Q&A with Georgia Curran, editor of Vitality and Change in Warlpiri Songs

Georgia Curran is an anthropologist who has undertaken collaborative projects in Warlpiri communities since 2005. She is currently a research fellow at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney.

Congratulations on the recent publication of your book, Vitality and Change in Warlpiri Songs! How did each of you come to be involved in this project?

G: Our book has come out of 5 decades of connections between researchers and Warlpiri communities. The editorial team on this book includes Warlpiri and non-Warlpiri researchers, Georgia Curran who has worked with Warlpiri families in Yuendumu since 2005, Linda Barwick who began research in Alekarenge in the mid-1990s, Valerie Napaljarri Martin and Simon Japangardi Fisher, who are both Warlpiri elders and Directors of Pintubi Anmatjere Warlpiri Media and Communications based in Yuendumu, and Nicolas Peterson, who has been involved in research in Warlpiri Country since the early 1970s, when he lived in Yuendumu. We have known each other and worked together variously over this long time period, and in 2016 we set up an Australian Research Council Linkage project. This was a partnership between our universities – the University of Sydney and the Australian National University – PAW Media and Communications – the oldest media organisation in Central Australia – and Kurra Aboriginal Corporation, through which Warlpiri families contributed mining royalties to the project. The aim of the project was to investigate the ways in which ceremonial lives had changed, their role in the present day and the ways in which Warlpiri families today wanted to maintain and revitalise this knowledge and associated practices.

 What was your relationship with the Warlpiri community before starting this project, and how has it evolved over the course of writing and publishing this book?

G: As described above, our editorial team as well as all the chapter authors in the book had long reaching research and family relationships with Warlpiri people and communities before starting this project. It really was designed to a draw on the interrelationships developed over decades to address present-day connections to cultural heritage in Warlpiri communities. The project has been formative in building solid partnerships between universities and Yuendumu-based PAW Media and Communications. PAW Media (formerly Warlpiri Media Association) has been operating in Yuendumu since the 1980s, driving Warlpiri-led film productions and related research, including housing an on-Country archive of their materials. Scholars have also been conducting research in Central Australia for almost a century. So this is a long overdue partnership which centres on us all working together to develop ethical and inclusive research and to make sure Warlpiri moral and cultural rights are forefront in the way that research is being conducted.

Vitality and Change in Warlpiri Songs explores ways that traditional song practices can be revitalised and maintained for future posterity. What are some of the biggest threats to the ongoing vitality of traditional song practices?  

G: As we explain in the book, cultural and musical change is normal and a sign of a healthy community, but dramatic shifts to social worlds have resulted from the large-scale and enforced movement of Warlpiri people into settlements in the early 20th century, as well as more recent engagement with mass media and globalisation. Many of the traditional genres of Warlpiri ceremonial song are powerful in their social functions – to use some examples, songs can make it rain, attract a lover, resolve inter-family conflicts, or encourage the growth of bush tucker. Yet many of these contexts have decreased in relevance in modern Warlpiri lives, or there are now different ways to achieve the same ends! Whilst there is strong interest and many powerful initiatives to keep these songs and their deep knowledge of Country strong, many are sadly only sung in detail by the very oldest generation despite the intimate importance to Warlpiri identity and cultural heritage. In this context of endangerment, our project examined these shifts and supported Warlpiri-driven activities to ensure the future strength of these cultural traditions.

Each chapter is written in close collaboration with Warlpiri custodians. Can you tell us a bit about this collaborative process?

G: The chapters all come out of long-term relationships between Warlpiri and non-Warlpiri researchers and custodians of the songs and stories. These were quite natural collaborations drawing on well-established research relationships, and in many cases emerged due to the Warlpiri authority for particular cultural knowledge that is focal to the chapters. Within the teams of authors for each chapter, there are Warlpiri and non-Warlpiri anthropologists, musicologists, linguists, archive workers, ceremonial leaders, educators and experts in Indigenous knowledges. The book also includes profiles of jujungaliya – the senior ceremonial experts – with biographical information and transcriptions from interviews in which they reflect on the changes to ceremonies throughout their lifetimes and draw out their main concerns for present day engagement of younger generations. As editors we are proud to have included Warlpiri language in the book so that the jujungaliya can speak in their own voices for their contributions. We must thank the incredible linguists Theresa Napurrurla Ross and Mary Laughren for making this possible through their careful transcription, translation and proofreading.

The book includes the emotional 2018 journey of Warlpiri men and women to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to repatriate ceremonial recordings to the Warlpiri Media Archive (WMA). How important is repatriation of archival materials and cultural objects to their original communities?

G: Connection to cultural identity is critical to understandings of self and relatedness across generations and time, particularly for First Nations people who have deep ties to Country and kin. Warlpiri culture has been the focus of significant ethnographic documentation efforts over the last century and large repositories of cultural materials are held worldwide in museums, archives and other institutions, including at AIATSIS (previously AIAS) which also supported many research and film documentation projects in the late 1960s and 1970s in Warlpiri Country. As the largest national repository for storing archival materials, AIATSIS holds countless collections of sound, video and photographic materials – records of Warlpiri culture resulting from the efforts of researchers and previous generations of Warlpiri men and women, who were deeply engaged in documenting and recording these valued aspects of their culture, including significant knowledge of connections to Dreaming places, family groups and ceremonial links. A group of 16 men and women, whose forebearers had been part of these efforts, travelled to Canberra in 2018 to review these materials and returned to Warlpiri Country with the information in digital form. Many of these collections are now held by PAW Media in their Archive. In a message to younger Warlpiri generations, the late Warlpiri elder Mr Jakamarra Nelson (d.2021), who came on the trip to Canberra with us, urged: “I’m telling you now to go and listen to your grandfathers and your uncles singing. Women can listen to their aunties and grandmothers’ songs. This is our Warlpiri Law. There is so much recorded from long ago on both women’s and men’s sides” (Nelson 2018). Having access to these materials is very important to contemporary Warlpiri generations as many of the traditional modes for passing on this knowledge and associated practices no longer exist. This visit was also very important for the group to understand the contexts in which these materials are currently held, the ways in which they were collected in the past and the possibilities opened up by digital repatriation.

What other resources might you recommend for readers who want to learn more about Warlpiri culture or traditional Indigenous song practices?

G: There are a bunch for great books in SUP’s Indigenous Music of Australia series!

Also, specifically on Warlpiri song are Sustaining Indigenous Songs by Georgia Curran with a foreword by Otto Jungarrayi Sims (Berghahn, 2020) and two songs book by Warlpiri women - Yurntumu-wardingki jujungaliya-kurlangu yawulyu and Jardiwanpa yawulyu: Warlpiri women’s songs from Yuendumu (Batchelor Press, 2017 and 2014). Françoise Dussart’s book The Politics of Ritual in an Aboriginal Settlement (Smithsonian, 2000) also provides excellent background to understanding ceremonial contexts and sharing of knowledge. PAW Media produces many short films, including some documentation of Warlpiri songs and ceremonies, some which are available through online searches.


Vitality and Change in Warlpiri Songs is available now. Order your copy here.