Saving a language through song

12 March 2020
Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Sydney Environment Institute Fellow, Dr Genevieve Campbell, has been researching Tiwi song language. Focusing on documenting endangered song sets and the creation of new works, this research is essential for the preservation of the language.

The interconnection of traditional Tiwi song practice, language and cultural knowledge means that songs hold an essential record of kinship, lore, cultural and social history, connections to the natural world and to ancestral stories. With the changes to the language and its impending loss , this knowledge and cultural heritage is in a potentially precarious position.

Dr Campbell undertook the project - The interconnection between Tiwi song culture and mourning in the context of artistic creativity, cultural maintenance and community health – to document and assist in the preservation of the Tiwi language.

The Tiwi Islands, consisting of two large inhabited islands and nine smaller uninhabited islands, are located north of Darwin. The Tiwi are culturally and linguistically distinct from those on the mainland. 

Song is the primary framework for Tiwi ceremony and ritual as well as for the transmission of cultural knowledge, the documentation of current affairs and a vehicle for maintaining language. The body of knowledge of the Tiwi people—the spiritual, historical, geographical and customary record—has been passed on orally, most of it through song.

Dr Campbell has been working closely with Tiwi elders whose deeply-rooted connections with traditional song language, subject matter and musical elements, places them in positions of high esteem to preserve the unique culture. Through increasing engagement with recordings, both as educational tools and as the starting point for new music, Dr Campbell has discovered and begun repatriating archived song recordings to the Tiwi islands.

“Although my connection with Tiwi people was primarily as a musician, the richness and complexity of the poetry of the song texts struck me early on and became central to all of our work together,” said Dr Genevieve Campbell.

“The symbolism, allusion to ancestors, country places, kinship and ritual make all of the songs dense with meaning and fundamentally important to the way we approach both our new musical treatments of old songs and the performance contexts we present them in.”

Following her involvement in the repatriation of ethnographic Tiwi song material to the Tiwi Islands in 2009, Dr Campbell became increasingly interested in issues of ownership, artistic and moral rights and the cultural and personal impacts of reclaimed recorded songs.

As her fascination grew, this became the focus of her analytic research – how returned voices of long-deceased singers continued and preserved Tiwi song culture. Dr Campbell’s recent work involves creating new music that puts the voices of (deceased) Tiwi ancestors (in archive recordings) with current Tiwi singers and non-Tiwi instrumentalists.

The Tiwi Strong Women’s Group has been particularly proactive in language preservation projects. Dr Campbell has collaborated with the group over the past 13 years. Together, they have worked on projects aimed at young Tiwi people and children, encouraging them to engage with language, and reinvigorate interest in, and connection with, the older forms of the language.

As explained by Dr Campbell: “This is vital for the future of Tiwi song practice and so is at the heart of my research and our music-making projects.”


Tiwi Strong Women’s Group – Ngarukuruwala: Yoi!
Sat 28 MAR | 7PM
Darwin Entertainment Centre

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