Spotlight On: Song Cycles to Tennant Creek

Thursday, 06 Aug 2015

Now in its second year, this important project sees Indigenous musicians from Victoria journey to the Northern Territory for an intensive week of travel, songwriting workshops and cultural exchange.

Contemporary Indigenous singer-songwriters such as Archie Roach, Gurrumul, Dan Sultan and up-and-comers like Thelma Plum and The Tjintu Desert Band, continue to introduce new generations of Australians to the vibrancy of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) culture. The Song Cycles program builds on this by celebrating the cultural diversity that exists between regions.  

Co-presented by APRA AMCOS, Barkly Regional Arts Winanjjikari Music Centre and Creative Victoria, the Song Cycles project brings ATSI musicians from Victoria, to communities in and around Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. Three days of workshops culminates in a performance at the Desert Harmony Festival.

As Michael Hutchings, APRA AMCOS ATSI National Representative explains, “The Song Cycles project gives Aboriginal songwriters from distinctly different communities within Victoria and the Northern Territory the chance to collaborate on songwriting skills development, co-writing, cultural exchange and music industry knowledge.”

The project recognises that ATSI culture is incredibly diverse - each ATSI country has unique histories, languages and cultural practices.

“These cultures, like any, continue to change and evolve…contemporary music has become an important vehicle in which to explore and speak about the changes within country, and to also keep ATSI stories and song lines strong in the future,” said Hutchings.

“ATSI artists coming together from different countries to exchange and learn from each other goes some way to help strengthen this, and keeps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures vital and living.”

Sharing skills and ideas

Lee ‘Sonnyboy’ Morgan, a Gunditjmara Kirrae Whurrong man from South-West Victoria, said it was an honour to participate in the Song Cycles program.

“I’m proud of what I do so I’m really proud to be able to share that with these people out in these communities… these talented people that are already very proficient musicians themselves,” he said. 

Robert K. Champion, a Gubrun, Kokatha and Mirning man from South Australia, now living and making music in Melbourne, is also part of the Song Cycles project this year. Champion said he was extremely excited by the opportunity to work with the region’s musicians.

“I always enjoy going out and working with local, community-based musos and artists, and obviously taking a back seat and offering them my advice, and my music knowledge rather than trying to reinvent the wheel,” Champion said. 

Teaching is a two-way street

Both musicians expect to gain as much from the experience as they give. As Champion said, “The thing I’m blown away by is how musically adept they are out that way … their talent and knowledge of music is really inspiring and uplifting, you know? And obviously just to be able to help people want to create more music is great. And yeah, they’re picking your brain but obviously you’re picking their brains too.”

Morgan added: “As a songwriter, when you work with different people, it’s like any working relationship. You’re working together and you might have different ideas that don’t always work but obviously from this little thing you start to learn and grow, especially when you’re open to it.”

Navigating the sheer size of the Barkly Region, an area that’s larger than the whole of Victoria, is a daunting prospect for Champion. The fact that local musicians deal with it on a day-to-day basis both humbles and inspires him.

“The people we’re going to work with, some of them would have to travel at least 900 kilometres to the nearest community just to perform a show... and obviously when artists like myself go out and work with them, I guess we get to see how easy it is for us to get gigs,” he said.

A journey that’s bound to last

Morgan and Champion plan to work hard during their few days at Tennant Creek. Their packed itinerary means there won’t be time to wait for inspiration to strike. They’ll have to make the most of every moment that’s presented to them. 

As Morgan put it: “When you write, you’re a little bit under pressure because you’ve got a deadline, but I suppose music’s like a language, and once you learn the language you can speak it. So when I have to speak it and there’s a deadline, I now know I can deliver something with confidence.”

Champion hopes that the outcomes of the Song Cycles program will stretch beyond the participating musicians. 

“Obviously the thing to remember is not only does this [project] benefit Indigenous music, it also benefits the world’s music, I suppose. Because we’re also trying to connect with non-Indigenous musicians, and see the good that comes out of these workshops,” he said.

“I think the more these workshops happen, the more we’ll become better musos and we’re going to create even better musos as well.”

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