In celebration of Singing from Country

by Jackie Kerin Storytelling Australia Victoria

Now and again an opportunity comes along that speaks to the heart.

In January 2014, I met Terry White at the Turramurra Folk Music Camp. I was there in my capacity as a storyteller, having been invited to run some workshops.

Most likely I was on a riff about the role storytellers might play in connecting folks to Australian landscape and the places they called ‘home’. I carry this niggling idea that it’s actually really important to take some responsibility for the patch of earth that we walk, and this requires a little ‘land literacy’.

It seems that Terry had me spotted as a kindred spirit, and by the end of the weekend, I had been woven into his vision of bringing scientists, traditional land custodians and songwriters together, the purpose being: to create new songs to celebrate old wisdom and knowledge about Country, the kind of songs that can be arranged for community and children’s choirs to sing, celebrate and learn about land.

What followed was over two years of meetings where partnerships were developed, grant applications wrestled and the idea was given a name, ‘Singing from Country’.

The big vision of  ‘Singing from Country’ is to divide Victoria into about seven bioregions and commission songs that explore these. However we thought it best to start with a pilot project with four songwriters and focusing on the Central Victorian Goldfields area.  The pilot was launched as a ‘festival within a festival’ at the Maldon Folk Festival this year. This experience proved invaluable – giving the committee a chance to navigate the difficulties and cheer when things go to plan.

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Uncle Rick Nelson conducts a smoking ceremony as part of the Welcome to Country at Maldon (photo: Bruce Watson)
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Rebecca Phillips                                                                              Terry White

At Maldon we opened the process to the public with a day of presentations from local naturalists, Geoff Park, Andrew Skeoch, and Rebecca Phillips who spoke about the Dja Dja Wurrung language reclamation project and the protocols around use of this language. Uncle Rick Nelson performed a Welcome to Country ceremony, and a group of children from The Meeting Place (Nalderun) sang the Loddon River Song, led by Kerrie Patmore.

In the evening the four selected songwriters ‘unveiled’ the work they had created in response to the commission to write two new songs each.

After so much thinking and dreaming and so many, many meetings, I was deeply moved by the concert, the vulnerability of the writers who were revealing (in some cases) works in progress, and songs never before aired in public.  I was brought to tears by how deeply and respectfully they had explored the concept. Local a cappella choir, ‘The Chat-Warblers’ led by Jane Thompson rose to their feet and sang at the top of their lungs, exemplifying the power of singing about place.

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Jane Thompson leading members of the Chat Warblers in song (photo: Deb Carveth)
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The four project songwriters, clockwise from left: Eva Popov, Carl Pannuzzo, (Alvin Briggs) Kavisha Mazzella, Neil Murray (photos: Deb Carveth)

Spring in Victoria has been fabulously wet and the rain has brought the country alive. Swathes of wildflowers have burst through the ground and the birds are singing out loud, building nests and raising chicks. Carl Panuzzo’s song evoking the dance one does when walking through the bush in spring elicited cheers of recognition from the audience.  For me the wonder of Terry White’s vision is the willingness of people to come together, share what they know and add to the body of song that will teach and connect people to place, strengthening a sense of responsibility.

I feel gratitude to the four songwriters who committed to the ‘Singing from Country’ pilot, Neil Murray, Kavisha Mazzella, Eva Popov and Carl Panuzzo.  I give thanks to the artists who demonstrated their belief in us and assisted our grant application with letters of support, and thanks too, to project manager David Juriansz, for pulling the threads together.

The ‘Singing from Country’ pilot is led by Community Music Victoria in collaboration with VACL (Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages) and Connecting Country, and has received grant funding from the Regional Arts Fund.

I’m looking forward to the next phase of the project as a member of the steering group, and hanging out in the meeting rooms at Ross House with Bruce Watson (chair), James Rigby, Oli Hinton, Paul Paton and of course, Terry.

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Images of wild Spring flowers around Maldon (photos: Jackie Kerin)

Jackie Kerin is an author of children’s books and storyteller working in the oral tradition. She is the current president of Storytelling Australia Victoria.

 

 

 

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