Exploring modern-day songlines with Mission Songs Project

Monday, 04 Jul 2016

Jessie Lloyd is on a mission to debunk myths about what Aboriginal music should be. The award winning 35-year-old singer/songwriter has embarked on an ambitious quest to research, perform and archive contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music from the early 20th century as part of Mission Songs Project.

Collecting songs that detail life on the Christian missions, Aboriginal reserves and the fringes of townships where people were relocated, Jessie wants to shed light on music that has, until now, largely been ignored.

“These are modern-day songlines,” she says. “They’re sung from generation to generation and they are about stories or experiences that happened to our people that we can learn from, and that need to be shared in the future.” 

Originally from the tropics of far north Queensland, Jessie grew up in a musical family hearing hymns, country gospel and island songs of worship sung in four part harmonies, and played on guitar, ukulele, piano and piano accordion.

It was one of these songs that inspired the Mission Songs Project. Named after a boat used to transport passengers from mainland Queensland to Palm Island, The Irex tells the story of people who were displaced or removed under the Aborigines Protection Act, including young children now considered part of the Stolen Generations. Jessie’s research suggests it was sung in memory of those lost children and loved ones on Palm Island between the 1920s-1930s.

“I’ve always been intrigued about the old songs that my family used to sing, and just knew there were more,” she says. “If my family had all of these old songs that had been passed down to me and my cousins and my nieces and nephews, the same must have applied in other communities and other settlements and missions with other people’s families.”

Her theory has proved to be true. Since officially starting the project a year ago, Jessie has collected around 40 songs by consulting advisors and talking to older people in communities around the country. A lot of the songs they know have never been recorded or documented, so they are sharing their oral traditions with her, as has been done for many generations.

Jessie then takes these songs and arranges them for performance, basing them around a vocal quartet to evoke the era in which they were originally written and performed.

“When blackfellas started doing contemporary or western music, it was very much inspired by the missionaries, because that’s all that they were hearing or that they were allowed to listen to before they had the wireless,” she says. “So a lot of our singing styles, our communal or folk singing styles, sound like a chorale.”

“In working with the songs now, I really try to stick to that sound and that era. It’s also about trying to recreate what they would have actually sounded like there and then, in 1930s Darwin and during the Second World War.

"It’s kind of like creating musical time travel.”

The performances, which can take a number of different formats, have seen the likes of Monica Weightman, Robert Champion, Karrina Nolan, Archie Roach, Emma Donovan and Lou Bennett join Jessie on stage to recreate the experience of life in the mission days, where these songs lifted spirits during hard times.

“I believe that Australia needs to hear these stories and learn from these stories in terms of our own Australian identity,” says Jessie. “They’re part of the Australian story. We can stop being ashamed of it now and start owning it. Having these stories through songs, it’s soft diplomacy. It’s an easy way to broach open wounds.”

For her, it’s also about changing the perception of contemporary Aboriginal music.

“As a musician, I’ve been asked to play the most ridiculous gigs by people who think that Aboriginal culture is what Tourism Australia says it - the whole traditional only, wear native attire, why aren’t you singing in language – all of these stupid things. The Mission Songs Project throws that out of the water because it explains why I don’t sing in language and why I play a guitar,” she says.

“That’s the important part. It’s creating value around our modern Aboriginality and our modern Indigenous culture. It’s just as valuable as the traditional, and the Mission Songs Project highlights that.”

Jessie continues to research and perform songs for the project, and plans to record a selection in the future. Learn more about Mission Songs Project here.

The Mission Songs Project is one of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) initiatives that has received funding through the APRA AMCOS Music Grants program. Each year we allocate 1.75% of APRA’s distributable revenue to fund projects, events and organisations that support, develop and invest in our members’ music. ATSI initiatives to receive grants from APRA AMCOS last year included Barunga Festival, Barkly Regional Arts for Desert Harmony Festival, the National Indigenous Music Awards, Smugglers of Light Foundation and The Garden Sessions at Adelaide Fringe Festival’s Garden of Unearthly Delights.

APRA AMCOS further supports ATSI songwriters and composers through the ATSI Music Office and new program Starting Ground, a project that aims to develop the careers of Aboriginal musicians in New South Wales.   

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