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Understanding and Respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Culture

for Music Educators

by Debbie O’Shea

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures

In music lessons, we need to address the Australian Curriculum Cross-curriculum priorities, one of which is ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Histories and Cultures’. This must be done in an appropriate way for our students and with the greatest respect for these cultures.

Many Music Teachers are a little afraid of adding aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture to their lessons for fear of doing ‘the wrong thing’, or not having enough knowledge themselves to ‘do a good job’. Although understandable, we need to move past this and figure out a way to address this priority in our classrooms. We have to provide opportunities for all students to engage with the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. The Australian Curriculum states that: students will understand that contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are strong, resilient, rich and diverse.

This is the conceptual framework for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures priority given within the Australian Curriculum documents.

This graphic summarises how we can look at teaching First Nations histories and cultures. We are talking about Living Communities with their own identity very strongly tied to their culture and sense of country.

One of the first things a music teacher needs to do is to make contact with the local aboriginal community. In the Cultural Protocols Session at the beginning of the Step Up conference run by Kodály Queensland in September 2019, Gaja Kerry quoted:
“Nothing about us without us”
which she attributed to Patrick Dobson.

Here is a great article by Deb Brydon
 https://kodaly.org.au/aboriginal-music-and-torres-strait-islander-music-in-the-primary-classroom/ published on the Kodaly Australia Web Site. This article discusses Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Traditional Owners, what the Australian Curriculum say about Aboriginal Music and Torres Strait Islander Music, some suggestions on how to get started and a list of useful resources. The links here are really useful.

Yuggera Djarra-na is a song you could consider using in your classroom. This song was written Music Teachers and local Aboriginal Elders in the Oxley area of Brisbane. Initiated and co-ordinated by Megan Thompson, this project provides the vision – that the song be used widely in schools and community gatherings to respectfully acknowledge the First Peoples of the land and their ongoing connections, our shared histories and to embrace working with Aboriginal groups to hear stories and languages of that country.
The song introduces basic Yuggera language structure and sounds.
 https://www.ascqld.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Yuggera-Djarra-Na-Song-Booklet.pdf and backing track  https://soundcloud.com/first-languages-australia/yuggera-djarra-na-backing  All also available in Kodaly Qld’s Step Up DVD resource

8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning

This NSW Department of Education initiative provides some great information. It is designed to provide a pedagogical framework expressed as eight interconnected pedagogies as illustrated above. These pedagogies can change in different settings. To use any of the examples of work from communities and individuals within this site you must seek permission from the original source.
8 ways aboriginal students learn
It is stated on this page that to start the process you may:

TELL A STORY. MAKE A PLAN. THINK AND DO. DRAW IT. TAKE IT OUTSIDE. TRY A NEW WAY. WATCH FIRST, THEN DO. SHARE IT WITH OTHERS

Free Download from crescendo.com.au

Here is one activity that I have used successfully in my classroom. It led to some interesting discussion. We watched this YouTube Clip of Gari Gynda Narmi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwRrLnMe1YI . This video shows an Australian Aboriginal welcoming song performed by the local Quandamooka Dancers from Mijerribah (Stadbroke Island) filmed at the Island Vibe Festival in 2009. I have heard that this song is a traditional song that has a strong cultural significance and not one that is encouraged to be sung without direct permission from a local Elder. However, this performance by Indigenous people is a great one to watch and discuss.
We watched the video twice, the second time placing a peg over the words that they ‘see’ in the video. The students were in small groups but you could easily complete this activity individually or as a class group. The pegs made it a little different, a bit more engaging. 
Download it here: https://crescendo.com.au/product/australian-indigenous-music-peg-activity/

A resource that I have purchased to use is Yamani – Voices of an Ancient Land by the Queensland Indigenous Languages Advisory Committee and published by Wantok Musik. Wantok Musik aims to generate and foster various cultural exchanges between Australia and our neighbours throughout Oceania by establishing a leading, not-for-profit Music Label representing Indigenous and world music groups of this unique region.
You can buy it here:  https://wantokmusik.bandcamp.com/album/yamani-voices-of-an-ancient-land. This track from the digital album is an indigenous version of Waltzing Matilda and would be useful to use as a comparison responding activity.
https://wantokmusik.bandcamp.com/track/ngarila-matilda-yugambeh

I hope this list has helped in the reflection of your classroom practice.

Please feel free to comment below.

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6 Comments

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  2. Rachel Ferguson on March 12, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    Thanks for this! I just found an accompanying study guide for the Yamani CD to use in Primary classrooms. You can get it here: https://www.abc.net.au/cm/lb/11152150/data/abc-open-mother-tongue-yamani-pdf-data.pdf

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