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Project underway to record disappearing Indigenous music

Extract from Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC Online, on 4 April 2005

A national project is under way to archive every genre of Indigenous song and dance before they disappear.

Ceremonial songs and dances that go back centuries are still a vital part of traditional Indigenous life, but for too many Aboriginal communities, their traditional music is disappearing.

Mandawuy Yunupingu is best known as the high-profile lead singer of Yothu Yindi, whose contemporary music is world famous.

Back home at Yirrkala in remote East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, there are more ancient musical priorities occupying Mandawuy Yunupingu's time - how to preserve an entire history of Yolngu music and dance.

"In my lifetime I've seen a group of people die, and their songs are not exposed anymore, and the song cycles are intact in its original form, but other people are singing it," Mr Yunupingu said.

At Yirrkala and right across Indigenous Australia, traditional music is being lost forever.

Ancient ceremonial dances, initiation rites and sacred songs are disappearing as senior elders die and younger generations become more interested in modern ways, or are distracted by grog and substance abuse.

In one community alone an entire musical genre once confined to men's ears only is now held by a single woman, because there are no men left from that tribe to carry on the tradition.

Alan Marett is a Professor of Musicology at Melbourne University said he thought that about 95 per cent of the musical traditions in the country have been lost.

"People are aware of Indigenous visual arts, but people are very unaware of music, and of course music and dance and the performative arts lie at the centre of Indigenous knowledge systems," he said.

Professor Marett and Mr Yunupingu are heading an ambitious national program that would eventually record every last genre of Indigenous music in the country.

"The first thing we need to do is to actually identify the most endangered traditions, and the way that we're doing that is we're simply being told by the people on the ground," he said.

One of the challenges the project leaders face is how to accommodate music that is sacred or restricted to a privileged few.

Marcia Langton, Professor of Indigenous Studies at Melbourne University, says one solution would be to restrict access via a computer password.

"What we're concerned with is how do we record and preserve the endangered music traditions, and to do so in a culturally sensitive way," Professor Langton said.

Restrictions or not, Mr Yunupingu believes that all Australians have an interest in the national recording project.

"I would think that many non-Indigenous people would want a part of Aboriginal culture, that they would want to learn about it, and I think we've just got the right format," Mr Yunupingu said.

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