Saturday, August 5, 2023

Alive and kicking – childrens songs in first languages take culture into future

For many years I managed the Australian Government cultural program that supported the maintenance and revival of Indigenous languages – the languages unique to Australia. The community languages over-achievers I met in those years demonstrated that there has always been an inextricable connection between language and music and song. In the case of the many hundreds of community languages spoken in Australia before European settlement, this has always been true. There is a long history of music and song in First Nations cultures and communities and increasingly contemporary musicians have been performing and recording songs in First Nations languages. When music and song featuring First Nations languages is specifically by and for children, we start to see the face of the future. This is not a story only of relevance to First Nations communities. Why it is important to everyone is that it shows how focused community activity can be a major force for good and can underpin a broader, richer Australian culture.

Recording songs in First Nations languages has been an established practice for some time now. Who can forget hearing the words in one of the Yolngu languages in the ground-breaking song ‘Treaty for the first time? Whole albums by the great Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu were almost completely in language – Yolngu languages such as Gaalpu, Gumatj or Djambarrpuynu, a dialect related to Gumatj – with only a sprinkling of English.
Young Yolngu musicians practicing at Garma Festival, East Arnhem Land, 2008
Taken off
In recent years, though, it has really taken off, with many performers, such as Shellie Morris and the Borroloola Songwomen (featuring the Yanuwa, Garrawa, Mara and Guanji languages of the Borroloola region) releasing albums in their community language, part of a wider international trend. As a Sydney Morning Herald article points out other musicians to record songs in language include ARIA-nominated singer and songwriter Gumbaynggirr woman Emma Donovan, Emily Wurramara, Baker Boy, Budjerah, DRMNGNOW, Christine Anu and King Stingray, to name just a few. This has built on a long tradition of singing and music featuring First Nations languages.

First Nations performers have also taken and transformed songs originally written in English. Mitch Tambo’s performance of the much-loved unofficial national anthem ‘You’re the Voice’ in Gamilaraay at the Fire Fight Australia concert – alongside its original singer, Johnny Farnham, and Olivia Newton-John and Brian May of Queen no less – is a recent high profile example.