We had the chance to see this extraordinary film today – the Song Keepers.
So gorgeously produced, it covers the story behind the rising fame of aboriginal choirs from Central Australia, continuing a legacy that was started by German Lutheran missionaries in the 1870s.
There is a lot of bad press about missions, but this film brings out the other side, the untold side. These missionaries taught the indigenous tribes to read and write in their own languages, to keep and cherish and pass on these things (as well as protecting them from the violence and slaughtering all around them, and the abhorrent eugenic policies of the government, ie ‘the stolen generations’ of half caste children who were taken into “welfare”.) The “secret” is, that for all of these years they have kept the old, beautiful hymns taught to their great grandparents as well, some never translated to English, including the oldest (public) Christian song, written in the 4th century (in Greek, of course, translated to German and then into these aboriginal languages!)
Morris, the choir director, is originally from Guyana, South America – a descendent of slaves, and met his Australian wife in England. It’s a wonderful and natural friendship he developed with these incredibly remote choirs, being the lover of music that he is, and bringing them together to form one choir, which eventually toured Germany to return the songs that were brought to their people 140 years before. He says in the movie that he is surprised the missionaries taught the children such complex music, but then he commented that, no doubt, the missionaries had observed that they were somewhat similar in complexity to the chants they were already using in their culture (as well as Western Arranta being considered one of the most complex languages on the planet! They have more touring planned, and I think they may be heading to the US and Canada, but I need to research that more to be sure.)
Tonight I was talking to one of our church members who visits this area often and knows some of the choir members well. He was a little disappointed they didn’t show more of their singing. He said their repertoire is amazing. At a two hour live concert he went to, they only had a ten minute break.
If you have the chance, I highly recommend seeing the film. The music alone brought me to tears, so beautifully performed. And their individual stories they highlight, well, I’m surprised if anyone leaves with dry eyes!
PS. Australia lost a gem recently, the aboriginal artist, Roy McIvor.
He has a beautiful book published, an autobiography: Cockatoo, My Life in Cape York which includes the harrowing stories of their life on the mission in northern Queensland during the second world war – their beloved German missionary was considered a spy by the Australian government! Fascinating and tragic read, another chapter white washed from our history books.