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Preserving Ancient Language in Song with the Yamani project

09 May 2017

Grace Kirk from the Creative Industries Faculty's online magazine, No Walls caught up with QUT lecturer, jazz musician and collaborator, Dr Kristina Kelman who was involved in the Yamani project as music producer, mentor and coach.

Imagine you have an idea to compose, sing, perform and record songs in the diverse languages of your ancestors.

You know what a significant tool music is – it can be used for learning, preserving and disseminating language. You can picture a parent singing one of the songs to their child to help them fall asleep. But there’s one small problem. You don’t know how to read, compose or perform music.

Yamani – Voices of an Ancient Land is a project by the Queensland Indigenous Language Advisory Council (QILAC). It saw six of the founding members go on a journey of musical learning and language preservation and resulted in the production of an album (10 songs in five different languages), countless performances and even a short documentary.

QILAC, an Indigenous language advocacy group, was founded in 2005 by Melinda Holden, Faith, Bridget Priman, Joyce Bonner, Mrs Ethel Munn, Leonora and Doctor Eve Fes to preserve and celebrate language.

It was during their regular meetings where they decided singing would be a nice way for them to come together and experience each other’s languages.

“Once they started singing they thought, ‘Why don’t we try to do our language work through songs and make a CD’, which could be a tool to put back into the communities as another vehicle for language preservation. Then they thought, ‘Hang on a minute, we need some help with this’,” Dr Kelman said.

With Dr Kelman as mentor and David Bridie as music producer, the Wantok Musik Foundation record label came on board the project and a film was made to document their amazing journey to preserve their languages.

Dr Kelman appears in the film as a vocal coach, encouraging and supporting the women to develop tools to empower them and help them use music in their communities.

“Part of the way that I get these women to feel comfortable is make them part of the process,” she said.

“So when we were arranging a song, a lot of my job was to work on taking the melodies they’ve written and helping them arrange them. Essentially I was letting them lead that process.

“Music in itself is a language. They probably all thought it was very challenging at the time to learn music, but when you watch the documentary you can see the development over that period of time. So I think that it comes quite naturally to them. A lot of these women had never written a song in their life and they all wrote the music.”

A highlight of the project was preparing for a performance at the 2015 QLD Music Festival at the State Library where the album was launched.

The documentary of the Yamani journey has since been featured on QANTAS in-flight entertainment and is now being shown on QLD’s long rail trains. It has also been incorporated into national curriculum and additional resources have been developed for schools across Australia.

The Yamani project is being presented as a strong example for language preservation in other communities. The group has travelled to a number of language conferences around Australia to share their story and teach audience members some of the recorded songs.

“We’re trying to get other language leaders to consider using music as a way of learning, transmitting and preserving language in their communities. People are getting really excited about our model and there are similar satellite projects happening, which is great,” Dr Kelman said.

Read more about the Yamani project and listen to the album at No Walls.

Caption: Joyce Bonner, Faith Baisden, Ethel Munn, Bridget Priman, Melinda Holden, Leonora Adidi, and Kristina Kelman. Image credit: Carolyn Barker

 

Joyce Bonner, Faith Baisden, Ethel Munn, Bridget Priman, Melinda Holden, Leonora Adidi, and Kristina Kelman at the 2015 Queensland Music Festival. Image credit: Carolyn Barker

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