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Call For Composers To Be More Respectful In Using Aspects of Indigenous Music

Christopher Sainsbury Image credit: Stuart Hay, Australian National University
Graham Strahle
| July 2, 2019

Non-Indigenous composers need to become more keenly aware of issues of identity and ownership when referencing elements of Indigenous music, and they should even be required to undergo cultural awareness programs in this area before using any such elements. This is the view of Christopher Sainsbury, an Indigenous composer and performer who has established a First People’s composers program called Ngarra-Burria.

Sainsbury has written a platform paper entitled ‘Ngarra-Burria: New music and the search for an Australian Sound’, published by Currency House, in which he says that the appropriation of Aboriginal melodies by non-Indigenous composers in past decades, and their use of words from Indigenous languages in the titles of their pieces, constitutes a breach of respect and trust with the owners of those cultural possessions. These practices can be offensive to First Nations people and can deprive them of rightful financial return, he points out.

His paper can be read here (access by subscription), and Sainsbury can be heard talking further on the subject with the National Indigenous Times (NIT) and on ABC RN’s Awaye! program. Key points he makes are that referencing aspects of Indigenous culture should come about through a respectful, collaborative process with the communities concerned. This involves entering into dialogue with them, seeking their permission, observing relevant protocols, and considering carefully how royalties (if any) are apportioned.

“A few decades ago some Australian composers were building quite a body of work around referencing Indigenous music,” Sainsbury told Daniel Browning on Awaye!

He explained to NIT that he wants to see cultural awareness programs made a mandatory requirement for non-Indigenous composers who are intending to use aspects of Indigenous culture. Completing such programs should be a precondition for receiving funding or having their works rehearsed or broadcast, he said.

Furthermore, performers, radio presenters and even program note writers should be equally aware of these issues and make an active effort to engage in dialogue too.

“And it’s not just composers,” Sainsbury said on Awaye! “It’s programmers. So then it gets programmed for broadcast or programmed in concerts. And then it’s ensembles. So the ensembles are playing this stuff. [And then] the program notes. I was at a concert just the other week and a piece by Peter Sculthorpe talked about how he was referencing an Indigenous melody in this particular composition. Didn’t say where from, didn’t say whether any monies were ever returning to the original owners of that song. If all that was all in place, state it in the program.”

“Let’s have clarity. So that’s one thing I ask. So we’re not so much slapping non-Indigenous composers down from this practice; we’re just saying long-term collaboration, respectful engagement if you’re going to go there. And I also outline in the paper that in part we understand this, the gaze towards Indigenous culture, because it helps all Australians understand, I suppose, more who we are. And so in part there’s an esteem there that’s inherent in them looking into our music and our culture. So I can’t deny that. But we’ve just got to own that space, rather than non-Indigenous composers.”

To help address the historical appropriation of Indigenous music, Sainsbury has instigated Ngarra-Burria. In partnership with Moogahlin Performing Arts, the Australian Music Centre, ANU School of Music, and Ensemble Offspring, this program offers opportunities to First People musicians to write music, receive mentorship, and have their works workshopped and performed. In its inaugural year in 2019 the program’s participants are Marcus Corowa, James Henry, Nardi Simpson, Sonya Holowell and Eric Avery.

The Australia Council has issued a document called Protocols for producing Indigenous Australian music that addresses a raft of issues associated with Indigenous music. “Indigenous people should be consulted on the use and representation of their Indigenous heritage, and be fully informed about the implications of consent,” it reads.

“In the past, Indigenous cultural material has been subjected to interpretation by non-Indigenous people. Today, as Indigenous people seek to reassert and re-claim control over their cultural heritage material, Indigenous interpretation of the material is a way of enhancing the cultural significance of the work.”

The Australia Council protocols similarly stress the need to respect the rights of Indigenous people in determining the way their cultural property is used.

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