collaboration is a slippery and elusive art. I find it a spacious and revealing
place to work. It sings to me and draws me in and on. I think it was a mixture of
naivety and courage that led me to working in this field. I am a singer,
song-writer and creative researcher with an Anglo-Celtic and Scandinavian
heritage. What I have
learned over the years is that an ocean of possibilities is available when we open
our hearts and take the risk to make genuine contact.
Anything can emerge when trust is laced with risk. What we share and what makes us different has room to come alive. There are no formulas for success and this, I think, is a good thing. The riskiness of it keeps us awake and alert.
The capacity to listen and the qualities of trust,
respect and openness are central to fruitful intercultural arts collaborations.
This is never more so than when the intercultural collaborations are between First
Nation community members and people from other cultural backgrounds. We work
together against the backdrop of colonisation, the massacres and government
policies of enforced dispossession and attempted cultural genocide. The impact
of these policies continues today and are evident in disproportionate rates of
incarceration and inequities in health, economic and educational opportunities.
The list of inequities goes on and is still being experienced by First Nation peoples
in Australia and across the world.
There are many compelling reasons why trust takes a long time to build in intercultural collaborations. Collaborations across cultures can create a bridge for connection, but it can be a perilous crossing. The potential risks of neo-colonial appropriation and misunderstanding are ever-present. The space in-between is where reconciliation can occur.
I have come to see that trust
is everything. It is slowly gained and easily
lost. Trust is what keeps the conversation alive. There are so many reasons not
to trust in this world but in my experience, a kind of magic emerges from the in-between spaces when music and art
are involved and an interdisciplinary approach is taken. A spaciousness appears. The reasons not to trust will always
be there, but creative engagement and active participation can enable people to
see and be seen, to hear and be heard. This is what bridges are made of and this,
I believe, is why the work is worth doing.
There was an opportunity to have a direct experience of these in-between spaces at the Intercultural Arts Program of the Island Whale Festival, held on the 5th – 7th July in Cowes on Phillip Island. The Island Whale Festival, now in its third year, celebrates the arrival of humpback whales and southern right whales in the coastal waters off Phillip Island as they migrate north to the warmer waters off Queensland.
The Intercultural Arts Program of the Island Whale Festival was designed to bring people of all ages and cultural backgrounds together through music, art, science and a love of the natural world. Steve Parker named the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Island Whale Festival, ‘Balert Yirramboi’, which translates as ‘Strong Future’, literally ‘Strong Tomorrow’. Steve is a Traditional Custodian, an artist and musician and one of the Directors of the Yowengarra Bun Wurrung Balug Clans Aboriginal Corporation. Steve has lived on Millowl (Phillip Island) all his life.
Activities of ‘Balert Yirramboi’ included Ceremonies, Drumming Circles, Music and Dance, Song Circles, Song Exchanges, Concerts, a Street Parade and a Collaborative Artspace weaving together music, art and science. Elders and Special Guest Artists lead the activities, all of which were designed to deepen intercultural understanding, strengthen community and raise environmental awareness.
The 2019 Intercultural Arts Program of the Island Whale Festival was auspiced by Community Music Victoria, an organisation dedicated to bringing people together and strengthening communities through the power of music.
Here’s a link to a short film ‘Singing with Whales’ from the Intercultural Arts Program at the 2018 Island Whale Festival. https://vimeo.com/288066243
We acknowledge the power and beauty of the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung Country on which this event takes place. We honour and thank all the Ancestors and Elders who have lived on this land and sung it into being the strong place that it is.
Dr Laura Brearley leads a song at the 2018 CMVic Music Camp
**The latter part of this article was updated by CMVic on August 1, to reflect the fact that the 2019 Whale Festival is now a past event.
You’re going to bend it, you’re going to make it, you’re going to recreate it and it’s going to turn into your style and your method and your system in your community; it’s about making community music in your community in the way that suits it best. – Jane Coker, Community Music Victoria
The information-gathering phase of an exciting new CMVic driven Leadership Program is gathering pace, steered by the Gippsland-based, community music dream-team, Jane Coker and Lyndal Chambers. With funding from Helen Macpherson Smith Trust, the duo will design a proposal for a new state-wide community music leadership program based on what people who are passionate about the power of group music making tell them is needed, to stimulate the growth of inclusive singing and instrumental music making across Victoria.
Jane says, “one thing that excites me about the project is that many of the leaders who started learning their craft with us in the early 00’s have now had upwards of 15 years experience of leading inclusive music making. If they weren’t already, they have become experts in their fields, and this project will enable them to collaborate with others who have new perspectives and energy to shape and inspire the future of Victoria’s community music-making.”
Putting a key question to established leaders and to people who have never participated in CMVic skills development before- but who know they want community music to be happening in their organisation, community, agency, or wherever they are – is the first step: “What do you need to be able to do this, in order to make this happen?”
Subject to funding approval, the findings from the research and information gathered will then be used to enable a series of state-wide community music leadership programs to be rolled out in whatever way the people say they want them to be implemented.
stage of the project we don’t know how it’s all going to turn out. It will
depend on what the people want. It’ll be driven by our ethos of collective
empowerment, ie, we share our leadership, we share our skills and resources
because that’s what makes us stronger.”
the skills and leadership training which people feel they need to go out and
make music in their community is only the start. The vision for the Leadership Program
is to ensure individuals feel equipped to go out and find a way of creating and
leading music, and making music happen in their communities, that is all their
“We’re not going to give people a model to follow, there’s not going to be any ‘you have to be like this and you have to do it this way’ We’re going to find out what you need, we’re going to source it from our collective resources, and then you’re going to use that! You’re going to bend it, you’re going to make it, you’re going to recreate it and it’s going to turn into your style and your method and your system in your community; it’s about making community music in your community in the way that suits it best.”
“What do you need to be able to do this, in order to make this happen?”
whether the resources needed to do this are right out there under their noses
or on the other side of the world, Jane and Lyndal are keeping the focus of the
collecting information from people in Melbourne, from Victoria; Australia, and
from around the western world to ask what they’re doing and explore how they’re
promoting this development of leadership capacity. CMVic has never collected
this sort of research together and so we don’t really know where we sit in a
global sense, we don’t know where we sit in terms of whether other people are
using this collective empowerment model, and if so, what can we learn from them
and if they’re not, how can we share what we do with them. If we find ourselves
in a position to be able to enable other people around the world to make their
programs a little bit more to do with collective empowerment, that would be
Lyndal are keen to hear from people who have no idea of CMVic’s history, to
hear about what they feel they need and want in order to be able to get
community music happening in their communities. Similarly, the Leadership
Program is not a review of the training CMVic has offered in the past.
“When we get together with people to talk with them and find out what they want, a lot of them will say ‘we want more of what you offer.’ We know they love what we offer and that it works, so in a sense that does review what we’ve done in the past because it tells us what people want of what we’ve done in the past, and what they don’t want of what we’ve done in the past!”
shape will this year take and how will the research be done?
Lyndal have been working to identify nine regional areas across the state. The
key objective will be to connect people in these communities, who are working
in areas where they could use singing and they could use music but they don’t
know how, with the program. This will be done through a series of consultative
conversations and workshops.
“One of the
main questions we’ll be asking is ‘how can we fertilise the soil around here?’
What needs to be done for the ecology to be healthy in order that people can
empower each other and support each other in this work?”
The first two of these consultation style workshops will be held at the 2019 CMVic Music Camp at Grantville. These will act as prototypes for the rest of the meetings, conversations and workshops, that Lyndal and Jane will be running throughout the rest of the year.
“We’ll be talking about the geographical locations of where the project will be focussing and it means anyone there from any of these regions will then be able to start connecting us into their community and taking it to their region. “People can see what we’re doing, start passing the info on and getting enthusiastic about it.”
Jane and Lyndal can’t wait to share their passion for this project with everyone out on the road. Lyndal explains:
” A number of years ago we went on a CMVic team gathering weekend and allowed ourselves to dream about the state of Victoria as a ‘Community Music Utopia’ and we shared our dreams – through music making together, in all manner of forms and styles, our community is connected and strengthened; we are happier, we live longer more fulfilled lives; we are empowered socially and politically, we share loving empathetic relationships, we have a voice and more… true, it all sounds incredibly idealistic! But what excites me about this project is that as an organisation we are taking a step to turn our dreams into reality. We hope to have more people across Victoria engaging with music in ways that are most relevant to themselves and their communities. And I’m looking forward to being surprised by the outcomes!”
By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Jane Coker and Lyndal Chambers.
On Feb 5th this year I posted in a private feminist group I belong to, the following:
“Random thought for all singers (everyone) in this group: If I was to start a casual Inner North FEMINIST CHOIR, who would be interested? Singing tunes by powerhouse women of pop and indie including Beyonce, Peaches, Meryl Bainbridge. Like if you would be keen to come along x”
The idea for a feminist choir had been rattling around in my head for a long time, nurtured through chats with lefty, femmo, artist friends about what our creative responses to this unique cultural moment in history might look like. I made a playlist entitled ‘Feminist Choir’ that may or may not have included the song Bitch by Meredith Brooks. So when I got 12 comments of support under my Facebook post I thought ‘fantastic, great, let’s do this right away…’
Right away turned out to be 5 months, and change. I booked the room, made a poster, created a Facebook event and – for lack of any better ideas – titled it BIG FEMINIST SING!, thinking this would do until I came up with a much more clever and witty title.
I then proceeded to completely overthink what we would sing: What is a feminist? What does a feminist song sound like? Am I even a good enough feminist? What if I forget how to feminist and I am never allowed to feminist again?!!!!
After this initial bout of imposter syndrome, I realised that I needed to focus on what I wanted from a Big Feminist Sing. What I wanted was to express a complex set of conflicting emotions around identity. To do more than argue with strangers on the internet. To make a physical space for catharsis. To express vulnerability, anger, humour; to be fierce, silly and soulful. I wanted to be unapologetically critical of our leaders, cultural values and institutions. I wanted to build community, and I didn’t need to have all the answers!
It was important to me that the Big Feminist Sing workshop was a welcoming and safe space for all non-binary, gender fluid, intersex and trans singers. There is a disturbing amount of discrimination in some pockets of the feminist community and I wanted it to be clear from the outset that everyone is welcome. I have tried to do that by stating explicitly on all our promotion that we are for everybody. I have also been conscious of this when making song choices and lyric changes in songs. Not just choosing songs with lyrics about Woman power and giving pronoun options on lyric sheets. I hope that this has made the space more welcoming and I will continue to listen to feedback around this.
As with my other projects I knew that selecting material would be crucial to the success of the initial workshop. I wanted it to be satisfying and surprising, so the first song in our first session was the children’s song There’s A Hole In My Bucket, which was my dry and humorous way of finding a song that accurately depicted the domestic mental load and the infantilisation of adult men. We then sung a mournful a capella lament on the destruction of Mother Earth by trans singer-songwriter, Anohni, and Radiohead’s Creep,with guitar accompaniment and the lyrics re-written to be about Trump.
Over 40 people showed up to the first workshop and many were not regular choristers or singers. For the second Big Feminist Sing over 80 people came through the door and I was excited and nervous in equal parts. I now had an unruly mob of lefty feminists to wrangle and lead. What did they want or expect? Luckily our venue had a stage and my accompanist had brought a headset mic for me to use so I had physical command of the room. With prior permission, I had arranged Tiddas’ My Sister in two parts and in just under an hour we had something glorious and powerful. The video of that session was shared nearly 4,000 times and, by her own admission, we had Sally Dastey in tears.
We travelled to Docklands Library for the third session, inspired by the big turnout for the previous workshop in Northcote, however I want Big Feminist Sing to be of no fixed address and to move around, allowing different groups of people to take part. Although the turnout for the Docklands workshop was smaller, a third of those who attended did so only because it was held in a central location.
Our fourth workshop was a collaboration with Reclaim the Night were we learnt Mylk’s Quiet, the anthem from the Women’s march. We were then invited to sing it at the conclusion of the RTN event the following week. I made an online resource of the song so that people who couldn’t attend the workshop could still be a part of the evening event and on the night we had around 40 voices leading the crowd in song.
I have a lot of ideas for the future of Big Feminist Sing and am in the process of putting together a committee to help put them into action. The main question in my mind right now is ‘what is our activism’? What will it look, sound and feel like? I look forward to answering these questions and making music with the incredible humans who make up the BFS community.
Jane York October 2018
The next Big Feminist Sing is on 13 November, 7-9pm at Kindred Studios, 3 Harris St, Yarraville. Click here for info.
About Jane: Jane is a multi skilled musical instigator committed to the community building power of group singing. She is the founder and director of contemporary community choir ‘Just Holler’, musical director of Nillumbik Youth Theatre and producer and musical director of Big Feminist Sing. She has directed choirs and music groups for people aged 10-90 with a focus on mental health recovery and inclusive practice for the disability community.
When she is not waving her hands around Jane is producing community music events including choir jams, a sold-out tribute to 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields, It’s Our Side Project and#Sing4equality.
The following article was co-authored by Jim Morrison, who is a senior Noongar man, a traditional custodian of Western Australia’s pristine southern coast. He has been operating in a range of pivotal roles dealing with Aboriginal advancement for more than three decades.
This is the story of how karaoke, that quintessentially global entertainment, came to Noongar country in Western Australia in the 1990s and was transformed into Noongaroke, a 21st-century version of corroboree events of bygone days.
Noongar people engaging with karaoke created a contemporary process for cultural healing and wellbeing that dealt at a profound level with the anguished politics of death in their community. Leading the charge was the “deadly Noongaroke singing DJ” Jim Morrison.
Jim’s parents, both from the stolen generations, survived to raise their large family whose members are now prominent in Noongar service organisations, politics and the arts in Perth. Jim generously shared his journey in an interview with my partner Darryl Kickett and myself that is quoted extensively here.
Noongar people are the traditional custodians of the south-west region of Western Australia. They bore the full force of settler invasion and colonisation: the deaths, dispossession, loss of land and culture, racism, segregation, removed children, forced assimilation and dire poverty within a rich country.
What survived of their way of life was invisible to most outsiders: the ancient family lineages, connection to country, kinship values and obligations, hidden knowledge and rituals and elements of language.
Today most Noongar people live in city suburbs and country towns. Numbering more than 40,000, they constitute the largest Aboriginal language group in Australia. Many identify as members of a distinct Noongar nation within the Australian settler state. In 2006, Noongar claimants won Australia’s first and only successful native title claim over metropolitan lands.
This was a rude shock for most West Australians, who assumed there was no Noongar culture. In 2013, the West Australian government presented an offer intended to resolve native title claims across Noongar country but one of the negative effects has been to divide the Noongar community and encourage public racism based on fear and ignorance.
What karaoke can do
Karaoke is a form of public singing using the simple technology of a microphone and sound box and a book of lyrics.
Popularised in Japan in the 1970s, it soon spread to South-East Asia and then further to become a global phenomenon. In her 2012 book Karaoke Culture, Dubravka Ugresic uses karaoke metaphorically to denote the “unoriginality” of global culture that is repeated everywhere, endlessly and that encourages bad late-night performances, such as the actor Bill Murray singing More Than This in the 2003 movie Lost in Translation.
In Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon, Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco present a contrasting perspective. They describe karaoke as “an interactive global network”, a form of “global traffic” with “no centre or periphery” moving out in all directions. Like a fluid, karaoke takes on different forms as it “rushes and trickles” through.
Local people incorporate karaoke into their cultural traditions and imbue it with their own “cultural-specific meanings and symbolisms”.
That’s exactly what happened when karaoke came to Noongar country.
Noongaroke was far more than a good night out; it was an inspired intervention to support grieving Noongar families during an unprecedented crisis of deaths in the community during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Noongaroke nights were performances of global culture enmeshed in Noongar ways of being and doing. Noongaroke merged karaoke technology and public singing with Noongar traditions and strategies of survival.
The simple technology fitted neatly into family gatherings to mourn loved ones by providing an attractive way to sing and dance and to restore wellbeing in the manner of earlier corroboree events. It was this combination of the past in the present that powered Noongaroke.
Performance theorist Diana Taylor describes a similar process in Mexican village communities where contemporary performances are structured according to hidden ancient principles and relationships and how performers draw on this embodied knowledge as a repository of strategies for their current struggles and for envisioning new futures.
Jim Morrison started Noongaroke in the late 1990s after years of DJing for Noongar fundraising events and working with street kids in Northbridge, the heart of Perth’s club scene. His first intention was to raise funds for funerals and impoverished families. He recalls that Noongaroke quickly gathered a huge following:
It grew and grew and grew, if you did a head count, you know, thousands and thousands of people have come through Noongaroke. There are people who were just there every night. They just love to sing. It’s always a good atmosphere.
In fact it was a unique atmosphere of pride and enjoyment from being together as Noongar people. Apart from sports carnivals and funerals there were few other community gatherings, although in early days corroborees had been a constant activity. This was due to a lack of resources – land, venues, funds – and an over-zealous police force.
So what was so Noongar about Noongaroke?
We may as well ask what was not Noongar, apart from the equipment and the venues. The singers were all Noongar people and the audience was made up of their extended families. The atmosphere was relaxed, warm and friendly. Noongar colours – red, black and yellow – were everywhere to be seen in flyers, decorations, flags, coloured lights and clothing.
The venues were rooms in hotels in Noongar suburbs that were private and “Noongar comfortable”.
Sadly we had to use a hotel because we don’t own nothing. Aboriginal people don’t own nothing. We don’t have our own places.
Noongar values of respect replaced the usual impersonal rules for behaviour at karaoke nights. Few people drank alcohol. Jim explains:
there’s a code of conduct based on respect: respect yourself, respect others, respect other people’s property and respect other cultures. And that was the Kanya Code of Conduct, Kanya meaning, shame, behave yourself.
But Jim admits it would have been unusual if there weren’t any problems because:
it’s part of our culture. That’s a culture thing. If we’re going to disagree we’re going to do it publicly so you accept it. But mostly, they’d never bring their fights to a fundraiser.
And there were the unmistakable sounds of Noongar talk – the words, tones of voice and the accents – as families reminisced about the good and sad times and the texture of the singers’ voices and their choices of nostalgic rock and country songs – Johnny B. Goode, Brown-eyed Girl, Neon Moon, Satin Sheets, Seven Spanish Angels – from the Noongaroke Top Ten and a book called Lubbli Songs.
And there were Noongar people dancing – young girls and women in groups and couples skilfully negotiating their way around them. Jim explained:
When you go to a karaoke night, it’s mostly singing. But ours was about singing and dancing … you had to do it – it was a bit of a balance.
Community music-making continued down the generations. In rural areas, families segregated in town camps and the bush made their own entertainment: corroborees with traditional singing and accompaniment and family dances round the campfire with singers, harmonica, piano accordion and guitar.
In the early 1950s, when the policy of assimilation was in force but Perth was still a prohibited area for Noongar people, an Aboriginal political organisation, the Coolbaroo League, held popular dances at the Coolbaroo Club in a hall in East Perth with Noongar musicians like drummer Ron Kickett and singer Gladys Bropho and visiting Afro-American performers.
New song and dance styles spread through the Noongar community at Coolbaroo dances organised in country towns. Noongar rock bands were playing in Perth in the 1970s for youth dances at the Aborigines Advancement Council Hall and in the 1990s at the Kyana festivals on Perth Esplanade. Whenever the opportunity arose, Noongar people joined in to sing and dance.
During the rush of deaths in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Noongaroke helped to clear distressed bodies and minds of sorrow and haunting spirits.
Jim described how DJing and singing at the events raised his sense of wellbeing:
You see, singing is really good for therapy, you know, to really tear yourself inside and sing a good rock and roll song … and with all the people in the room, the temperature goes up.
This link between singing and wellbeing, known intuitively by singers, has been the subject of much research in recent years, demonstrating improved physical and mental fitness and relief from stress, depression and anxiety. Noongaroke performances were special events that we were all privileged to attend. Sitting in the audience we were carried away by the power of the singing to unite us and to evoke memories and emotions.
“Diversity and inclusion must be about understanding your identity and the identities of all people. Only then can we be courageous enough to steer away from like-mindedness through assimilating people’s differences (melting pot) and towards like-mindedness through honoring those differences (mosaic). To do this, initiatives designed for “cultural competency” aren’t enough. Diversity and inclusion requires diverse and non-diverse leaders to work together to create a culture that embraces diversity of thought and deploys the required best practices, development tools, and resources to maximize talent engagement, advancement, workplace performance, and overall satisfaction.” Glenn Llopis; Forbes.com
An exciting new training program focussed on Diversity and Inclusion in Singing Leadership was rolled out in Melbourne this year to kick against the concept of the cultural melting pot, replacing that sticky, outdated cauldron with shared knowledge, experience and insights that recognise and celebrate the difference we each bring to a situation as individuals in our own right, and to develop community singing leadership so that more programs supporting disadvantage and community building can be established across Victoria and beyond.
Singing for Inclusion (SINC) is the outcome of an inaugural collaboration between Community Music Victoria and Creativity Australia. The two organisations joined forces to train and refresh new and existing community Singing Leaders in how to create genuinely nurturing, safe environments for singing group participants that are inclusive and open to everyone, irrespective of their physical and mental needs or cultural background.
SINC is anti-assimilation and pro positive acknowledgement of visible and invisible difference. The program was conceived to encourage leaders to reflect and consider their perceptions and understandings of the depth and breadth of the meaning of diversity and how to be properly inclusive, a word Sarah Mandie, Diversity Coordinator for CMVic and the SINC Program Manager, believes ‘people use very freely and don’t always consider the full implications of what they are offering.’
Community Music Victoria has successfully trained and mentored hundreds of Singing Group Leaders across the state through its Victoria Sings program for over a decade. Its focus has consistently been creating a ‘free and fearless space’ in which participants feel safe to be open with themselves and each other. Through its partnership with CA, CMVic was able to share this experience and knowledge and combine it with observations and learning derived from CA’s With One Voice program.
Sarah Mandie together with Jane Coker from CMVic and Ross Maher from Creativity Australia ran a community consultation process to devise the framework and content of the SINC training program which was then run as a series of free one day workshops. Sarah Mandie explains:
“We put out a survey to people working in key areas of diversity and followed this with a consulting workshop to review the results and finalise and identify what people would want and need out of a course like this. Key people in given areas such as disability and mental health all gave similar feedback and the main thing to emerge was this: If you are going to run a course about people with different abilities, then these people need to be involved in the program somehow, which was always our intention.”
The course content was a mixture of singing leadership skills, diversity awareness, discussion with people with lived experience of mental and physical disability and sessions on how to run your group. SINC also addressed awareness of best practice in how to include all these components with the central and focal point remaining what is needed to be inclusive. As Sarah says, “are we as singing leaders really doing that or are we just talking about it…?”
Experienced singing leaders and key people involved in community arts practice around Melbourne were invited to come and present or facilitate a session, and this element of peer exchange as a substantial component of the course proved highly effective in giving people an opportunity to speak with passion, and to continue their own personal learning through listening to each other’s different viewpoints and things to be mindful of:
“Recognition of everyone’s experiences, needs and skills and bringing everyone together in a course like this actually maximises everyone’s learning… I would say for me as an experience it totally helped shape my understanding of these areas and this nature of facilitation allows everyone to contribute to something so that even in a training course about leadership, everyone, including even the facilitators, is learning. That’s the environment: the environment and the culture.”
A brilliant result of the course has been a wonderfully supportive network of leaders who are working with diverse singing groups and choirs and we hope this network will continue to grow and help each other.
“A clear message to emerge from the SINC training course is as a Singing Leader, you don’t know who’s in the room before you get there and you don’t know what’s going on in their head, and you don’t know how different they are to you or how they are feeling… AND YOU CAN NEVER ASSUME!”
“Jane Coker did an exercise to demonstrate this by getting people to share their favourite musical artist , and it was highly effective at showing how different everyone is about something you can’t see, and it was a good example of how there is always something about somebody you don’t know.”
Resources from the SINC training program will be available online in due course. Watch this space!
Foundation House is an organisation set up to help refugees and migrants who are survivors of torture in other countries, assisting them with settlement services and connecting them with other organisations such as AMES on arrival in Australia. It is also the starting point in this story of a group of Chaldean Christian women who have hopes of becoming the Assyrian Women’s Choir.
The Assyrian Women’s group is a group of Chaldean women who have fled persecution and torture in Iraq and Syria. Persecuted for being Christian and for speaking a different language, these women have been migrating to safety in Australia to begin a new life for more than twenty years, and they keep coming.
Whenever new refugees or migrants arrive, the women mobilise themselves into a welcome committee, travelling out to the airport. They help the new arrivals to find their feet in this foreign country where for many of them, language is a barrier. Every Friday, the women meet to sing and cook food together, sharing stories of their lives, old and new, as well as offering skills and support to each other. They are from places in Iraq we’ve all heard about in the news, and they know the pain of conflict, displacement, persecution and loss.
A strong love for singing their traditional Arabic and Chaldean folk songs exists between the women, and this is how Sarah Mandie, Diversity Coordinator with Community Music Victoria came to be involved in their journey.
Sarah approached Foundation House to offer skills and support to the staff and community to in her capacity as a singing leader and facilitator. Carolyn Wilson, one of the senior counsellors there, immediately thought of the Chaldean Christian Women’s group and arranged for Sarah and CMVic’s Coordinator, Oli Hinton, to meet with them. Translator and Foundation house worker, Dr Salam Dankha, made communication possible. At the first meeting, Oli and Sarah were welcomed with traditional food and songs, and a bond was formed. In 2017 a further two sessions were planned for Sarah to work with the group ahead of their participation at the International Women’s Day celebrations, at Dianella Health in Craigieburn.
During the first session, the women chose to sing two songs: one, an Iraqi song about the beauty of Iraqi women, and the second a folk song about courtship and the relevance of bringing gifts for the girl. Their enthusiasm was evident and they conveyed their hopes of galvanising the group into something with a more formal structure which would enable them to preserve and share the music as messengers of their culture and as advocates for peace in the wider community.
Sarah has been enabling the women to find a focus and they have plans to write a song together, an anthem unique to the group, written around universal morals and themes such as peace, as part of their journey of healing, participation and empowerment.
The next phase is to obtain the funding necessary for Sarah to continue her work with the Assyrian women because, as she says, “I’ve already developed a relationship with them, and it’s a good one.” Supporting the group in selecting a repertoire and helping them to develop the structure they need to become a sustainable choir constitutes part of a proposed new CMVic led project called ‘Voices of Peace‘.
“It’s about giving the leaders already in place within the Assyrian community some skills and structure to use, it’s also about support in identifying potential new leaders and it’s about assistance with sustainability.” as well as offering suggestions and feedback around how the songs are sung: “It’s one thing for the women to sit and sing music of their culture together but in order to get out and share the material, some guidance is necessary.”
While the group is comprised solely of Assyrian women, these women are open to everyone, no matter where they are from. They don’t have any barriers around ethnicity, religion, etc. Instead, there is open-ness, recognition and acceptance of difference:
“They just understand…I told them I have an Indian husband, and that I’m Jewish and it created this openness, I mean, we’re all just different aren’t we, and we want to get along.”
This is the focus and purpose of the group: to sing their music, celebrate and preserve their unique culture and through sharing this love of it with others, to create greater harmony and understanding in society, improving mental and physical health and well-being along the way on the road to recovery.
As part of the International Women’s Day event, there was a fashion parade and it was a chance for everyone to get dressed up and a celebration for all women, from all cultures. “The Assyrian women came out wearing jewelled gowns, and having a wonderful time with the Indian women; celebrating being women.”
As the Assyrian Women’s Choir, these women will find new opportunities and ways to meet people, make connections and friendships, to share and celebrate where they are from and and to participate and contribute to the richness of the diverse, inclusive and safe society they have found themselves part of.
Listen to an early session with the Assyrian Women’s group, here.
Written by Deb Carveth with Sarah Mandie for Community Music Victoria
Life would be boring if we were all the same. Living in the most culturally diverse state in Australia, as Victorians we are encouraged to be inclusive and tolerant of everyone, and to show respect for aspects or characteristics in a person perceived to be different to our own.
Diversity and inclusion are important components of a healthy, happy and effective society where everyone feels recognised, valued for who they are and able to contribute, irrespective of their background, religion, ethnicity, language etc.
Over the coming weeks, this blog will take a closer look at the ongoing work done by Community Music Victoria to promote diversity and inclusion in our music making communities, with focus on two particular projects:
1: The SINC program (Singing for Inclusion) A series of workshops run by Community Music Victoria in partnership with Creativity Australia to train singing leaders in running inclusive singing groups.
2: Voices of Peace: a project to empower recently arrived and settled refugees from Assyrian Chaldean background to establish a Women’s Choir though which to build and strengthen connections and to reduce the pain of dislocation and loss sustained through the persecution they have endured.
As a prelude to these posts, we felt it worthwhile to re-visit what is meant when we talk about diversity, and inclusion.
According to good old google, diversity is ‘The state of being diverse or ‘a range of different things.’
Through its very essence, diversity is not restricted and defies definition.
While the most obvious and noticeable points of diversity in people such as age, race, gender, and other physical attributes are external, you can never assume anything about a person simply by looking at them. Avoid stereotyping at all cost.
Non-visual or invisible diversity covers a plethora of factors, issues and circumstances that are not seen readily and can only be ascertained if that person choses to share them with you. Again, never judge a book by its cover, and be prepared to ask people about themselves in an open, direct and empathic way.
Put simply, diversity means there is a point of difference.
Global Diversity Practice UK states: “Diversity is about empowering people. Fundamentally, diversity means respect for and appreciation of differences in age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and national origin that are implemented by laws and policies…
…the power of diversity can only be unleashed and its benefits reaped when we recognise these differences and learn to respect and value each individual irrelevant of their background.”
Which brings us on to the other side of the coin: inclusion.
We each carry a diverse and unique set of cultural beliefs, experiences and attitudes which define us. Inclusion is the practise of allowing our individual differences to be recognised and socially accepted. It is about being welcomed into a situation and feeling fairly and equally treated for the person you are and not judged on your religion, origin, age, gender, marital status, etc.
Inclusion is vital in creating a rich and stable environment where shared learning leads to strength and cohesion and one in which people can thrive. It is about creating what Community Music Victoria refers to as ‘a free and fearless space’ in which everyone has the capacity reach their full potential because they feel genuinely included, supported and valued. It requires a commitment to the process of continued learning, and in this respect is a journey for us all with a number of positive outcomes.
“Inclusion is a sense of belonging: feeling respected, valued for who you are as an individual or group; feeling a level of supportive energy and commitment from others so that you can do your best… Inclusion is a shift in an organisation’s mindset and culture. The process of inclusion engages each individual and makes people feel valued which is essential to the success of the organisation. Individuals function at full capacity and feel more valued and included in the organisation’s mission. This culture shift creates higher performing organisations where motivation and morale soar.” Global Diversity Practice UK
diversity and inclusion enables us to grow our understanding and find new ways of doing things.”
In a fully inclusive society, diversity is embraced and celebrated as opposed to shunned, feared or stereotyped and the potential and opportunity for connection is greater. Through seeking to understand and educate ourselves about difference, we can move forward more cohesively and, in doing so, create a rich and varied society where commonality and difference co-exist happily, where people feel safe to share their backgrounds and culture whilst retaining the practice, beliefs, characteristics and traits which make each of us so delightfully unique.
Three ways to immediately be more inclusive:
Don’t make assumptions about an individual
Think before you speak: Understand how what you say and do impacts on others
Twice a week Mayhem breaks out in the life of Gippsland based Singing Leader, Jane Coker. This has nothing to do with escaped chooks or lost car keys, Mayhem is a music and drama group, organised by Scope and facilitated by Jane, for adults from day centres in Traralgon, Wonthaggi, and Warragul. Everyone comes together at the Grainstore, a beautiful old wooden building in Mirboo North, to sing and dance and meet other people. It’s about therapy, fun and having a good time together. It’s about making a racket and making a mess. And it’s awesome.
The group are extremely wide ranging in their abilities, some people are really high functioning, others communicate with the blink of an eye and Jane runs the group by herself. Five or six carers come along and take care of the physical needs of participants, assisting them with morning tea at the start of each session and with lunch at the end, as well as helping them to take part in the activities.
The group was established by Jane’s mate, Kate Jackson, who recognised a need in the area for this type of group and was doing all she could to enable people to have a creative experience. When the time came for her to hand over to somebody else, she approached Jane who had no previous experience of leading a group of people with such diverse abilities.
“Kate was getting people singing, she was getting people dancing, she was doing a bit of drama. I looked at it and thought, well, I reckon I’ve done enough of this in my life, I think I can probably have a go at that and I’ll treat it as a training course because everything I’ve ever learnt around Community Arts Development in my life has been learnt on the job.”
Jane decided to train herself, try leading Mayhem for a year and see if she liked it driven by her guiding principle: To find a way to enable everyone in this group to participate in some way in what’s going on. The next question then, was how? How to do this with such a mixed group?
To begin with, Jane took a lot of guidance from the carers. While it’s obvious to see when some people are participating, with others this is more difficult particularly if you don’t recognise the significance of the sentiment they’re relaying with their eyes or from their movements or the sounds that they make. For one or two of the participants, it is hard for anyone to decipher whether they’re benefitting from taking part or not and for them Jane believes Mayhem has to exist as a sensory experience in as much as they’re having something happen as opposed to having nothing happen around them and this, perhaps, is as participatory as it can be.
Jane approaches leading Mayhem as she does all her other groups. People are people.
‘If my main aim is full participation and I’ve got to fathom out how to get somebody to participate where it’s not obvious and it’s not easy, the only way to go about facilitating that is (a) To collect as much information about each person as I can, and I engage the carers to make sure they are part of the whole process, and (b) to actually engage with that person as much as I possibly can and try to find out how I can have a relationship with them. It might just be the tiniest thing like a finger uncurling when I touch their hand but if that happens repeatedly, that’s feedback and that’s me developing a relationship with that person.’
Over the course of the past four years, Jane has learnt a lot about the subtlety of changes in the facial expressions of participants: ‘I’ve really learnt to to recognise the sounds and the subtle little changes in their faces and their eyes….I’d never had that experience before and it has been amazing.’
Jane begins and ends each session with the same song. To begin with she thought everyone would grow really bored of this, but the opposite has happened, and they love it. And the more they do it, the more they know it. For some of them, it has taken four years to develop the confidence to sing that song and Jane recognises this as something working with Mayhem has taught her: there is so much to be said for repetition of material.
Using the same song also acts as an effective signal to everyone that the class has begun, and that it has ended so that even if they don’t really know what’s going on, people have a sense that something is in process and that they are a part of it.
Music played on the PA gets the Mayhem mob dancing and taking it in turn to pick the tunes which vary from ABBA to YMCA, to Pink and everything in between, reflecting the range in their ages. While the dancing is taking place, anyone in a wheelchair is helped to move by Jane and the carers: ‘It’s dancing in the broadest sense with some people dancing in their minds.’
‘One guy’s into really heavy aggressive rap, and I draw the line there as the material isn’t suitable to impose on other people and politically I can’t play it myself, but he participates fully in other ways, and I talk to him about why I don’t play his stuff and I think he gets it!’
Singing through the microphone proves popular, offering a lot of fun and visibly increased confidence to the singers. Jane says ‘I never thought I’d think that was a good thing to do but I do! Because it’s what they see on the TV and it enables them to do something that they recognise and they have a LOT of fun doing it… And while they’re doing that, everyone else is dancing and using really nice bright coloured pom poms and stuff to dance with, twirling around, there’s a lot of colour and everyone’s doing their own thing, and it is, well, mayhem!!’
Jane uses a big pile of percussion and dressing up clothes with Mayhem. Because there’s no funding for this, she spends spare time scouring op shops for anything they can use in the group. For anyone who can’t physically grip a shaker or move their hands, Jane has made velcro variations and modified instruments which can be strapped onto an arm, enabling that person to make music and she’s always on the look-out for instruments that can be adapted. Soft stuff comes in handy too, as there are a lot of participants who throw things.
“If I can find a soft ball with a bell inside it, that’s perfect because it can be used as an instrument but when it’s thrown, it doesn’t decapitate anybody…”
Call and response features heavily in Mayhem, techniques learnt by Jane through voice-work training workshops. “I make sounds to the group, they make sounds back at me, and it’s a beautiful thing because people who are non-verbal do still use their voices a lot and will do that when invited to do so. So they’ll make sounds and we can make them back, and in this way they are participating fully.
There is a basic sign language called Key Word Sign used by the carers to indicate food, going to the toilet, etc, and Jane feels this is a skill which should be developed and taught more widely: ‘If I was able to go on some sort of course to learn Key Word Sign, or the appropriate sign language to use with people which is used across the board in those kind of facilities, that would really add to my skills.’
A forum was held at the recent CMVic Singing Camp between singing leaders working with marginalised sectors including disability. Jane found being a part of this conversation invaluable because it reinforced her belief that the best way to develop confidence and strength in your own ability is to network with other people who are doing the same kind of thing:
‘Have a phone conversation with somebody, go to their group, see what they’re doing and participate. If you can apprentice yourself to somebody else who is doing it, that would be amazing, but this is a little bit unlikely, given that we are so few and far between. It might work better in the city…’*
Now into her fifth year working with Mayhem, Jane reflects on how it has become easier as time has gone on. “I’d say the training course took two and a half years of me leading the group once a week, and since then I’ve led it twice a week. And now I feel confident in doing what I go there to do. It’s about the fun, the relationships and the positive attitude…
“I love the fact that I’ve proved to myself that the principle of as much inclusion as possible, in the moment that you’re in is the one that works best.”
Article by Deb Carveth with Jane Coker
If you have any percussion instruments, shakers, bells, or things which are fun to play that you would like to give Jane and Mayhem, let us know!
If you would like to get in touch and speak with Jane about her work with Mayhem, she can be contacted on email@example.com
*Music Action is a closed Facebook group run by Melissa Murphy for people facilitating all abilities music groups for adolescents and adults. It’s an ideal forum to share ideas, news and conversation.