Doco gives fresh voice to trailblazing choir

Choir member Daphne Puntjina.

Australia’s answer to the Buena Vista Social Clubthe enigmatic ensemble of Cuban musicians whose international tour in the late ’90s inspired an acclaimed documentary – is set to be released nationally on April 19.

The Song Keepers, which premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2017, is a documentary about the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir as it embarks on a historic journey to Germany.

In the churches of remote Central Australia, a 140-year musical legacy of ancient Aboriginal languages, German sacred hymns and baroque music is being preserved by four generations of song women that make up the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir.

With the charismatic musical director Morris Stuart at the helm, the choir embarks on a historical tour of Germany, singing the baroque Lutheran hymns – brought to Australia by missionaries – in their own Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages.

The Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir was formed in 2010 and comprises constituent choirs from six remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory — the Hermannsburg Ladies Choir (Ntaria) the Areyonga Ladies Choir (Utju), the Titjikala Choir, the Mutitjulu Choir, the Docker River Choir (Kaltukatjara) and the Mission Block Choir of Alice Springs.

The choir is the custodian of a continuous choral tradition stretching back almost 120 years to the time when German mission pioneers first contacted the Western Arrarnta speaking community of Ntaria.

As well as performing sacred music in the Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages, the choir has introduced new music through collaborations with other Centralian and International choirs.

Their signature concert performance piece, ‘Arrkanala Lyilhitjika’, reveals a peerless Australian musical confluence: a coalescence of Baroque and Romantic era choral arrangements, centuries-old Sacred poetry locked and carried in the Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages.

Over the past two years, this 75-minute performance piece has been informing and educating local and international audiences, providing a rare insight into a vital but largely unknown aspect of Aboriginal culture in the Central Desert. Watch it here.

More information on screening venues for The Song Keepers can be found here.

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