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Tanderrum: Indigenous ceremony and the energy of participation

Read Monday, 25 Jan 2016

Every year, to launch the Melbourne Festival, the tribal groups of
 the Kulin nation join to enact Tanderrum, a ceremony of deep historical significance. Singer-songwriter, musician and recording engineer James Henry has been the musical director of Tanderrum since 2013. He shares his story of working with Kulin nation groups to arrange their own musical pieces – and of bridging the divide between Western and Indigenous musical cultures.

Image courtesy: Melbourne Festival
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For three years, Melbourne Festival has opened with Tanderrum – a large-scale Kulin nation welcome ceremony that, until 2013, had not been practiced since the founding of Melbourne in 1835. The ceremony is impressive in its scale, featuring members of all five tribal groups of
 the Kulin nation, but what audience members see only scratches the surface of the cultural experience for those involved in the months leading up to it.

Each year, my role writing and arranging music for Tanderrum is an exercise in balancing polarising cultural styles, values and techniques. The ceremony centres around traditional songs and dances, pieced together from stories and documentation of local pre-invasion Aboriginal culture – with some stylistic inspiration taken from other indigenous nations with a more unbroken connection to their language and culture. At the same time, Tanderrum is a performance for thousands of people who might otherwise be unfamiliar with Aboriginal music and dance. It raises the question: are these kinds of ceremonies performed for ourselves, or for the much wider community … and how do we strike that balance?

Are these kinds of ceremonies performed for ourselves, or for the much wider community … and how do we strike that balance?

I see Aboriginal arts and cultural practice as the antithesis of Western cultural practice. These different approaches to life stem from peoples separated from each other for tens of thousands of years, resulting in the development of very different ways of life. It is difficult, after all, to imagine a more extreme culture clash than that which took place in late 18th Century Australia: while Mozart conducted orchestras across continental Europe, with the aid of written sheet music, Aboriginal people performed their music around campfires and passed songs down aurally – which, I imagine, had its own way of maintaining consistency through relevance of stories for thousands of years.

An extreme difference in these two cultural practices is apparent in the engagement of the communities in performance. In Western arts practice, there is a separation between artist and audience that is made clear in stage and seating arrangements, but is based in a sense of the exclusivity of artistic practice – after all, in Western society, not everyone is going to have the opportunity to practice violin or piano to the extent that one could eventually command the attention of a full concert hall. While the vast majority of Western people’s engagement with music is as an audience member rather than a participant, however, the same is not necessarily true of many Indigenous cultures, in which the whole community is invited to participate in music and other cultural practices.

Image courtesy: Melbourne Festival

Of course, there are going to be different skill levels amongst musicians in any group. This is due to the amount of enjoyment one might derive from musical practice, the amount of time they might allow to practice, and the natural potential one might have. In order to have participation across a whole band, let alone a whole community, a common standard of technical difficulty should be acknowledged. In traditional arts practice, whilst everyone might be singing the same song and dancing the same moves, there is scope for self-expression and personal interpretation. This ensures a level of accessibility for the less practiced performer whilst maintaining the interest of a more skilled performer, which can be appreciated by audience members – even if traditional arts performances might not be as visually or sonically cohesive as choir or ballet performances.

The majority of the performers in Tanderrum are not practicing dancers or musicians, so songs and dance have to be simple enough to be remembered and executed by all members of a tribe’s group. At the same time, they also have to be complex enough to maintain the interest of the thousands of audience members in Federation Square.

I achieved this balance through trial and error, fighting my instinct to develop the complex arrangements favoured by Western musical forms. Though some songs might have sounded simple to begin with, once they were mastered early there was rehearsal time available to further develop complexity. As much as possible, we encouraged and nurtured each of the Kulin nation groups to write and arrange their own pieces, then filled in the gaps.

Image courtesy: Melbourne Festival

The finale presented its own complications, as it took the form of a transition from traditional song and dance – utilising live sound limited to voice and clapstick – to a full-blown, predominately pre-recorded progressive house track with live vocals. How do you make such a huge stylistic leap within the bounds of just two tracks?

You can learn a song from hearing it on the radio or seeing it at a concert, but not to the same extent you would if you were singing and dancing with your community.

In working with the artistic directors Rachael Maza and then Jacob Boheme, we discussed and trialled live instrumentation and dynamic shifts. They had their own balances to achieve between direction from elders and their own artistic imaginations. Eventually, we came to agree that electronic sound was culturally neutral enough to support but not detract too much from the local flavour.

Having music and dance easily reproducible by all members of the community allows stories to be passed down from generation to generation with ease. You can learn a song from hearing it on the radio or seeing it at a concert, but not to the same extent you would if you were singing and dancing with your community. There is a spiritual experience one has when performing music and sharing it with others, regardless of our religion – but this is an experience that is rare in Western societies, when performer and audience are so often explicitly separated. In the climactic finale of Tanderrum, we invited thousands of people to dance together in unison while allowing for their own personal expression, in the hope that people could feel this connective and inclusive energy. As thousands of audience members moved around the Square, each in their own way, it was clear that this energy was felt.

James Henry is appearing at Blak Gala: Stories Behind the Songs on Friday 19 February as part of the Blak & Bright Victorian Indigenous Literary Festival. With heartfelt musical performances alongside the tales behind the tunes, you’ll hear powerful and honest narratives connecting country, community, family and more.

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Acknowledgment of Country

The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.