July 2016

Essays

Rachel Perkins

Songs to live by

Rachel Perkins. © Meg White

The Arrernte Women’s Project is preserving vital songs and culture

I am standing in a supermarket in Alice Springs, comparing the width of my upper arm to a frozen, foil-wrapped kangaroo tail. I’ve been instructed that this is a good guide for selecting a suitable size. Any fatter and the meat will be too muscly; too skinny and the meat is stringy. My now middle-aged arm is proving to be useful for identifying that there are no acceptable tails left in this freezer. My nieces have cleaned them out over the past few weeks, along with those from three other suppliers in Alice Springs. We are rapidly depleting the town’s entire stock. I ask a young checkout guy to look in the freezer out back. He doesn’t move. We size each other up. He is completely uninterested in his job, and I don’t blame him, but there is also something else at play in this stand-off. He and I know that these tails are only eaten by a certain demographic of the local population. I consider whacking him with a muscly tail for his attitude. Perhaps sensing this, he slouches off. I am feeling the pressure, for I know our young cook is waiting back at our camp, under the watchful eye of “the ladies”.

I leave the store, clutching to my chest multiple freezing, but appropriately sized, kangaroo tails. It’s rather awkward as they are each a metre or more in length and are freezing my tits off. I hurl them into the car and drive across town.

Our campsite is a cluster of newly made corrugated-iron rooms that we have rented in a bush location just outside Alice Springs. There is a commercial kitchen, a big load of wood that the men have kindly gathered for our campfires, and a recently prepared dance ground. The senior ladies have instructed that their beds be taken outside, as they like to sleep under the stars. For privacy, the camp has been temporarily fenced off with hessian. A sign out the front reads “No Men”, to warn the occasional bloke who unwittingly stumbles into camp looking for his wife or mother, only to be immediately abused and ejected. We have called our camp the Arrernte Women’s Project.

Red sandy earth stretches for thousands of kilometres beyond us, in all directions. It is this vast desert that wrapped its great arms about us and protected us for so long. The Eora of Sydney, the Palawa of Tasmania and the Kulin of Victoria had no such protection. Exposed on the coast, they endured the first boatloads of colonisers a hundred years before the fortune seekers and missionaries finally entered our country. Yet, even in the desert heart, with a language that is still defined as “healthy” because it has 2500 speakers, our culture is faltering. That is why, at our humble camp, Arrernte women have gathered to do something about it.

About a hundred Arrernte women have visited the camp in our first four weeks. Myfany Turpin, a linguist giving her time to assist the project, is the only woman from outside the Arrernte. She is one of the few Australians who understands that song is key to unlocking the original Australian knowledge systems.

“Traditional Aboriginal songs are regarded by Arrernte people … as the quintessential repository of their law and culture,” Turpin wrote recently. “Knowing songs – including the dances, narratives and visual designs that accompany them – are a significant part of Aboriginal identity.”

As with many cultures, Aboriginal Australia had no written language. One of the principal methods of retaining knowledge was to remember, recount and pass it on through songs. It makes sense that the repeating verses, accompanied by a melody, aid in the capacity to recall information.

Our continent was once alive with song. In hundreds of languages, the Dreaming, which recounts how the world was created, was delivered in song. There were also environmental songs to bring forth abundant supplies of plants and animals. There were songs to heal the sick, songs to make a person fall in love, songs to turn boys into men, and songs just for entertainment.

The Arrernte ladies have come to our camp to record what remains in their living memory of these songs. In line with a weekly schedule, they arrive in groups specific to their areas of land or “estates” within the broader Arrernte territory. They paint up their family members, erect the sacred symbols of their Altyerre (Dreamings), and their ancient songs rise into the night sky with the embers from the fire. Everything is meticulously recorded by our all-female camera crew. The senior ladies carefully discuss who will guard these recordings into the future, to ensure that they are kept from reckless or inappropriate individuals. Taking the songs from the vault of their minds to an archive radically changes tradition. Yet they recognise it is crucial to do so, as the knowledge may well be lost if they don’t. These women are our professors, and there are very few Arrernte women who still hold this knowledge.

Agnes Abbott is one such woman. Born under the blue sky of the Simpson Desert and brought up on cattle stations, she now lives just outside Alice Springs in an infamous town camp called Hidden Valley. She doesn’t know how old she is, and signs her name in a faltering hand, “A A”. Through all that has been wrought on her world, Agnes has retained an encyclopaedic knowledge of women’s law. It demands that she be scheduled into the Arrernte Women’s Project camp for two whole weeks. In that time Agnes records 15 separate song cycles with accompanying dances that she instructs the younger women to perform.

Another leader among the women is MK Turner. She was born and grew up in the bush, and still remembers seeing the first white man arrive in her country. Eventually she was taken to the mission, and now deftly melds her Catholicism with her adherence to the Altyerre. Her environmental knowledge is vast, and she has written a number of books on this and other subjects. She also requires extra time at the camp to record the many powerful songs held in her memory.


Planning for the Arrernte Women’s Project began in earnest months earlier. In attempting to make a comprehensive record of Arrernte women’s songs, we first made a database of all of those that had been recorded and archived. I began my research at the Alice Springs Public Library with a particular book in mind. In a locked cupboard of rare books specific to Central Australia, the library holds a very special publication, Songs of Central Australia by TGH Strehlow. The poet Barry Hill, who has written an 848-page book, Broken Song, about Strehlow’s monumental work, introduces it like this:

So. In the heart of the heart of the country there lies a huge, marvellous, astonishing gift of a book … Culturally speaking, Songs is Australia’s book of Genesis … It contains words of sacred beginnings. At the same time it is a hymn of praise. Of itself the work sings as it retrieves the ancient lore and poetry that it – as a book – came to possess.

Songs of Central Australia comprises men’s sacred songs, fully transcribed, annotated and poetically interpreted. Strehlow also recorded performances accompanying these songs on beautiful 16-millimetre film. With these recordings and his associated maps of the Arrernte landscape, as well as genealogies and diaries, Strehlow created the most complete collection of cultural material of any First People in Australia and possibly the world. An extraordinary achievement.

The rest of Broken Song does Strehlow’s work more justice than I can here. As I am a woman working within the restrictions of my culture, the contents of Songs of Central Australia are largely closed to me.

To protect myself from the men-only material in the book, I went to the contents page only, to see if there was anything about women’s songs. And, how wonderful, there it was: six pages right at the end! Excitedly, I turned to the women’s section. But what was closed to me now was equally closed to Strehlow when it came to women’s knowledge. As he lamented, “No male white investigator has ever been able to get more than a faint hint of the women’s mysteries in Central Australia … we shall never know for certain the full extent of their vision.” Reading this made me even more determined to document and preserve some of the Arrernte women’s knowledge, however humble our efforts might be compared to the work Arrernte men did with Strehlow.

We then turned to our great memory vault, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra. In the mid ’90s MK Turner, with the esteemed linguist Jenny Green, had the foresight to record Arrernte songs, with a small grant from this institution. We copied these songs onto 200 data sticks, and had labels professionally printed onto each of them: Arrelhe – kenhe (Women’s). They became a foundation on which to build our collection.

In the weeks leading up to the camp, we gave copies of these recordings to the direct descendants of the singers. We did this at my place, a newly purchased house built in the 1940s in the old Territorian style. I remember well the day we handed over the first recording. All the blinds were closed to ensure no one would disturb us. In the half-light I gave a data stick to my friend Margy Lynch and her sisters. And so it began. On the recording we could hear quiet voices speaking at first in Arrernte, laughing and talking. Next came the songs, unfolding around us in the dark room, one after the other. First we heard their grandmother singing with other women. And then, in a much later recording, their mother. The sisters in the room exchanged glances of recognition as their mother’s voice – alone, high and sweet – stretched across the decades that had passed since her death, to touch them again. She sang the same song as her mother. “We are rich,” Margy said, and she and her sisters tried to hide the tears that flowed. I cried with them and said nothing, because although we were gathered in my new home, I knew I would give up the house and everything in it for the thing she held, but that money could not buy.

And this is my private secret: I hope, too, that out of all this there may be a song that I can learn. I have not told anyone but my sister of this hope. If we could learn, then we could teach her daughters. It is that simple. You must learn the song and pass it on or it is lost.


For me, the Arrernte Women’s Project camp was not just about delivering something for our tribe. It was also about fulfilling a personal, lifelong aspiration. I had grown up in Canberra surrounded by Aboriginal people in the political movement, but not by my own Arrernte community. The only aspect of Aboriginality that was finally introduced into my school in 1987 was a short course on archaeology. Although fascinating, ancient bones and stone axes felt so distant. In the late 1980s at university you could study to be an anthropologist under a white lecturer, but that felt like looking into the culture from the outside. I wanted to learn my culture from the inside, from my own people. So I left Canberra when I was 18 and headed to Alice Springs, and have been back and forth ever since.

Twenty-five years later, the question of my culture was now squarely in front of me. Hetti, my sister, had flown in from Sydney weeks earlier, bringing her two daughters with her. Perhaps it was the fear in my voice that made her get on the plane. I was full of fear for the seriousness of our endeavour, and unsure of my ability to deal with such respected cultural leaders and their sacred knowledge. Even worse, what if no one turned up! “I am coming to help you,” she said. Immediately she and my nieces set to work alongside the other women who began to gather in serious numbers, bringing their blankets, clothes, tobacco and pannikins with them. With their arrival, momentum built and it became clear that Arrernte women were determined to do this for themselves.

As the camp’s work progressed, enthusiasm spread and more recordings surfaced. Heather Laughton revealed that she had two biscuit tins containing reel-to-reel recordings that her mother, Ada Sylvia Laughton, had created in the 1960s. Her work may yet prove to be the earliest field recordings by an Aboriginal woman, and it had survived in a metal shed through decades of Alice Springs summers. Another woman, Marilyn Cavanagh, found a cassette tape that she thought might have her grandmother singing on it. Once digitised, it revealed her grandmother singing a significant Dreaming song that is part of Alice Springs.

Finally, in the very last week of the camp, the ladies from the area with which my family is connected arrived. I had only just met these ladies, so could not be too familiar with them (which is a whole other story in itself). They spoke to each other in Arrernte, and the other women gathered around them. I could only understand a few words. What I did understand amid their conversation was the word “dormitories”. My heart sank. They recounted that as girls they had been taken into the dormitories by the nuns. As a result, if there were songs, they hadn’t learned them. I pretended to be doing some paperwork as I heard their conversation. It took everything in me to let that sad news pass by without remark.

But that’s how it unfolded: in the most mundane way. The songs were gone. The women left the camp soon after as there was nothing for them to do and not much to say. It was like when somebody dies. Nothing can be done but to miss them.

In the last week, Agnes Abbott invited Hetti and me to join the dancers for one of her songs, as a way of thanking us for our work. Her smile, and her assessment of our “good dancing”, was a beautiful reward. Afterwards, with the body paint still showing under her tracksuit, Hetti said in a matter-of-fact way that it had taken her until she was 50 years old, but that it was one of the greatest days of her life. Hetti’s daughters also danced with other young women – something they will always be proud of. There were dozens of emotional moments over those weeks. People were expressing how their culture and songs connected them to their land and to their identity. Said one woman who had only just learned her local Dreaming song, “Now no one can tell us we are not from here.”

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies aims to record at-risk songs and languages before it’s too late. Contact [email protected] to assist or donate.

Rachel Perkins

Rachel Perkins is a director, writer and founder of Blackfella Films. She leads a foundation that is recording languages and songlines through the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

July 2016

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