Repatriating song: investigating the return of archival recordings to western Arnhem Land and the Pilbara

Reuben Brown, University of Melbourne Chancellery Research and the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, 2018–2019

This project investigates how the return of archival recordings of Indigenous Australian song including kun-borrk/manyardi of western Arnhem Land and thabi of the Pilbara to custodians informs the maintenance and revitalisation of public ceremony in these regions. The study applies a mixed methodological approach drawn from historical ethnomusicology, participant observation, performance ethnography, and musical and linguistic analysis in order to understand how knowledge about song and language is enriched through the process of playing back archival recordings in the field to elders and singers. Archival collections include Brown’s own fieldwork recordings and others from a period including 1940s–1980s. Fieldwork is supported by Brown’s Early Career Researcher Project ‘Mobilising recordings of western Arnhem Land song to revitalise exchange’ and ARC Discovery Project ‘Hearing Histories of the western Pilbara’ led by Sally Treloyn. In addition to traditional outputs, the project contributes to digital platforms in both regions which link archival records with contemporary knowledge of song for community use in for teaching and learning of legacy and contemporary songs.

Reuben Brown speaks with Kariyarra elder and song expert Irene Roberts and records her father’s Thabi. Photo: Andrew Dowding. Not for reproduction.