For the Torres Strait Islander (TSI) community, music helps to articulate the concepts and embodied experiences of their lives. Despite its significance to the culture, there is a fragmented and under-developed approach to the documentation and cultivation of music.
"Our songs play a big part in overcoming the hurt of oppression and dispossession," TSI community member Mr Toby Whaleboat said. "The lyrics in many of the TSI worship songs are about finding hope, freedom, strength, love and especially forgiveness. All of these values aid in strengthening the family and community faith that one day there will be justice and equality."
In 2014, the Faculty of Education and Arts funded a new Strategic Network, titled, Torres Strait Islander sacred music: protection, cultivation and revitalisation.
Led by Dr Philip Matthias, the Network includes: Toby Whaleboat, Dr Jocelyn McKinnon, Dr Catherine Grant, and Dr Karl Neuenfeldt (Central Queensland University). They will work to protect, cultivate and revitalise TSI music and musical practices in close collaboration with representatives from the TSI community.
"One thing I've learned about music is that it can reconcile and bring people together," Whaleboat said. "Indigenous music is our history. It's where we come from and gives us a sense of belonging to country; a sense of who we are as an identity – an Australian identity."
Along with research into performance practices, cultural contexts, and history, one of the Network's projects includes the analysis and transcription of sacred TSI music recordings held digitally in Canberra at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies archives.
During 2014, Network members were involved in a number of workshops with people from the TSI community, and Matthias has begun transcribing TSI songs that have previously never been written down.
"I handwrite all the music, and we constantly make changes as we sing it with different people and at different events. Once all the recording and transcribing is done, this resource will be available to the community," Matthias said.
"One of our aims is to look at the history of the songs. We would like to look at where and what this music comes from; what are the roots underpinning these songs."
During 2015, the Network will develop several existing pilot projects to their next stages, in relation to documentation, performance, education, and community engagement.
"We will run a number of workshops in Newcastle and Townsville with young people, both TSI and non-Indigenous, to teach them these songs, so they get to express themselves in similar ways about their own culture," Matthias said.
Matthias and Whaleboat will also work towards the publication of traditional and contemporary sacred TSI texts and music, including new works that will incorporate both English language and the native TSI Meriam Mir language.
"Many churches today sing songs in English, so to keep our language alive we sing at home where we hold family gatherings. We sing these songs so our sons and daughters will remember and pass them on to their children," Whaleboat said.
Matthias believes we should look to New Zealand as an example of a more integrated music culture.
"In New Zealand, it's very common to have Maori text in songs, especially in church music, but we don't do that in Australia," Matthias said. "There is currently no line between who we are and where we are living."
There will also be a symposium during 2015 where members of the Network, guest scholars and members of the TSI community will come together in Newcastle.
This is part of a larger emerging research focus in the School of Creative Arts on Australian Indigenous music and culture, which over the last 24 months has seen Creative Arts staff and students become increasingly active in learning and teaching, and research and performance in areas of Aboriginal and TSI music and culture.
Image from left: Dr Jocelyn McKinnon, Dr Ray Kelly and Associate Professor Maree Gruppetta from UON's Wollotuka Institute, Dr Philip Matthias, and Dr Catherine Grant, Birabhan building, Callaghan campus