Dutcher’s first album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, comes directly from that source. Its songs have survived this last century solely on a series of wax cylinder field recordings, and in the fading memories of a diminishing handful of native speakers.
Recast in western classical style but with elements of the original recordings and a sustained, haunting ancestral gravity, it’s simultaneously an act of cultural restoration and a modern album of mesmerising beauty. It was recently awarded Canada’s highest music accolade, the Polaris Prize.
‘‘The spirit at the bottom of these songs is really old and I think it can move past language and touch people in a way that is, I guess, proto-linguistic,’’ Dutcher says. ‘‘I mean, we could get into a debate about whether song came before spoken word … ’’ but the point, at this stage of history, is that the former is offering the latter its best chance of survival.
There’s an inherent tragedy in this story, of course. The decline of Wolastoqey is largely attributable, Dutcher says, to ‘‘assimilation policies and residential schools, quite similar to the stolen generation that they talk about in Australia”.
“A lot of our stories are similar in that way. We had kids rounded up and taken to schools where it was not OK to speak the language and you were actively abused for speaking your language, so the kinds of tools of assault that were used against indigenous people might not look like putting them in jail, but there’s a deeper psychological warfare that took place … and we’re seeing the effects of that time today.’’
As quickly as his passion rises, though, the music man is weary of that story. ‘‘We could go on talking about the negatives and this terrible history that we share, or we could talk about the kind of work that’s happening in the communities to revitalise these languages and make them live again; put them in songs again, get them on the radio.’’
‘We could go on talking about the negatives and this terrible history that we share, or we could talk about the kind of work that’s happening in the communities to revitalise these languages and make them live again; put them in songs again, get them on the radio.
It’s here that the aforementioned tides of technology, fashion and appetites for fresh musical expression can work miracles for endangered cultures. ‘‘The people in my community got really excited about this project because we get to hear songs in our language on the radio,’’ Dutcher says. ‘‘That’s something that didn’t happen one generation ago. So it’s a pendulum, and it’s swinging all the time.’’
Up in the Australian red dirt country of Maningrida on the edge of the Arafura Sea, there’s a parallel in the story of Ripple Effect: a rock band of mostly indigenous women who will share the MONA FOMA 2020 program with Dutcher next month.
In plenty of communities in Arnhem Land and elsewhere, English still hasn’t taken hold as the lingua franca of the local store. Tara Rostron speaks haltingly in that language, but ‘‘my song on Spotify, Madjarndemed, is in English and Kune,’’ she says. ‘‘That’s my main language, and also Dalabon. That’s my great-great-grandmother’s language.’’
What’s changed since her great-great grandmother’s day isn’t just the technology that’s put an electric guitar in her hand. The very existence of a female rock band singing in language was a pioneering concept when Ripple Effect first plugged in a few years ago.
‘‘Here in Arnhem Land, women don’t perform music in public,’’ says Sydney-born Jodie Kell, the band’s sole Balanda member. ‘‘It’s not like the desert, where you have women’s public songs and men’s public songs … Up here, women will dance but they don’t sing. In the gospel scene they might play keyboards but certainly not in the rock/reggae scene.’’
Needless to say, even in the enlightened urban centres, the non-indigenous rock world is not quite yet a bastion of female opportunity. ‘‘Rehearsal spaces, stages, technical crew — the whole culture is a male culture. So I think these women are really brave to be doing what they’re doing,’’ Kell says.
Having worked extensively as a mentor and musician in the Northern Territory, MONA FOMA artistic director Brian Ritchie admits to a degree of frustration with the language barriers that still exist in the Australian mainstream. The phenomenal embrace of Gurrumul was clearly an exception to an abiding rule, and one that proved that poetry resides as much in sound and intention as literal meaning.
‘‘The languages are beautiful,’’ Ritchie says. ‘‘It’s like when you listen to great Italian opera and it just sounds so beautiful. It may be obscure to your ears but it’s very musical and you would not get the same results if you just translated it into English or some other language. There’s something about the Indigenous language itself that informs the way the melody goes in the music. It’s beautiful and I think we should be more open to it.’’
Still the bassist with acoustic punk trio the Violent Femmes, Ritchie recalls touring with Alice Springs father-daughter duo Rayella in 2017. ‘‘The songs are usually about … ‘I’m lonely and I want to go home’; or ‘I love the land I live on’,’’ he says. ‘‘Like any folk tradition, it’s about recurring archetypal themes and individuals who express them in different ways.’’
What’s different is the sense of ownership, which harks back to the pre-copyright days of western folk music. ‘‘Songs are owned by community and developed over generations,’’ Ritchie says. ‘‘You’ll hear, ‘This song belongs to me now, but it used to belong to my uncle’. It’s an ongoing story. The roots of some of these songs go back way pre-colonial.’’
‘‘Hunting,’’ is Tara Royston’s one-word answer to what Ripple Effect’s songs are about. ‘‘We’re writing songs about hunting and about our country. It’s about here in Maningrida, and it’s about hunting.’’
Dutcher can boil his content down to essentials too: ‘‘The river,’’ he says. ‘‘About half of these songs are about the water. There’s a canoe song, there’s ‘When we go down to the water’; there are gathering songs … You know, indigenous music, still to this day, is all about the lives of people. It’s folk music, right? It’s just speaking about indigenous realities at that time.
‘‘You’ll notice there are not many liner notes [on his album] in the way of translations, and that was a particular choice [concerning] audience, and who I create for. I did this very much for the Wolastoqiyik; for my people. And I wanted them to know that.
‘‘There are so many stories in our community that have yet to be told by us. Especially in what they call North America. A lot of those narratives that came out of Hollywood, that had nothing to do with indigenous people or what we think or what kind of art we make. For me, the work that I want to do is to shine a light on indigenous brilliance and all the people that are doing amazing work in their field.’’
As much as they relish the welcome they receive on their trips to the major capitals, Royston is clear, too, that the real work of Ripple Effect is happening at home. Growing up, ‘‘I never saw a woman playing music. No. None’’, she says.
‘‘Why we’re doing all these songs is for people here in Maningrida, to show them, everyone here, to love and respect. We sing in different languages and we love to inspire women everywhere so that one day, they can be like us too; to show them more love and care and so they can respect and love each other.’’
MONA FOMA is at various venues in Launceston from January 10 to 20.
Michael Dwyer is an arts and music writer