Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Singing in the Mother Tongue [October 2]

The Melbourne International Arts Festival begins on October 9th, and one of the highlights promises to be dirtsong, the latest creation of The Black Armband. This innovative musical ensemble features many of the best indigenous singers and songwriters in the country, and dirtsong can be seen on October 24th and 25th at the State Theatre. The musical coordinator of the project this year is Iain Grandage, who received the $20,000 Emerging Composer award at the 2009 Ian Potter Cultural Trust Music Commissions awards night that i hosted this week (to hear a broadcast of the award ceremony and a performance of music by some of the winning composers, listen to the audio streaming of ABC Classic FM’s New Music Up Late for Friday October 2nd).

Earlier this year i did a research project for the Black Armband, locating approximately fifteen songs in indigenous languages that could be considered for inclusion in the dirtsong program. Around eighty percent of the songs will be performed in language, and i look forward to hearing which ones made the final cut.

Here are a couple of quotes that informed my research:

‘Language is politics – it is the ‘earth tongue’ or ‘mother tongue’ that speaks the body and constructs dialects of ownership and knowledge. Song in Indigenous cultures is a key mechanism for enculturating land’ – Liza Lim, Australian composer, from notes for her work ‘The Compass’.

‘The world’s languages are melting away. According to UNESCO, they disappear at a rate of one every two weeks. And if we don’t stop the decline, 90% of the world’s languages will be gone by the end of this century…

Languages are part of the world’s intangible heritage. The inexorable march of English across the globe is partly to blame for this shrinking pool of language diversity. And this is nowhere more evident than in Australia. We have the worst record of language extinction on the planet. Before the arrival of Europeans, there were more than 250 languages spoken here. But only half of them are left, and all of them are critically endangered. This means they’ll cease to be spoken in the next generation if nothing is urgently done to save them…

Once a language tips into ‘extinction’, the process of bringing it back… is a long and very challenging journey. But that hasn’t stopped Aboriginal people from undertaking this project’ – Hindsight program, ABC Radio National, ‘Holding Our Tongues’.