For the sake of song and language

21 February 2014

The songs and threatened languages of one of Australia's most prominent genres of Indigenous music, wangga, from Australia's Top End, are presented in a new book published by researchers at PARADISEC (The Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures) at the University of Sydney.

Songmen from the Daly region of the Northern Territory who created and performed songs for their communities and general public over the past fifty years are the subject of the book, For the Sake of a Song: Wangga Songmen and their Repertories.

Published by Sydney University Press, the book is accompanied by a website streaming the songs.

One of the authors, Professor Linda Barwick, Associate Dean of Research at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, said: "The languages of wangga are all under threat of being lost forever. Some of them have as few as one or two elderly speakers. With the languages will disappear the specialised knowledge contained in the songs. The book and website present and explain the songs, which are translated for future generations to interpret and pass onto their descendants."

Over 225 years ago when Europeans first arrived on Australian shores there were over 250 Indigenous languages. Today there are as few as 145 languages still spoken, the vast majority of which are severely or critically endangered. Only around 20 are considered to be 'healthy' with respect to being spoken by all age groups, but even some of these languages are in great jeopardy. In 2005, authors of the National Indigenous Languages Survey Report concluded that '… the situation of Australia's languages is very grave and requires urgent action'.

Whilst some languages are no longer fully spoken, words and phrases are used and there is great community support in many parts of the country for reclamation and revitalisation of Indigenous languages.

"Songs and music are a great record of language and culture. They are a popular and engaging way to preserve languages and cultural identity for future generations. Song plays a very important role in language revitalisation amongst Indigenous communities today," said Professor Barwick.

Dr Payi Linda Ford, an Honorary Associate of the University of Sydney and Senior Research Fellow at Charles Darwin University's Northern Institute, belongs to the Rak Mak Mak Marranunggu clan in the Daly region. "Speaking as a Rak Mak Mak Marranunggu woman, I am very aware of the importance of language maintenance, for preservation of identity and knowledge about country and Dreamings. My group has been taking active steps to revitalise our language by bringing our people together to document our language and make it relevant for younger people.

"Since our country lies within the wangga area, this book is especially important for us and our ceremonies. We are related to many of the songmen in the book. We can easily hear their songs and match them to the words and other information by using the website.

"In our Tyikim Language Revitalisation workshop held at Charles Darwin University late last year, we used the book as a way of inspiring new songs as well as understanding the cultural information that is in the songs," said Dr Ford.

For the Sake of a Song is the culmination of more than 20 years' research by authors Allan Marett (Emeritus Professor, University of Sydney), Linda Barwick and Lysbeth Ford (Honorary Associate, University of Sydney). The trio worked closely with the songmen and their families and drew on a rich archival record of photographs and recordings from the communities of Belyuen and Wadeye in the Daly region.

The book is organised around six repertories. Four are from the Belyuen-based songmen Barrtjap, Muluk, Mandji and Lambudju, and the other two are from the Wadeye-based Walakandha and Ma-yawa wangga groups. These repertories are named after the ancestral song-giving ghosts of the Marri Tjavin and Marri Ammu people. Thanks to permissions from the composers' families and a variety of archives and recordists, this corpus includes almost every wangga song ever recorded in the Daly region.

For the Sake of a Song takes concepts usually out of reach to those unfamiliar with the intricacies of music and speaks to the 'regular' reader. A lively introduction details the social history and cultural meaning behind Wangga and outlines the ways in which to interpret the song analyses. In each chapter that follows, a repertory is recorded and analysed in detail. Rare black and white as well as colour pictures are dispersed throughout the book, adding to its preciousness as a record of cultural practice.

The book is the first phase of a multimedia publication project that also includes a website and a forthcoming series of CDs, which will be released later this year. Until then, the Wangga songs can be streamed online.

For the Sake of a Song: Wangga Songmen and their Repertories is available in paperback from Sydney University Press for a RRP of $35. For more information about For the Sake of a Song and its authors, visit the Sydney University Press website.

About PARADISEC (The Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures)

Set up in 2003, PARADISEC is a consortium of three universities: the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University. It is directed by a Steering Committee of representatives from the universities and its foundation Director and current Chair of the Steering Committee is Professor Linda Barwick, Associate Dean of Research at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney. PARADISEC's collections include endangered and minority languages and music cultures, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region. It is concerned with enabling digital preservation and access to endangered materials from all over the world. A primary motivation for the project is making field recordings available to those people recorded and their descendants.

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