Amplifying traditional performance culture

29 November 2023
Revitalising traditional music and language
Associate Professor Myfany Turpin, Jodie Kell and Dr Georgia Curran share a commitment to preserving and revitalising traditional music and language across Australia and beyond.

Associate Professor Myfany TurpinJodie Kell and Dr Georgia Curran have collaborated with remote and regional First Nations communities on numerous projects to preserve and revitalise traditional music and language. Over the years their work has intersected at PARADISEC, the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures, a consortium made up of the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University.

PARADISEC digitises analogue records of materials from endangered cultures from all over the world. The collection holds records in more than 1370 languages, particularly representing the language diversity of Oceania. Working with our partner universities, the PARADISEC team looks after and grows these collections, finding new ways to make them more searchable and accessible to the public.

Digital skills bring music back to the people

Jodie Kell and Steve Gagau

Jodie Kell and Steve Gagau at the PARADISEC 20 Year Anniversary celebration at Verge Gallery. Photo by Nicole Bailey.

Jodie is the Senior Research Officer and Laboratory Manager of the Sydney Office of PARADISEC. She started working at PARADISEC in 2016 as an audio engineer to digitise recordings that were culturally restricted to women, and her work has expanded to overseeing the digitisation processes, supporting the operation of the archive, and building and maintaining relationships with the community of users.

Part of her day-to-day role involves producing a podcast, Toksave: Culture Talks, with Steven Gagau, a diaspora community leader for Papua New Guinea, Melanesia and Pasifika communities in Sydney. Jodie and Steven speak to people connected to the music in the PARADISEC archives to dig into the cultural connections with the material and record the insights in the archive.

“Some of my favourite episodes were produced in partnership with the British Library and the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies as part of the project True Echoes: Reconnecting Cultures with Recordings from the Beginning of Sound,” said Jodie. “We discussed some of the earliest sound recordings made on wax cylinders by Charles Gabriel Seligmann during the Daniels Ethnographical Expedition to British New Guinea in 1904.

“It was amazing to work these old sound recordings to make them more listenable and connecting with descendants of the original singers was so emotional and powerful. Our interviewees were Roge and Gulea Kila from Hula and Babaka villages in the Rigo District of Papua New Guinea. They shared their knowledge of the culture, languages and history of the region and reinterpreted one of the Leku Leku songs from the recording. In this way we’re helping people to reconnect to the past and supporting communities to strengthen and revitalise language and song. And it all goes back into the archive, enriching the knowledge for future generations.”

Myfany Turpin (right), Keesha Gordon and Shakira Pehi recording at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Myfany Turpin (right), Keesha Gordon and Shakira Pehi recording at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Myfany, a musicologist and linguist, is an expert in languages and music of inland Australia. Music is almost entirely vocal in this region and so language is fundamental.

She worked with PARADISEC to find a way to make recordings held by the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) more accessible to the communities they came from. The collection, Recordings of Warlpiri yawulyu from Willowra, will be available to community members and published through her upcoming co-authored book Yawulyu. Art and song in Warlpiri women’s ceremony.

The collection curates material from many hours of recordings held by AIATSIS. The PARADISEC team digitised the content, learned and identified individual songs, and cleaned the audio. Jean Wong, a PhD student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, worked on creating the collection, which presents songs in a variety of contexts and performances.

“PARADISEC is a digital archive which means it’s very quick to make the recordings available to others, including the Indigenous communities whose materials this is,” said Myfany.

Georgia Curran working with Enid Nangala Gallagher.

Georgia Curran working with Enid Nangala Gallagher.

Georgia has a long-established relationship with the Warlpiri community in Yuendumu (Central Australia), having produced several books to record traditional knowledge for future generations. She came to work at the Conservatorium as part of an Australian Research Council Linkage project, Vitality and change in Warlpiri Songs, which was a partnership between University of Sydney, Australian National University and Pintubi Antmatyerr Warlpiri Media and Communications.

As part of this project, Georgia investigated changes to Warlpiri ceremonial life and helped to develop ideas for community-based activities to support the older generation to pass on traditional song. One of which is the Jukurrpa manu yawulyu mardukuja-patu-kurlangu: Warlpiri Women’s Digital Learning Space that Georgia developed with PARADISEC and eLearn Australia with support from the Australian Government’s Indigenous Languages and Arts program.

This is an archival access tool that can currently only be accessed by community members through a custom Wi-Fi network using a Raspberry Pi microcomputer. This technology enables community members to access digital material on mobile phones or tablets and share with others. In this digital space, women can access song recordings, heritage photographs and films of dances and body painting for women’s songs and ceremonies.

“With this technology Warlpiri women feel safe in holding their ceremonies knowing that these materials that were recorded by their old people in the past are accessible,” Georgia said, adding that the collections allow younger generations to appreciate the value of their own traditions.

“These days, everyone has phones and access to computers. That gives the kids much more contact with the broader world and helps them realise just how special and unique their own heritage is.”  

Breathing new life into a ‘sleeping language’

Myfany Turpin, William Santo, Keesha Gordon, Shakira Pehi and Con students recording for Yaru! A Gudjal learner's guide

Myfany Turpin, William Santo, Keesha Gordon, Shakira Pehi and Con students recording for Yaru! A Gudjal learner's guide

Myfany recently collaborated with Gudjal Elder William Santo, University of Sydney Master of Arts student Alex Anderson, and linguist Cassy Nancarrow on Yaru! A Gudjal learner’s guide to help revive this sleeping language. The last recordings of people who spoke Gudjal as their first language were made in the 1970s and there are currently no native speakers in the traditional Gudjal lands near Charters Towers, Queensland. At the book launch there William's granddaughter delivered a Welcome to Country in the Gudjal language – thus beginning the awakening of Gudjal. 

“William approached me in 2020 to ask for help on this project,” Myfany recalled. “He’s passionate about bringing the language of his father back to his people, and he’d written a dictionary before, but wanted linguistic expertise to work out the grammar.”

Alex Anderson worked with William to create the learner’s guide, and the team was able to secure an Australian Languages and Arts grant for William, his daughter and granddaughter to record the phrases and songs to go with the book, with students at the Conservatorium providing backing vocals. The book includes a grammar, dictionary and audio and will help schools in Charters Towers teach Gudjal to kids and community members.

“With this book we’ve thought carefully about how important the audio is, you can use the QR code embedded in the book, you can go to Bandcamp and download the whole audio, or you can go to the PARADISEC archive and play or download the entire audio. One is for the general reader and using with the book, the second is for offline or while doing other tasks (e.g. in the car), and third is for future proofing – in 30 years’ time when technology changes, you can still go to the archive and get the audio.”

Myfany and William hope the launch of this book will prove to be a turning point for promoting the Gudjal culture.

“Bob Katter MP, who is a resident of Charters Towers, attended the launch, which is a significant step forward as the town currently doesn’t recognise the Gudjal people, their culture and heritage in signage or publicly available material in the town,” said Myfany.

Breaking new ground for Aboriginal women’s music

Ripple Effect Band from Maningrida in Western Arnhem Land

Ripple Effect Band from Maningrida in Western Arnhem Land

Through her PhD research, Jodie has been working with an all-women’s rock band from the Western Arnhem Land community of Maningrida, Ripple Effect Band. As the first women from their community to perform music in public, the women in the band are an inspiration to women from the region to develop the confidence to express themselves and speak their stories.

As women from Western Arnhem Land traditionally don’t perform music, the band members write their own songs, telling both modern and traditional stories. One of these is the song Diyama, composed by Stephanie James and Jodie about the mermaids who inhabit the waters off the An-barra clan estate of Gupanga. It is based on a traditional song performed by Stephanie’s grandfather Harry Mulumbuk Diama in the 1960s but tells the women’s side of the story.

Jodie is also documenting films, audio interviews, recordings of songs and photographs of the band in PARADISEC. This means that these materials will be accessible into the future, which is very important to the women in the band.

“This demonstrates how adding new stories and new voices to archival collections can shed a light on the past and give women a voice so their perspective can be heard,” she said. “For me, this has added such depth and strength to the music of Ripple Effect Band and the expression of women through song.”

Sharing performance traditions with the world

Warpiri women and girls practicing traditional dance

Warpiri women and girls practicing traditional dance

From her experience working with the Warlpiri community, Georgia noticed how vulnerable many performance traditions are around the world.

“They are so deeply important for humanity and its rich diversity, and culturally vital on a local level.”

To help showcase these traditions, she co-hosts a podcast called Music!Dance!Culture! with Dr Mahesh White-Radhakrishnan that features musicians, ethnomusicologists and other performers of vulnerable or not-widely-known performance traditions and include lots of music and fun storytelling.

Georgia also chairs the International Council for Traditions of Music and Dance’s Study Group on Music and Dance of Oceania. They’re holding a symposium on 4–5 June 2024 in Honolulu, themed ‘Oceania Networks of Music and Dance: Performing Continuities, Regeneration and Resonances Across Cultures’ and a call for papers is currently out. This symposium will coincide with the broader Festival for the Pacific Arts and Culture from 6-16 June 2024, which will feature a Warlpiri group performance of traditional songs and dances.

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