Preserving Ancient Language in Song

By Grace Kirk/ Indigenous Knowledges/Music
Imagine you have an idea to compose, sing, perform and record songs in the diverse languages of your ancestors. You know what a significant tool music is – it can be used for learning, preserving and disseminating language. You can picture a parent singing one of the songs to their child to help them fall asleep. But there’s one small problem. You don’t know how to read, compose or perform music.

Yamani – Voices of an Ancient Land is a project by the Queensland Indigenous Language Advisory Council (QILAC). It saw six of the founding members go on a journey of musical learning and language preservation and resulted in the production of an album (10 songs in five different languages), countless performances and even a short documentary.

QUT lecturer, jazz musician and collaborator, Kristina Kelman, was involved in the Yamani project as music producer, mentor and coach. She discusses the idea that music is language, the techniques she uses to enable people to create music and the highlights of her experience working on the Yamani project.

The Beginning of an Idea

QILAC, an Indigenous language advocacy group, was founded in 2005 by Melinda Holden, Faith, Bridget Priman, Joyce Bonner, Mrs Ethel Munn, Leonora and Dr. Eve Fes. The QILAC vision is to preserve and celebrate language, as it sits at the core of their cultural identity.

It was during their regular meetings where they decided singing would be a nice way for them to come together and experience each other’s languages.

“Once they started singing they thought, ‘Why don’t we try to do our language work through songs and make a CD’, which could be a tool to put back into the communities as another vehicle for language preservation. Then they thought, ‘Hang on a minute, we need some help with this’,” Kelman says.

It was at this point when Kristina Kelman as mentor, David Bridie as music producer, and the Wantok Musik Foundation record label came on board the project.

This is when the process of filming the journey began, in order to document the transformation of the women and highlight the impact this experience has had on them.

The film is moving and you feel connected to the women as they learn how to compose music and through this are able to preserve their languages.

Yamani, Voices of an Ancient Land from First Languages Australia on Vimeo.

The Teaching of Music

It’s clear when watching the documentary that the women undergo an incredible transformation. Kelman appears in the film as a vocal coach, and throughout you see her encouraging and supporting the women.

“Part of the way that I get these women to feel comfortable is make them part of the process.”

“So when we are arranging a song, a lot of my job is to work on taking their melodies they’ve written and helping them arrange them. Essentially I am letting them lead that process,” Kelman says.

Kelman describes her role as developing tools to empower the women and helping them use music in their communities.

“Music in itself is a language. They probably all thought it was very challenging at the time to learn music, but when you watch the documentary you can see the development over that period of time. So I think that it comes quite naturally to them. A lot of these women had never written a song in their life and they all wrote the music,” Kelman says.

One of the highlights of Kelman’s experience was taking the women to the rehearsal room and recording studio.

From left to right: Leonora Adidi, Bridget Priman and Melinda Holden. In the recording studio at the Queensland Academy for Creative Industries. Image credit: Carolyn Barker

“It was pretty wonderful watching their reactions. They had to actually listen to themselves being played back and they were going ‘wow, I’m not too bad’,” Kelman says.

Another of Kelman’s highlights was rehearsing with the women in preparation for the QLD Music Festival, which they performed at in 2015 and where the album was launched.

“The confidence with which they could stand up there and perform was really transformative, amazing and inspiring,” Kelman says.

The women joined by family and friends on stage to launch the album and documentary at the QLD Music Festival, State Library, July 2015. Special guests include Gubbi Gubbi Elder Associate Professor Eve Fesl (far left) and former Senator Joanna Lindgren (third from left). Image credits: Carolyn Barker.

Having watched the documentary, I found a very moving part to be when Mrs Ethel Munn, the eldest in the group, hears the record played back for the first time, to listen to the music she had been carrying around in that book for decades.

“I get goose bumps just thinking about it”

“It was really touching,” Kelman says, “Ethel had been hanging onto those songs for a long time, but having had no musical training, she had no idea what they sounded like. Through the process of unpacking this music, arranging them, and turning them into fully developed songs was pretty special for her.”

The Success of the Yamani Project

The documentary of the Yamani journey has been featured on QANTAS in-flight entertainment and is now being shown on QLD’s long rail trains. The documentary has also been incorporated into national curriculum and additional resources have been developed for schools across Australia.

The Yamani project is being presented as a strong example for language preservation in other communities. The group has travelled to a number of language conferences around Australia to share their story and teach audience members some of the recorded songs.

From left to right: Melinda Holden, Bridget Priman, Ethel Munn, Leonora Adidi, Joyce Bonner, joined by special guest David Bridie. Sharing their songs at the annual Pulima conference. Image credits: Carolyn Barker

“We’re trying to get other language leaders to consider using music as a way of learning, transmitting and preserving language in their communities. People are getting really excited about our model and there are similar satellite projects happening, which is great,” Kelman says.

While the project itself may be completed, the impacts of the experience and the goal of preserving language will continue on.

“I guess the next stage of the project is open for anything. What we’d really like to do is have all of the individual women themselves using song in their communities and transforming those models into more substantial works in those respective languages. They certainly have the skills to write songs and bring their communities together around the songs,”Kelman says.

 About Kristina Kelman

Kristina Kelman. Image credit: James Dillon

Kelman is a lecturer in music at the Queensland University of Technology and is a jazz musician by trade. Her interests lie in collaborating with people and organisations. Throughout these experiences she thinks of herself as an enabler.

“I’m interested in the way people learn and transition from one identity to the other.”

“I’m not so interested in teaching people how to do those things but just creating the conditions to enable them to be transformed,” Kelman says.

To discover more about Kristina Kelman and the projects she is a part of visit her No Walls profile.

To discover more about the Yamani project visit this link and listen to the album here.

To learn more about the work of the Queensland Indigenous Languages Advisory Council visit their website.