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The Song Keepers in Concert by Chloe Hooper

The Song Keepers in Concert by Chloe Hooper

Our 2017 Writer-in-Residence Chloe Hooper met with The Central Australian Aboriginal Women's Choir and its music director Morris Stuart when they performed at Melbourne Recital Centre in August.

Morris Stuart, the musical director of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir, issues a plea: “Can you support people who are preserving their languages, because those languages carry the history, the culture, the personality, the integrity of the oldest human surviving civilization!” Over the audience’s applause, he adds, “We should be whoopeeing, and hollering, and throwing cartwheels that we’re in the place where our ancestors have preserved this for us!”

The whistling and hand-over-head clapping in the Melbourne Recital Centre suggests people agree.

It’s hard not to hear Arrkanala Lyilhitjika, Western Arrarnta for “the joy of singing,” and not be moved. Earlier that day, I’d watched an impromptu rehearsal take place in the foyer of the ABC studios. Stuart lead the choir of thirty-two women and two men through a hymn they were to perform live on radio, and, when they were finished, the building resonated with the applause of staff who’d left their desks to lean over balustrades on each level of the building, some wiping tears from their eyes.

Stuart, a tall, elegant man of Guyanese heritage in his seventies, now stands on the stage to explain an historical point. The choir’s previous song, Walkunila Pitaltji Pulka Irnyantja, known in English as Hail Gladdening Light—or originally in Greek as Phos Hilaron— was written in the third century AD. Previously people had sung hymns based on the psalms and certain sections of the Old Testament. “The idea of lay-people, or other people, writing hymns began with Walkunila,” Stuart says. “I didn’t know that until it was introduced to me by some of these ladies in a remote community 250 kilometres from Alice Springs. What they have done is preserve some of the deepest traditions of Christian sacred poetry ever.”

As the choir sung the ancient hymn, a screen overhead had projected archival footage showing the arrival of German Lutheran missionaries in the nineteenth century; the settlement that became Hermannsburg, with its simple wooden cross; an Arrarnta couple dressed as bride and groom; young men as stockmen; girls in first communion dresses, often singing.

Some of the women from these images were in the choir, and they stood, a few with walking sticks, alongside their daughters—and, in one case, a great granddaughter. They wore headbands and cloaks resembling traditional South African gowns, printed with bright, sensual designs from women’s traditional desert paintings. 

Stuart, who also runs a choir in the Northern Territory that sing African freedom songs, had originally arrived in Hermannsberg to share this music. Slowly the women revealed their trove to him. These hymns, which their forbears helped translate into Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara, are songs of colonization reclaimed as a means of keeping traditional languages alive. It’s spiritual music that’s as multilayered as the arrangement of their voices.

In a moment, three of the choir will come out and deliver a blessing to the audience in Arrarnta, in Pitjantjatjara, and in English that we may “leave with peace of mind and happy hearts.” We will hear Waltzing Matilda sung in Pitjantjatjara, and Kumbayah, My Lord, translated into Western Arrarnta, which Stuart will encourage the audience to join in English. (Singing Kumbayah is the great cliché of a hippy love-in, but as nearly a thousand people, a full house, raise their voices, I have to say it did feel pretty joyful.)

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stuart announces, “we thank the Melbourne Recital Centre for inviting us to introduce you to two of the living languages of Australia. Two Australian languages! This is about much more than the dots on the pages, and the early Baroque and early Romantic arrangements,” he says, between cheers. “This is about resilience and we thank these women for that. We thank their culture and their faith.”

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