Darwin-based documentary filmmaker Naina Sen first heard of the remarkable Central Australian Aboriginal Women's Choir while on a plane headed to Alice Springs for work. Tipped off by a fellow passenger, she was intrigued to find out more about this unique group, who sing baroque German hymns first brought to the Red Centre by Lutheran missionaries in the 19th century then translated into Pitjantjatjara and Arrarnta by the local Aboriginal communities.
A quick Google search revealed very little, barring a couple of low-fi videos on YouTube, but a clip of the women singing "Waltzing Matilda" in Pitjantjatjara was enough to hook Sen’s attention. “It blew me away. I’d never heard anything like it, you know. Up in the Top End, it was either deeply traditional, ceremonial and ritualistic, or it was a contemporary fusion of traditional songs and stories, but within a contemporary pop, folk or rock construct.”
Contacting choirmaster Morris Stuart, an import from British Guyana with his own fascinating story to tell, Sen began to realise just how different this interaction between 19th century colonisers and the land’s original inhabitants had played out. And then Stuart casually mentioned the choir was about to take these culturally fused hymns back home to Germany on tour.
That’s when Sen began a journey that would result in her sophomore feature documentary, The Song Keepers, which is now on national release after debuting at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year.
“He said it really off the cuff and I said, ‘Hang on, wait, you’re telling me these songs that were brought by the Germans 140 years ago and are now in language, the choir is taking them back to source?’ And he went, ‘Yes, like a boomerang’, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, we have to tell this story.’”
A couple of months later, Sen finally got to hear the choir sing in a small church in Alice. “Those YouTube videos had not remotely done them justice,” she says. “Even though I didn’t understand what they were singing about, they emanated joy and I just thought, ‘Why doesn’t the whole world know about this?’”
Gifted singers, the women also posses an infectious charm and a candid approach to telling their own history. Pantjiti McKenzie, in particular, sums up the complexity of their dual inheritance when she says, in The Song Keepers, “My culture and my faith, I believe in both ways, and it makes me stronger.”
At least in this community, there was a genuine interest from the Christian missionaries in preserving language and culture.
“The women were very, very clear and careful in wanting to represent their own personal story,” Sen says. “That obviously does not impinge on the other very, very horrible and difficult things that happened in that time, the very painful experiences of other people. To me, I guess what all their stories have in common is the deep human relationships that were formed in those communities, and I very meticulously wanted to illustrate them in a way that was authentic and truthful, but still made clear their deep respect for their own lore, because these woman are elders. They are cultural custodians.”
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that audiences in Germany were also wowed.
“There was a very tangible outpouring of emotion, and I think they were incredibly moved that these hymns that had come to Australia had been adopted into their own identity and brought back,” Sen says. “A lot of these songs are really old, and many have been lost in Germany, but they have been preserved in some of the remotest parts of the world. The depth of that culture is infused into those songs. They are taking them back on their own terms from a position of great cultural strength.”
Born in New Delhi, India, Sen moved to Melbourne to study film 16 years ago, but it was moving to the Northern Territory that transformed her life, and her career. “I guess I never knew it at the time, but I was looking for something closer to my own culture,” she says. “I’ve had the privilege to work with Aboriginal people in their communities with this incredible wealth of cultural knowledge and it baffles me how more people in this country don’t know more about that.”
She hopes The Song Keepers will help share their experiences with a wider audience. “Working with these extraordinary women has been an unequivocal privilege, but also a responsibility I have never taken lightly. My hope is that as many people in this country will get to see this story as possible, because it deserves to be heard by every Australian.”
Watch 'The Song Keepers'
Friday 3 December, 10:30pm on NITV
Saturday 4 December, 11:35am on NITV
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Director: Naina Sen