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Indigenous Women’s Only Ntaria Choir Reaches Back To Bach

Ntaria Choir Image credit: David Roennfeldt
Graham Strahle
| May 29, 2019

The remote Aboriginal settlement of Hermannsburg, 130 km west of Alice Springs, is home to what can lay claim to being the longest continuously running tradition of Lutheran choral singing in Australia. There, Ntaria Choir has been singing German hymns since the 1887 in their own languages which belong to the Central Australia region of the Northern Territory. They began doing this when Lutheran missionaries moved into the region and translated the Lutheran hymnbook into Arrente and Pitjantjara during that time.

It is amazing to think that Ntaria Choir have been doing this for more than 130 years, going halfway back to the year Bach died. And the other extraordinary thing about this small choir is their linguistic significance: this small choir forms an important part in the preservation of these Indigenous languages, which are no longer taught to Hermannsburg’s school children.

These days, Ntaria Choir (previously known as Ntaria Ladies Choir) comprises only a handful of female singers. Prior to 1970, it was a mixed choir and considerably bigger. One of its members in the 1950s is believed to have been the famous artist Albert Namatjira, who was born in Hermannsburg. Its choirmaster in earlier decades was the German-born pastor Carl Strehlow who headed the Hermannsburg Mission from 1894. His son, the noted anthropologist Ted Strehlow, gained a worldwide reputation for his linguistic work on the Arrernte dialects.

Interest in this wonderful, storied choir has pricked up all over the place. Last year, Music Australia reported on the larger umbrella choir under which Ntaria Choir frequently performs, namely the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir. This collective, numbering typically around 30 singers, made a pioneering trip to Germany in 2015, toured around Australia the next year, and were made the subject of a documentary, The Song Keepers, which showed the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival.

As a standalone choir, Ntaria’s inspirational performances have been garnering attention in their own right. They have several other CDs to their name, they featured in Andrew Schultz’s cantata Journey to Horseshoe Bend (2003), and they appeared in the documentary An Aural Map Of Australia (2005) that profiles the celebrated experimental artist and violinist Jon Rose.

This May, Ntaria performed for the first time at the Canberra International Music Festival in a program themed around Bach. Its singers on this occasion were Tjirpowa, Marion, Marjorie, Clarabelle, Lizzie, Lena, Sonya, Susan and Lily.

Their choirmaster, Pastor David Roennfeldt, kindly shared some words about the experience.

“Festival artistic director, Roland Peelman, came to Hermannsburg two weeks beforehand and met with the Ntaria Choir. He then chose the repertoire which the choir would sing during the festival.”

“Ntaria Choir were one of the artistic groups performing for the Opening Concert of the festival on Friday evening, 3 May. This was followed up by a similar concert on Sunday afternoon. The choir was warmly and kindly welcomed by the Canberra audiences.”

“They brought their unique music to the festival: indigenous mother tongue languages melded with European tunes from Bach’s era and beyond. The choir sings mainly in Western Arrarnta, the language of the Hermannsburg area (NT), and also in Pitjantjatjara, the language of the people near the SA border and northern part of SA.”

“There were other shorter solo, cameo appearances for the Ntaria Choir: in the foyer of Parliament House, at the National Museum, and the National Gallery. This was the first time that the Ntaria Choir has performed for Canberra International Music Festival audiences. It was an exciting experience for one and all.”

Congratulations. We look forward to hearing more about this unique choir. Next up they sing at Alice Springs’s Desert Song Festival in September. Find out more about them, including their CDs, here.

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