Tiwi Islands ImageGenevieve Campbell first heard Tiwi voices on an amateur recording made by a family friend who had captured the sound of some old ladies singing on his phone. There was something about the sound that Campbell fell in love with: “It was earthy and real – not pretentious at all”.

Fine Music magazine spoke with Campbell and four Tiwi Islanders who travelled to Sydney recently as part of a project to make a CD known as Memorial Duets. They came to Fine Music 102.5 where musicians added violin, double bass and bass clarinet to ethnographic recordings of Tiwi singers made between 1912 and 1981. Campbell says: “We want to keep the recorded voice an equal partner in the duet as much as possible – as freshly heard and as prominent”. With basic information such as a translation but not too much preparation the musicians react to the voice as if they were another performer in the room.

As we talk, a voice from the past accompanied by a violin comes wafting in from the studio next door. The voice rises and falls with the rhythmic words. The violin follows, then swoops up and hovers for a moment like a bird. Campbell trained as a French horn player in a culture where you are told you are either a musician or you are not. In contrast, on Tiwi everyone sings. When she met the Strong Women’s Group she discovered that they just sing – they don’t have rehearsals and they don’t use charts. Their bonds, strength and power come from the songs themselves as well as from the stories within them.

“It’s about the wholeness of the song – you sing who you are,” said Campbell of the Tiwi culture. “Mary says she is crocodile woman –when she sings, she’s manifesting crocodile. As a western musician I don’t pretend to understand that feeling. Sure, I can think it’s working well tonight but it’s a craft rather than who I am.” I understand more of what she’s talking about when I interview Eustace, although he prefers his traditional name Yikliya. He tells me about the story of the moonfish or ‘alacri’, which is part of who he is. The moonfish live in a creek on the Darwin side of Melville Island. Tiwi is made up of two main islands separated by a narrow strait – the other one is Bathurst Island– which around 3,000 people call home. Yikliya has a keen sense of humour. When I ask if he’s a senior man there he says: “I’m the old codger bloke of the island”.

Yikliya and Mary are both traditional owners of the Milikapiti (formerly Snake Bay) Community on Melville Island. He is the senior song man on the islands, one of only four surviving senior men and women with full knowledge of the complex linguistic, musical and spiritual elements of traditional Tiwi song culture. He is central to the current transcription, translation and documentation work being done to preserve and maintain song texts and their embedded cultural and historical information.

Improvisation and discovery 

The group Ngarukuruwala –We sing songs is a collaboration between Tiwi singers and non- Tiwi instrumentalists. It all started off in 2007 with the senior women’s group singing with some jazz musicians jamming around them. There is a strong element of improvisation in Tiwi song already so it was a meeting of like minds. The song is still recognisable but there are “as many versions of crocodile as there are singers”.

The Tiwi Strong Women’s Group have been singing together since they were young girls, learning the traditional songs of their people from their mothers and grandmothers. Now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, they still sing every day, and they are teaching the stories and traditional knowledge held in the songs to their grandchildren. They sing for funeral days, mourning ceremony, wedding celebrations and other events. Through their connection with the group and the shared experience of singing they feel strength and pride. They work in the community as mentors, drawing on their knowledge of Tiwi song traditions to help young Tiwi people connect with their language and cultural identity.

Campbell’s part in the discovery of the archived song recordings and her work with elders to document and preserve Tiwi song, language and melody has led to the completion of a PhD. The recordings were stored in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies archives in Canberra. A lot of it hadn’t been well documented so there wasn’t open access. None of it had been digitised – it was still in the original format of tapes and wax cylinders. The possibility of access was kick started by the request but ironically it required the authorisation of elders who couldn’t listen to the recordings – a catch-22 situation. It couldn’t leave the building and it couldn’t be digitised until it had been cleared for release. So 11 Tiwi elders went to Canberra and listened to it. They gave the go-ahead.

– Linda Marr


This is the first part of a two-part story– the second part will be published in the January 2016 issue of Fine Music Magazine.




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