Q & A with Genevieve Campbell, author of The Old Songs are Always New

Genevieve Campbell has worked with senior Tiwi singers in musical collaboration since 2007. Her recent Sydney University Fellowship at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Sydney Environment Institute focused on the role of Tiwi song and embodied knowledge in cultural maintenance, artistic creativity and community health. She is currently a Research Affiliate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Colour photograph of Genevieve Campbell

Your professional background is in music. Can you tell us a bit about how your collaboration with Tiwi singers and song custodians began?

As an orchestral horn player for 20 years I was used to working in an ensemble towards the replication of finite works. In musical theatre shows, for instance, with each audience seeing it for the first time, there’s a responsibility on cast, crew and orchestra to replicate performances exactly. In 2006 I was involved in a project that saw me playing in a contemporary jazz ensemble for the first time. In the jazz project, the open-ended structures and extemporisation without notated music presented a new musical experience for me. It was a steep learning curve, to rethink how I approached ensemble playing. It was in that context of approaching music and performance as a changing, non-repeating medium that I first heard a recorded performance by the Tiwi women. Within the ensemble singing, I could hear a looseness that was not accidental, and it seemed very much as though the women were following a “lead” singer, a millisecond behind the strongest voice, as though they all knew the song but were nonetheless respecting the lead of one voice. This organic, multi-voiced and yet ostensibly unison ensemble performance created a quality I hadn’t heard before, especially in a chorale of voices. It was just beautiful. I started what would become a much longer and deeper journey of learning about Tiwi song than I thought at the time. Without understanding any of the words, I first heard the music, the melodies, the rhythms and the phrases. Perhaps because I wasn’t listening along preconceived expectations of text or language, I heard an organic, subtle shifting of strong beats, of chord change points, and an asymmetry of phrase-length. Digging into the meaning, the language and the philosophies of the songs came later.

The title of your new book, written with Tiwi Elders and knowledge holders, is The Old Songs are Always New. Can you explain where this title came from and what it means?

When we were listening through the archive recordings, I would ask Tiwi Elders what the song was about. They would invariably use the present tense in their description: “He is painting up for Ceremony” or “The Brolga is looking out across his homeland”. I thought at first this was simply due to the fact that they were hearing the song now, so they described it as happening now. Once we began to transcribe and translate the song texts, I realised that the fuller picture is that the text itself of the overwhelming majority of Tiwi song is in the present tense. The singers, recorded across 120 years, all placed their subject matter in the present of the performance event, bringing the ancestor or Dreaming animal and their actions, their story and their voice into the present. The singer and the dancer/s responding to the song manifest that ancestor or being in themselves, rendering them in the present, “now” and “new” each time they are heard. Tiwi listeners often spoke about, and sometimes to, the (long-since deceased) voices as current knowledge holders, imparting their stories through the songs that were then transferred along the lines of singers. The knowledge and the stories move along that generational line of transmission too, so they remain new, rather than stories from the past. Musically too, the extemporised nature of song poetry in the act of performance meant that we knew we were listening to newly composed songs about contemporary subject matter. No Tiwi singer repeats exactly a song from their forebears, so even when performing an “old” song that has been passed down many generations, they add, change and re-order words at their own creative whim, so that the “old” song is also “new”.

The book details the 2009 journey you took with a group of Tiwi colleagues to help reclaim over 1300 recordings of Tiwi songs from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Can you tell us a bit about this experience?

Finding out that there was a large amount of recorded Tiwi song material in Canberra was at first exciting and then quickly frustrating! The bureaucratic systems made for a lengthy process of paperwork and waiting, made more difficult due to distance and a lack of access at the Tiwi end to emails, printers and phones. Despite all that, once we were on the road, driving from Sydney to Canberra and then staying together (in the local YHA) brought us together with a focused and shared goal. It also enabled the Tiwi group to physically claim the recordings. The experience became quite personal, and the materials’ connection with Tiwi family was tangible. The physical CDs held the voices of family and of ceremonial leaders, as well as the ancestral stories and descriptions of ceremony and funerals for loved ones, and so they became important, precious objects. They were far more than their catalogue numbers, their status as archives and the paperwork, copyright and bureaucracy. They were the lives and deaths and genealogies and social history of their people.

What do you consider the key limitations, failures and/or consequences of western archiving practices when it comes to First Nations music?

Among the most problematic issues around archiving practices (especially in the past) is the separation of the material from the custodians. While it was empowering and positive to have “reclaimed” the Tiwi material, many Tiwi wondered why it was taken away and stored in Canberra in the first place. Recordings made for the purposes of research, to be conducted at a distance and without the input of the custodians, has created a division between researcher and subject. More recently, in the context of accessing those old archived recordings, there is a distance (often geographical as well as logistical and administrative) between the care-taking institution and the family and/or community of the recorded singers. The question of copyright ownership is another issue – held by the person who recorded the material, or at their death, their heirs, or, with their permission, the museum or institution, and not by the family of the singer or cultural authorities. In the book we describe the conundrum of Tiwi cultural leaders having to request permission from the recordings’ non-Tiwi “owners” in order to hear the voices of their own family. In terms of the older material, there are also questions of agency – how much did the original Tiwi singers, dancers and mourners understand of the process of recording? How aware were they of the reality of their voices, words, images being captured on audio and film and stored, shown, duplicated and owned by others? For Tiwi people, one’s voice and words are existential with their audience, so in a very real sense, these recordings manifest the performers.

What kind of readership did you have in mind while writing The Old Songs are Always New?

I hope that Tiwi readers will use this book as a document of the Tiwi melodies and song types, as both a historical resource and a record of what the leading song men and women of the last hundred years created, as a way of continuing on their own ways performing Tiwi classical and ceremonial song. I also see this book as an important addition to the reference literature on the song-practice of Australia and on the Indigenous song cultures of the world.

For readers who wish to learn more about Tiwi culture and First Nations creative practices, what other resources might you recommend?

Murli la, songs and stories of the Tiwi Islands, Ngarukuruwala Women’s group, with Genevieve Campbell. Hardie Grant and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. 2023

Animating cultural heritage knowledge through songs: museums, archives, consultation and Tiwi music. Genevieve Campbell, Amanda Harris, Jacinta Tipungwuti and Matt Poll. In Linda Barwick, Jakelyn Troy, Amanda Harris (eds.) Music, Dance and the Archive. Sydney University Press. 2022

Singing with the ancestors: musical conversations with archived ethnographic recordings. Genevieve Campbell. In Jim Wafer and Myfany Turpin, (eds.), Recirculating songs: revitalising the singing practices of Indigenous Australia. Canberra: Asia-Pacific Linguistics. 2017.

Tiwi Textiles. Diana Wood-Conroy with Bede Tungutalum. Sydney University Press 2023.



The Old Songs are Always New is out now. Order your copy here.