UNIQUE INTER-CULTURAL MUSICAL VISION – Voices From the Tiwi Islands (Part 2)

Tiwi Islands (p.2)

Classically trained musician Genevieve 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 CD project. 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.

Nelsina – named after her grandfather – is on her first trip to Sydney. Aged 22, she is part of the younger generation, the future. She has been singing since she was young, learning songs from her mother and grandmother. Her family is very musical; she and her sisters help her mother (who is a member of the Strong Women) to write new songs using the old stories. She is now learning more songs from Mary Elizabeth and Yikliya, traditional owners of the Milikapiti (formerly Snake Bay) community on Melville Island, so she can join the Strong Women’s singing group. She wants to be a teacher and pass on the songs and the language. Her song is one her grandmother wrote about her great grandfather. He went hunting to get food for his wife and children. He had to cross a river on his way back home. There was a strong current and he got swept away and drowned. The family was heartbroken and “they sang a song, our song, the crocodile,” explains Nelsina. She likes working with the non-Tiwi musicians and the different sounds they add to make the song more beautiful. At home they only use guitar and keyboard. She’d like the world to listen to the music they are recording. Collaborator on the project, Jason Noble plays bass clarinet and is a long-time member of innovative new music Ensemble Offspring. Campbell asked him to join the project eight years ago. When he went to the Tiwi Islands for the first time he says it was a real culture shock. Rehearsal was not like he was used to; people would go missing and Campbell would go out and pick them up in a four-wheel drive. After a day or so he relaxed into the time frame.

“When the women are together under a tree with someone playing a guitar – that’s when we’d start,” said Noble. When asked how the classical and jazz musicians work with the Tiwi singers. Noble said: “It’s pretty organic. You have a listen and try and add something that’s not too intrusive but that adds something of your own. You end up with this ‘other’ music. It’s not classical or jazz or Tiwi, it’s another. “Half of the joy for me is just being around the women…. They’re such wise people and so funny with so much more empathy and understanding.”

Challenges in ‘translation’

There have been some problems understanding and transcribing these very old recordings. Sometimes it was because the sound quality was poor, but there were also linguistic issues. “The language has changed; it’s not spoken anymore,” said Campbell. A combination of natural linguistic change and the tradition of closing names and songs of deceased persons – which includes words that sound like the person’s name – means that words drop out of use. When the missionaries started teaching English in the early 1900s a new local language began to emerge. The language spoken today is called new Tiwi. Only a handful of elders still understand old Tiwi. Also, song language is slightly different from spoken language requiring a five syllable poetic metre and some altered sounds.

Yikliya offers Campbell a glass of water. She says with a smile “you know I’ve been talking too much don’t you?” She says that Tiwi traditional music has a lot of connection to other Australian Indigenous music, particularly in the Top End. Like them they have specific song structures. Pre-contact music is still sung on occasions like the Kulama red ochre seasonal ceremony. Funerals have a Catholic mass plus the traditional singing. Having now reclaimed the old songs they can also use them with the kids, and young people are able to create their own songs using samples of the old recordings. The Dance Track project allows them to add their own voices and remix the songs using computer music programs. The old songs with solid 2/4 stick rhythms are great with looped dance beats!

After talking to me for quite a long time – Campbell’s passion for the music and the Tiwi people seems boundless – she suddenly realises that things have gone quiet in the studio next door. She goes to find out what is happening. It seems it really is her baby and without her energy and empathy with the Tiwi singers, their music and the need to re-inject it into mainstream Tiwi society, this probably wouldn’t be happening.

– Linda Marr


This is the second part of a two-part story – the first part was published in the December 2015 issue of Fine Music Magazine.


This article was from Fine Music Magazine Jan edition.

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