Tiwi song: far more than meets the ear

The general impression given in the literature of the song culture of the Tiwi Islands, Northern Australia, is that it is primarily monotonic (Moyle, 1997; Osborne, 1989; Simpson, 1951; Stubington, 1979) and even “entirely inexpressive” (Osborne, 1989). This might be due simply to musical unfamiliarity or unavoidably selective observation but it is certainly a misrepresentation of Tiwi song culture as a whole.

There are in fact twelve distinct melodic forms, with as many idiosyncratic alterations as there are singers and performances.

Tiwi song practice is primarily one of extemporization, with songs created contemporaneously with and specific to the performance event. Rather than comprising a corpus of songs that is passed down through generations, it is the skill of composing within a framework of prerequisite metrical, melodic and poetic knowledge that is passed down through a long process of heuristic learning. Individuality and creativity are highly regarded and there is therefore much variation to be found across the 1300+ song items preserved in ethnographic field recordings made on the Tiwi Islands over the past century. Being the central oral art form in an ancient and (traditionally) non-written culture, Tiwi song is also a living document of ancestral, seasonal, spiritual, social, political and genealogical history, making it vital to the Tiwi community and to Australian heritage. Genevieve Campbell will explain how, far from being monotonic, Tiwi song is melodically and performatively expressive, interactive and linguistically complex and varied.

This event was presented in partnership at and with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Wednesday 4 March 2020.


Genevieve Campbell is a University Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute and Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She has worked for 20 years as a professional French Horn player. In 2007 she became involved with a group of senior song-women on the Tiwi Islands, NT and together they instigated Ngarukuruwala – We Sing Songs, a musical collaboration based on traditional Tiwi songs and involving jazz musicians from Sydney. Her professional interest in Tiwi music in the context of contemporary performance and the similarities between Tiwi improvisation and western jazz led to embarking on musicological research. The desire to be part of the rediscovery and preservation of old Tiwi songs has resulted in close involvement with the repatriation to the Tiwi community of ethnographic field recordings of Tiwi ceremony and song. Her doctoral research included the collation of metadata associated with recorded Tiwi song material 1912-1981, working with senior Tiwi individuals on specific songs (at their request) to create detailed music and text transcriptions, transliterations in spoken Tiwi and translation into English and assisting with transcribing language from recorded song examples for addition to a long-term project to establish a resource of kinship songs required for Tiwi ceremony. Her area of interest is two-fold: the role of song in the preservation of language and cultural well-being of the Tiwi Islands, and how repatriated recordings can be used to preserve song traditions while also developing new forms of culturally relevant music making.