Anmatyerr women: Molly Presley, Marie Presley, Mandy Kemarr, Lillian Kemarr, Mary Ngale and Peggy Martin performing

Music exchange unites Indigenous cultures from Australia and China

5 April 2017

Music brings together two ancient Indigenous cultures from Australia and China in a rare concert at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Kam women singing

The Kam women © Cao Yang, Catherine Ingram.

Seven Anmatyerr women from central Australia and six Kam women from south-west China will perform traditional songs connected to their distinctive homelands in a vibrant public performance on 12 April.

The Australia-China music exchange is organised by the Research Centre for Musical Diversity at the University of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, dedicated to sharing and preserving musical cultures from around the world. It is the first time these two contrasting cultures will meet in a rare international music exchange in Sydney.

While the two groups of women come from remote lands thousands of kilometres apart, they share a common passion for songs inspired by home. Dr Myfany Turpin, an ARC Research Future Fellow and one of the organisers of the exchange at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music said: “In both the Anmatyerr and Kam cultures, everybody sings. Traditional songs are important for social health and wellbeing, and to keep languages and cultures strong.

“As researchers we often go out into remote communities to record music and performance. Rarely is there the opportunity to bring community members to our place of research and teaching in the city, and share music between cultural groups and with our students and the wider public,” she said.

Anmatyerr refers to the Indigenous Australian language and people who live around the remote town of Ti Tree, 193km north of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. It is one of 250 Indigenous languages once spoken across Australia. Today, there are around 3,000 speakers of Anmatyerr, which is still passed on as a first language. Many song traditions continue, despite pressures of the modern world.

Typically an Anmatyerr women’s ceremony consists of singing a set of short verses accompanied by symbolic dance and painted body designs. Each verse celebrates a particular place, totemic ancestral being, or action of an ancestor. In this special concert, visual images and translations of the song-poetry will bring the central Australian physical and totemic landscape to life.

In contrast, the Kam (Dong, in Chinese) people, with a population of around 3 million, mostly live in the Guizhou and Hunan Provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in south-west China. They are one of 56 officially recognised ethnic groups in China. Kam, the first language of many Kam people, is related to Thai, which is entirely different from Chinese and has no widely used written form. Songs therefore provide a crucial means for recording and transferring language and culture.

Kam women are renowned for their multi-part choral song, unlike other parts of China where vocal traditions are based on single melodies. Their songs are known in English as ‘big song’ that describe Kam philosophies about their approach to life and social relations. Other songs may celebrate a wedding, the Lunar New Year, or a visit from important guests. Kam performers are adorned in hand-made textiles and embroidery symbolic of their village.

In recent decades, Kam communities have faced massive social transformations, largely due to youth migrating to China’s eastern seaboard for jobs. “Performing in Sydney is a significant form of encouragement for these women and their communities in maintaining these historic musical forms and cultures,” said Dr Catherine Ingram, Sydney Conservatorium of Music Research Fellow and co-organiser of the event.

The concert at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music will also mark the launch of a book, Songs of Home, about the two old Indigenous cultures and their music. A Q&A with performers from the two cultures will follow the concert, hosted by Indigenous Australian actor and performer Kylie Bracknell.

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