Indigenous Songwriting Boosts Endangered Aboriginal Languages

Image caption: Children participating in the Baya Gawiy songwriting initiative.
Image caption: Children participating in the Baya Gawiy songwriting initiative.

An Indigenous songwriting initiative is helping preserve and strengthen Aboriginal culture and languages in a remote part of Western Australia.

The Baya Gawiy songwriting initiative, developed by a University of Melbourne researcher, a Perth-based cultural organisation and a group of early childhood educators and language specialists, has been running in partnership with the Marninwarntikura Women's Resource Centre (MWRC) in Western Australia's Fitzroy Crossing since 2021, as part of its early learning and care program, Baya Gawiy Buga yani Jandu yani U.

The initiative is aimed at supporting Indigenous language revitalisation and community healing through music-making, and is part of Sound FX, a music residency program where musicians from Tura—one of Australia's most celebrated organisations for sound art—work collaboratively with Fitzroy Crossing community members to create new music and sound art that celebrates cultural knowledge and supports wellbeing.

Participants have put together a catalogue of original and meaningful children's music, written in local languages including Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Walmajarri, and Kimberley Kriol.

The musical collection is designed to be used as teaching tools for the MWRC's early childhood learning and care programs, with each composition celebrating local Indigenous knowledge, passed down from elders.

Songwriting facilitator and project leader University of Melbourne's Dr Gillian Howell said, "The Baya Gawiy songwriting project has produced 12 new songs and 16 new recordings including four new lullabies, three new hunting songs and two new counting songs. This collection of new songs is helping the community share important stories and knowledge with their little ones, while creating opportunities for individuals to develop their music skills through collaborative songwriting."

Songwriter, co-researcher, and Gooniyandi woman Patricia Cox said, "We're making songs for the little kids to learn, but the words we put in place have a lot of meaning. The lyrics are about caring for Country and having respect for your environment. Our songs are all about strengthening, and that's empowering for us."

The Indigenous Literacy Foundation has now invited the team to turn their collection of songs into a community songbook, which will be published next year with a nationwide distribution plan that will generate income for Baya Gawiy's language, culture, and wellbeing programs. The songbook will contain lyrics, music notation and chords, artwork created in the community for each song, and an introduction to each song by the songwriters.

The songbook will include the songs written as part of the Baya Gawiy songwriting project as well as others by students and their teachers at Fitzroy Valley District High School that were created as part of Sound FX. The songs describe hunting and fishing trips, local fauna and their habitats, and local plants for bush medicine.

Dr Howell has been researching the impact of the songwriting project on the local community since 2022. The findings show there's been some significant changes since the program launched.

"Local children are singing along to the music both at home and in classrooms, even correcting adults who get the lyrics wrong. The Kimberley Language Resource Centre considers intergenerational sharing of Aboriginal languages a key indicator of language vitality, so singing in the family is a very significant outcome. Our research also reveals even when the region was grappling with natural disasters, children and educators turned to music as a stress reliever, highlighting the project's wellbeing benefits," Dr Howell said.

Sound FX's Flow album, which was recorded in 2019 and released in 2021 is accessible to listeners online.

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