Yamani: Voices of an Ancient Land
by Faith Baisden, Thomas Dick, Carolyn Barker, and Kristina Kelman
For tens of thousands of years, the rich and beautiful sounds of hundreds of different languages washed across Australia. Over all of the continent it is believed there were more than five hundred languages at one time.
Around two hundred years ago, a new language began to replace them, sweeping across the land with such force that some parts of it could no longer hear the voices that told its stories and held its secrets. A deep silence seemed to be looming.
Then, finally, a change began. As the volume of the old words faded to a whisper in some places, the people who are their custodians began to take action, calling for respect, for the rights to speak and be heard in their traditional tongues, while stirring everyone to appreciate the treasury of knowledge held in the first languages of Australia. “Yamani: Voices of an Ancient Land” is part of that call.
Language is cultural identity encapsulated by song.
“Yamani: Voices of an Ancient Land” is an innovative collaboration between the Queensland Indigenous Languages Advisory Committee (QILAC) — an Indigenous language advocacy organization — and the Wantok Musik Foundation record label. More than just a recording, the results of this project include a fully-mastered CD with ten songs in five different languages, a short film highlighting the impact that this project has had on the participants, and a range of performances.
The film, also titled Yamani: Voices of an Ancient Land, can be viewed at the link provided below. It illustrates the power of language, the strength of identity, and the way in which pride in Indigenous cultures can be shared through contemporary song. The Further Reading / Viewing / Listening list below includes links to two other films, one that shares Ethel Munn’s story and another from Joyce Bonner. These two films help to provide some background to the Yamani project.
Warrgamay elder, Bridget Priman, explains: “Yamani means ‘rainbow’ in the Warrgamay language, and as the name for this group it reflects the coming together of different people and languages in a rainbow of song.”
Knowledge holders from other communities joined with Bridget to create this musical rainbow. They are Ethel Munn (Gunggari), Leonora Adidi (Kalaw Kawaw Ya), Joyce Bonner (Butchulla), Faith Baisden (Yugambeh), and Melinda Holden (Warrgamay). They have come together to produce eleven songs in five different languages to share the many voices of Australian country.
As this process empowers each language community through the opportunity to share Australia’s ancient knowledge, so too does it empower these “Voices of the Earth”: the people who continue to speak and share Australia’s first languages. Forming QILAC a decade ago, the six women have been collaborating with the vision of making Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages stronger for many years to come.
While some of the women were nervous at the start of the project, believing that they couldn’t sing or read music — let alone write music — that didn’t stop them.
Committed to strengthening the many Indigenous languages of Queensland, they found that music was an excellent tool for learning one another’s languages.
The film portrays the women’s journey and shows how the different stages of the language-learning, storytelling, and music-making process were significant to the women in different ways. Joyce found that just writing down a song on paper was special, whereas Ethel was finally able to witness an old and sentimental songbook come to life at 84 years of age. The power of collaboration is portrayed especially though Leonora’s workshop with the other women, in which she turns a poem about her grandmother into a song. Bridget wrote a song about the Warrgamay creator and shared her cultural knowledge of her region.
“We each shared songs in our languages with the others. We sing together in five languages, so we had to teach our language and learn the other four language,” explained QILAC Chairperson Joyce Bonner. “It has been a wonderful, challenging, and joyful experience which truly shows the power of music for sharing language.”
All of the women participated in music and technology training for twelve months, proving that it is never too late to learn new skills. With the assistance of a singing coach, Kristina Kelman, the women learned how to use muscles and deep breathing to develop harmonies and find notes that they never knew they could reach. They then learned how to use new technology throughout the recording process, working with award-winning composer David Bridie and Wantok Musik Foundation to produce a CD. In David’s words, “Language is cultural identity encapsulated by song,” and Yamani illustrates that it is never too late to share this cultural identity by learning new languages and new songs.
To view the Yamani: Voices of an Ancient Land video, go to: https://vimeo.com/140554259 To view more images of the Yamani project artists and read their testimonials about their ancestral languages, go to http://www.terralinguaubuntu.org/Langscape/Volume_5/yamani.
Further Reading / Viewing / Listening
First Languages Australia. (n.d.). First languages Australia. Retrieved from http://firstlanguages.org.au/
First Languages Australia. (n.d.). Gambay: Australian languages map. Retrieved from http://gambay.com.au/
Queensland Indigenous Languages Advisory Committee. (n.d.). Banma Kiya. Retrieved from http://www.qilac.org.au/
Queensland Indigenous Languages Advisory Committee and Wantok Music. (2015). Yamani: Voices of an ancient land [CD]. Retrieved from https://wantokmusik.bandcamp.com/album/yamani-voices-of-an-ancient-land
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