25 May 2018

Dr Clint Bracknell is a musician and ethnomusicologist, based at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at The University of Sydney, who is using an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Indigenous grant to bring to life the musical traditions of the Noongar language of South Western Australia.

Noongar is one of the largest Indigenous language and cultural groups in Australia, both in terms of the land area of south Western Australia it encompasses, including all of Perth, and its population of over 35,000 people who identify as Noongar. Despite this, under 400 people self-identified in the last Australian Census as speakers of the language, which is now considered to be endangered. Since the 1970s, there have been concerted efforts to engage in linguistic revitalisation of the Noongar language, and there have been increasing numbers of speakers each year. However, less than 2 per cent of Noongar people identify as speakers of the Noongar language.

“I have been working with my family on language revitalisation since 2010 when I was involved in setting up the Wirlomin website, to showcase the longstanding work of Wirlomin Noongar people in reclaiming and enhancing Wirlomin cultural heritage, particularly the stories and regional dialect of the south coast,” says Dr Bracknell.

“Some people may not realise that a couple of centuries ago, the Noongar language is likely to have been sung as much as it was spoken—songs are its literature.” 

As a high school music teacher, Dr Bracknell saw how songs were used to teach languages, but seeing that much of the music tradition of Noongar was in danger, he used his 2013–2015 PhD to seek out and analyse ninety-nine hard to find Noongar songs. Most were preserved in old handwritten manuscripts or on poor-quality audio recordings.

Dr Bracknell is now putting that initial research into practice, to develop an effective participatory model for song recirculation.

“Songs in archives are not known by many people. Indigenous musical traditions will only survive if Indigenous peoples engage with and continue to develop them; the nature of a healthy song tradition is that it is constantly changing and people are empowered to add to it,” says Dr Bracknell.

Dr Bracknell is running workshops and gatherings for Noongar people, to reconnect to relevant material he has identified in his research, and breathe a new living spirit through it.

“I’ll always come in with material, gained from archival collections, which is incomplete in some way—we are sometimes dealing with a muffled audio recording, or with a song that is not really performed, or finished, or the singer might have dentures, which makes the lyrics hard to hear. We’ve got to put those things together, using word lists and the experience in the room. It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle.  We may need to discuss things at length... there might be a word that can have multiple interpretations. Sometimes we end up with multiple versions of songs,” says Dr Bracknell.

By playing old recordings, Dr Bracknell is reigniting the deep memories from a powerful and reverential oral tradition that has transmitted these songs and their associated dance and stories through millennia. An example of the preservative power of the oral tradition is in a story of the memory of a single observation of an old English military drill.

“Mathew Flinders spent Christmas of 1801 in Albany, and he got his soldiers to do a military drill on the beach before they left in early 1802. They did this drill in front of maybe five local Noongar men, and the diaries recount how one of these men picked up a stick and mimicked the military actions. Then, over one hundred years later, Western Australian journalist and ethnographer Daisy Bates, who recorded lyrics for many early Noongar songs, was shown a dance based on the drill by Nebinyan an old Nyungar man, who painted himself with red ochre and white stripes like a British sailor’s jacket and performed it for her. Along with my uncle Kim Scott alluding to this event in his 2010 book That Deadman Dance, I saw in the Albany Advertiser a few years ago that Harley Coyne and other Noongar people performed a re-enactment too,” says Dr Bracknell.

The incorporation of contemporary events into song, such as participating in whaling missions, as Nebinyan did as a young man, or the visit from the British sailors, is the indicator of a living musical tradition, a tradition which Dr Bracknell is hoping to help ‘really get burning again’.

“At around 11 years old, Khaidyn Boyce is showing real promise as a singer. He has already sung one song for an ABC Radio interview about the project, putting himself forward as a solo singer. Although seniority initially determines who gets involved, it’s been encouraging to see younger people demonstrate the passion and the confidence to perform,” says Dr Bracknell.

“The songs themselves, based on my understanding of classical Aboriginal vocal styles, are quite different to music I’ve heard from other regions. I was playing some songs to an Arrernte colleague in Alice Springs, and he remarked that they sound nothing like songs from his region. The same thing happened when I played a song to a gentleman from the Kimberley who was engaging in similar work. You need to be a good singer, you need a decent vocal range, and to me there is a sense of playfulness inherent in these songs in their use of language and in their rhythmic and melodic style. They have energy within them that needs to be performed.”

In an international context, Dr Bracknell says that Australian music research is leading the world, thanks in part to the empowerment of targeted grants like the Discovery Indigenous scheme that are focussed on communities and the participation of Indigenous researchers.

“Having just presented with colleagues at the Society for Ethnomusicology conference in Denver, USA, I was really struck with how far ahead of the curve Australian music research is, in terms of community participation, use of technology, ethical practises.  Australian music researchers can hold their heads high, and are achieving outcomes that are beneficial to communities, that communities want,” says Dr Bracknell.

“I am from Albany and I am answerable to people on a personal level. I am extremely grateful to aunties Iris Woods and Roma Winmar, the Roberts family, Dabb family and all the other families involved, for help to guide the project and in trusting me to do the right thing. It all goes back to the Wirlomin project that was set up by Hazel Brown, who is still alive today at 93, and her siblings, who got everyone together to produce illustrated books in the Noongar language and participate in reclaiming old Wirlomin stories and dialect. The whole clan are really indebted to them.”

Image: L-R Hazel Brown, Henry Dabb, Iris Woods, Aubrey Roberts, Clint Bracknell, Gaye Roberts, Kim Scott, Jason Miniter and Roma Winmar working together to record an old Wirlomin Noongar song.
Credit: Dr Clint Bracknell.