In June 1887 in Hermannsberg a unique cultural exchange began. German missionaries arrived at Australia's Central Desert and brought their Lutheran hymns to Aboriginal communities.
The sharing went both ways, with the missionaries learning the local Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages and a passing on of knowledges took place. In communities like Areyonga, Ntaria and Ernabella, there were as many choirs then as there are sports teams now. Singing at church and school was the norm and in these places the first merging of ancient Aboriginal languages, German sacred poetry and baroque music came about.
This tradition, however, almost disappeared in the 1970s, with many negative connotations being held with missionary contact. But a South American born choir conductor has been working for over a decade to revive the rich choral history of Central Australia.
Morris Stuart, who was born in Guyana and moved to the UK where he met his wife Barb, at the time a young intrepid Aussie. He came to the Desert with Barb for a short period, hoping to share African freedom songs with the local people. It was a successful project and he began working with numerous Aboriginal choirs, which eventually grew in to the combined Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir
The Song Keepers, a critically-acclaimed documentary by Darwin director, Naina Sen, tells the unknown story of how Central Desert women are preserving the songs of four generations of song women.
The film follows the 32 strong choir as they embark on a three week historical tour of Germany, to take back the hymns that were given to their great grandparents by German missionaries, but in their own Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages.
Celebrating these women and their extraordinary relationship with their South American-born conductor and musical director, Morris Stuart, together these women takes their music and stories of cultural survival and create an incredible musical legacy.
We meet three members of the choir, who are also family, and have been able to share this special experience together.
Marion has been a member of the Ntaria Choir since 1996.
She recalls as a child, many of her old people singing, and listened to hearing the hymns growing up,
"My Grandmother, she used to sing at home. That’s where I caught on."
Marion says that going from singing in the smaller choir to the larger ensemble of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women's choir was a nice change, the sounds of everyone performing the hymns together "has been a powerful experience".
Her youngest son, Nicholas joined the choir in 2013 along with her daughter Genise, a decision that she was happy to see them make. "They have grown up in a musical household, their father sang and their grandfather also sang in the local choir so it was a natural progression for them to sing. They have both performed in bands and they thought it would be nice to join the choir," Marion said.
The experience of singing together and also travelling together for the first time overseas has been unforgettable.
"We have always been close but this has just given another dimension to our family relationship. I was a bit nervous before going overseas to Germany for the first time, but having the kids with me, it made it a bit easier, I didn't have that element of homesickness."
What has been the most special part of this journey for you?
"In Germany, the audience were so special. They were quite humbled, People came up to us after the shows and told us how moving it was for them to hear us and some of them cried. When you are singing in front of the audience like that, it's very moving for us as performers too."
Genise joined the Ntaria choir in 2013, but has been singing from a very young age. She has even been recorded as part of a CD called 'Bush Kids'.
What has been the most satisfying aspect of being part of this choir?
"We are fortunate to get to travel the world and perform in places like Germany and the US recently with other choirs and our story is unique, even here in Australia as it was the way that we interacted with the missionaries, it was more of a sharing of culture rather than an over taking as happened in other places so sharing these songs illustrates that. I am proud to be a part of this sharing."
Like his sister, Ntaria joined the choir in 2013. He is one of two men in the group.
“Morris [the choir conductor] always addresses the choir as ‘Ladies’ and I’m always the one left out," he chuckles. “I put my hand up and say ‘What about Me?'
"Singing these old hymns makes me really happy. My mum is in the choir, my sister is in the choir. My grandfather Gus Williams was in the mixed choir, my Mum’s grandmother was in the choir, when we sing and harmonise I can still hear their voices singing with us.
"The choir members now say that when I sing it sounds like Grandpa, that was another thing that led me to join the choir. To follow in his footsteps”
What is your favourite hymn to perform and why?
"I don’t have a favourite hymn, it really depends on the day. What is my favourite part though is that every time we perform a song it’s different. We are always improving. It’s nice to hear that.”
The Song Keepers airs on Monday, 7.30pm on NITV (Ch 34) as a part of NAIDOC Week. Catch up is available after broadcast.
The SBS network is celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and recognising the achievements of our First Peoples throughout National NAIDOC Week (7-14 July) as the official media partner.
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