Embracing Indigenous history through music

Since European settlement, much of Australia’s history, from the colonial perspective, has been very accessible through diaries, first-hand accounts of events as well as ballads and folk songs, often from our Irish heritage. In past years, many of our Middle School Plays and Music Tours have drawn extensively from these early days. We have developed shows based on the history of the Murray, and of the Riverboat days. We have explored our involvement in the First World War. The early days of radio, the gold rush and the Beechworth railway have all provided material for some of our shows.

In each case we have accessed the rich resources available to create a real sense of the world in those times.

But Australian history extends back much further than the resources readily available to us. So what about the First Australians? Why are our plays not about them, and why are our musicians not performing their songs? Modern archaeology keeps amazing us with further revelations about the age of Aboriginal civilisation in Australia, including, for example, the sophistication of their farming techniques. However, accessing First Australian culture is complex for a number of reasons. First of all, ownership of stories and songs is not a simple matter, with the free exchange and use of material often not encouraged. Secondly, the languages are complex and not readily accessible. Thirdly, we are all indoctrinated with a very Western way of hearing music, using diatonic scales and harmonies very different from Indigenous cultures. In the past there have been songs published based on Indigenous languages and music but many are very Westernised and almost condescending in their nature.

However, some more recent works are much more interesting and appropriate. There have been some exciting collaborations between youth choirs and Indigenous composers. Deborah Cheetham, who is an opera singer, educator and a Yorta Yorta woman, recently published the Dhungala Choral Connection Song Book. Other Australian choral writers such as Stephen Leek, Paul Jarman and Lisa Young are creating exciting new Australian choral music which references our full Australian history paying respect to the land and our ancient heritage.

These works allow us to respectfully explore Indigenous culture whilst avoiding cultural appropriation. We can learn so much about our true Australian cultural heritage, which we at Carey recognise and look forward to exploring in many of these new, exciting and creative works.

Martin Arnold
Head of Music

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