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Old songs, new worlds

The chairs in the Red Marquee at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival’s were filling slowly but steadily on Saturday morning. As I waited for authors James Cowan and Sue Woolfe to appear, I wondered which “old songs” we might be learning of today.

Moderated by Rhoda Roberts, a well known Australian journalist, writer, actor and producer, also a member of the Bundjalung Nation, Wiyebel Clan (Northern NSW and Lower southeastern Queensland), the session would explore songs in subject that I knew were beyond anything most of us deem classical.

No, they originate further back still, many thousands of years, originating from the oldest musicians and storytellers that are documented to exist – the rhythm and verse of Aboriginal Australians.

To set the scene, Roberts talks about a book called Mutant Messenger Downunder, by Marlo Morgan, a book written by an author “visiting” Australia for a few months, which caused great distress to many Aboriginals, she said.

Sue Woolfe concedes that when she first visited Aboriginal cultures, with her 18-year-old daughter, she always felt like a “fake”, an “outsider”. She says that while she didn’t make the journey initially to write,  one of her characters (Kate), from her latest novel The Oldest Song In The World evolved from her experiences during this time.

Woolfe felt that many people’s ideas of Aboriginal living were “rubbish” and she wanted to share the wonder of her own experience. She wanted to dismantle the myths of Aboriginal culture being riddled with so many problems, when really she had found the opposite, that it was a culture filled with genuine people, humility and warmth. She learnt a lot about the history of storytelling as an oral tradition, in contrast with Western culture’s obsession for sharing information by writing things down.

“We have a paper culture,” she says and smiles, recounting a story about a little girl asking her “if it is so important, why do you have to write it down?” At this, I have to smile.

So the song of The Dreaming is incredibly old, possibly 60,000, maybe even 100,000 years old by some estimates, which is incredible if we were to graph it next to the musical history that most of us are familiar with.

Renowned author and poet James Cowan has lived and studied within Australian Indigenous tribes for many years, beginning as far back as the 1970s, when he was accepted by tribal elders to share their life and stories.

Cowan has travelled and lived abroad extensively – Libya, Marrakesh, Mauritius to name a few – and has studied and written on a range of subjects from philosophy to the Persian Poet Rumi, St Francis Of Assissi, Einstein and St Anthony of Egypt. But it seems that Cowan’s original place of living, Australia, brought him a larger sense of cultural wonder and more of a spiritual home, than many of his overseas excursions.

Rhoda Roberts acknowledges that James Cowan was welcomed with open arms by tribal elders who saw “something” in him and recognised that his writing was a way of revitalising their culture and sharing it true to form. Previously, there had been much distrust of people coming in to write about Indigenous culture as so often it was distorted in translation.

Perhaps these storytellers recognised the same innate ability in Cowan? Whatever the case, the relationship has grown over the years and has always been “reciprocal”, a term that all three speakers agree is one of the most basic laws of Aboriginal life – giving and receiving without requests or thank yous, just because it is the way it is, “is-ness”.

Rhoda Rhodes explains how the “gifting of knowledge” in her culture is so important, and that the Wisdom Keepers saw that Cowan “got it”. And Cowan believes he met some of the most “vital human beings – (the) greatest intellectuals – in Arnhem Land”.

This brings Rhoda Roberts to a point I feel speaks the most strongly about this topic: “That there is no Aboriginal disadvantage, only an Aboriginal advantage.” The values and way of life have so much to offer everyone and white Australians can be quick to focus on the problems and issues of Aboriginal culture, completely disregarding its amazing value, deep and rich layers of meaning and ritual that are infused into daily ways of life that many of us could benefit from exploring.

How exciting it was to watch these three fascinating individuals converse on a topic that could be perceived as a “niche” topic of Indigenous language, mythology and culture; yet upon closer listening has something to offer us all, a way of connecting us all back to the Universe, the Land and our souls. In a time of so much confusion and loss of meaning, living in a world that is suffering greatly in environmental terms, we would be wise to listen to those that have lived and walked upon this earth for so long.

James Cowan recounts a meaningful experience he had while singing and playing rhythms with his “Skin Father” Mick. He asked Mick, “Why is this Land dying?”  Mick answered, “Because no one is singing the songs.”

This to me says so much about the lessons we can learn from each other if only we are to listen and learn to embrace all of the songs that are available to us, not just the ones we are familiar with.

I can’t begin to express the genuine and heartfelt knowledge and insights that all three of these speakers shared and I admire the dedication they all have for immersing themselves in life and from this, creating more stories to share and be told in the form of their own books.

As Sue Woolfe says: “Write dangerously and don’t throw anything away (as quoted by Rhoda Roberts).

Sue Woolfe has recently released The Oldest Song In The World. James Cowan‘s titles include A Spanner In The Works and A Mapmaker’s Dream. Rhoda Roberts has a fascinating and varied portfolio, including music production, journalism and acting.

This post was written by Keira Patrick, a Southern Cross University media student.


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