The story of this choir is quite remarkable. German missionaries taught the local people hymns in remote communities in Central Australia at the turn of the century. Importantly hymns were translated into Arrente and Pitjantjara, the principal languages of the region which served to increase the popularity of the singing but was also critical in the documenting of these languages – the first time the languages had been written down. Over time the choirs lost popularity, with the men especially more drawn to country and western and then rock n roll. the decline of the missions added to this.
Recently numbers were right down to less than a dozen women in Hermannsburg and a small group “nearby” i.e 500 miles away. A local white man David Roennfeldt did a lot to keep this choir going. Somewhere along the way enters Morris Stuart a tall handsome charismatic Caribbean man who came to Central Australia with his Aussie wife he met in London. He had a lot of experience with choirs and cos mbined with David and the local women efforts were made to get things going again.
The small choirs of Hermannsburg and Areyonga were combined so then they were singing in Arrernte and Pitjantjara. Some younger women joined and there are now 3 males in the choir- 2 brothers and David.
MrWells’ daughter, my stepdaughter has worked for the last few years. A place famous for the watercolour landscape paintings of local man Albert Namatjira. Charlotte, of course, knows of the choir and works with some of the choir members. So I first heard them singing at St Pauls Cathedral in Melbourne in a festival of voices. They also went to Germany in a tour documented in the film the Songkeepers. They sang in German churches, importantly, they were singing some hymns that had been lost to contemporary congregations. The most arousing moment in that film was when Morris had the women’s choir singing in their language while the congregation sang the same hymn in German, both sides delighted in the collective power and resonance of their singing.
And now they have just sung at Hamer Hall, the top music venue in Melbourne, soon it will be the Sydney Opera House then on to America. Remarkable experiences for these people who live in remote communities hundreds of miles from Alice Springs.
On to the concert. From earlier performances and video I’ve seen the regular singing has meant that all the singers seem more familiar with the songs and the harmonies and the layering of the voices is more sophisticated.
I had reservations as to how much of a show it would be and how much would be padding. But over the 2 part show, 19 songs were sung. There was a video of Central Australian landscapes, always a joy to look at and brief clips of the people involved telling stories. – but it wasn’t overdone. The only twee moments were Waltzing Matilda sung in either Arrernte or Pitjantjara though I expect it will go down a treat overseas plus Kumbaya. But I suppose if you are going to get a Kumbaya audience it was going to be this one.
On to the singing. There is a sharpness, a coarseness that is distinctive and beautiful. It has a lovely lilt much like the songs of South Africa except with those deep soloing you get in southern African musical styles. The Soweto Gospel Choir have sung with this choir and stayed with the women in Hermannsburg so clearly there is a cultural and musical affinity. Also, the voices aren’t loudly projected, it is much quieter, you can imagine that in the still silence of central Australia, around a campfire, there is really no need for voices to boom out.
Many of the women are old and frail so it is hoped younger women will enlist and, even better, if men rediscover choral singing. New songs were written and performed at this concert so creatively green shoots have sprouted.
Old and churchey with quite a few choir people and, if you can judge by appearances a lot of lefty progressive types
It made me think..
I was staring at the lovely timber panelling and thinking about Western voices versus those of Africa and indigenous Australians which, to these ears, have similar qualities. Western voices strike me as having the beauty of being refined, sanded, buffed, polished whereas there is a rawer beauty of the African and indigenous Australian voices like beautifully weathered bark like the coarse grain of the weathered wood. Both wonderful in their own way.