, now which explores notions of musical, cultural and emotional intuition, as we create a series of ‘duets’, responding to recordings selected from the archive by elders. Made possible through the Australia Council, Australian Performing Artists Initiative, the album was produced over about two years with Tiwi singers and Sydney musicians meeting up north, recording in Country as well as in a Sydney recording studio. As on the album, in our live performance, we incorporate sounds of the Tiwi bush, made at the time of the day that is right for each song and when it was originally sung. This is better for the (deceased) singers and is at the request of current singers who want their ancestors to be truly present as they sing.

I guess that’s where my ‘research’ is at right now. Trying to give the songs and their performers the truest and most tangible sense of being here now. We’re bringing the old recordings (and, through their voices, the ancestors themselves) into the space as co-performer, creating a personal connection and transmission of experience between them and all of us – past and present.


Since Les Misérables in 1988, Genevieve Campbell 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.