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An Outback Secret: Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir (based in the Northern Territory, Australia)

Updated: Apr 10

Interview by Debra Shearer-Dirié

 

The Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir (CAAWC) has become a musical ‘tour de force’ since their historic and highly acclaimed concert tour of Germany in mid-2015. This unique Central Australian ensemble sings sacred music in the Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages, two living languages of the Northern Territory and South Australia, together with new music introduced through recent collaborations with other Centralian and international choirs. Women from remote Central Australian communities come together, bringing a unique sound to the world. Morris Stuart AM is the founder of the CAAWC.


Standing ovation for the Central Australian Aboriginal Women's Choir

What is your background in choral singing?

Morris Stuart (MS): I started singing in a church youth choir at the age of 17, and over the years I have developed a passion for choirs and for choral music. This has always been an interest, not a professional pursuit. Almost 30 years passed, and it was in the 1990s that I established a community choir in Melbourne and started writing music for choirs. Thence followed choral workshops, more community choirs, appearances at festivals, the Desert Song Festival, the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir, an episode of Australian Story and the SBS documentary The Song Keepers. I guess it would be true to say that over the years I have developed a real skill in working with choirs.

 

How was the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir formed, and how did you come to be involved with the group?

MS: In the winter of 2006 I established Asante Sana, a non-auditioned, community choir comprising a diverse cross-section of the non-Indigenous community in Alice Springs. I introduced this choir to a repertoire of nine African Freedom songs (i.e. songs that were the soundtrack of the anti-Apartheid struggle). Teachers, nurses, health workers, social workers, researchers, shop assistants, youth workers, doctors, some unemployed people, children, youth, visiting exchange students from Africa and Scandinavia, established locals and new residents all joined the new choir. The response was enthusiastic, and the choir performed on a number of occasions to great acclaim. This attracted the attention of some Aboriginal choristers, who asked me to “come and help us become a proper choir” and “teach us those songs you’ve been teaching those whitefellas!” Those early beginnings, followed by seven years of musical development ‘on country’ in remote communities, eventually led to the formation of what is now the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir. Starting with one choir in 2006, followed by regular music development workshops conducted across thousands of kilometres all over the Central Desert, six choirs from Titjikala, Ntaria (Hermannsburg), Utju (Areyonga), Mutitjulu, Kaltukatjara (Docker River), and Alice Springs were amalgamated into the one CAAWC.


I have read that the singers in this choir travel long distances to come together to sing. How does this work?

MS: The remote communities are spread across the Central Desert. With Alice Springs being the central hub for workshops, performances, and the departure point for interstate and international travel, cumulative return travel for choir members means traversing 3500km of the Northern Territory, often across large sections of unmade roads. Travel is challenging, time-consuming and exhausting. And that is before rehearsal begins! Consequently, in addition to the visits I undertake to discrete communities, we gather for 3-4 weekend workshops each year. It is a considerable and expensive logistical undertaking involving organising various modes of transport, booking suitable accommodation, catering and meeting welfare and medical needs.


What kind of repertoire does this group sing and has it changed over the course of the choir’s history?

MS: The choir’s repertoire represents a unique compendium comprising early Romantic era and Baroque musical arrangements and German sacred poetry (hymns), preserved and presented in Australian First Nations languages: a peerless cultural anthology and an Australian national treasure preserved by women from remote Central Desert communities. Also included are sacred works written by the women and their forebears in the Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages, some written in the traditional three-line chanting style of Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara ceremony.

 

The choir has also collaborated with Indian classical players, with ensembles trained in the Western musical tradition, including the Arafura Music Collective, and most recently with the contemporary Melbourne classical trio Plexus, to present a premiere of a new arrangement for piano, violin and clarinet and choir of Bach’s chorale Wachet Auf.


Arleen Soweto Gokspel Choir Concert OeclipseSOW

The choir has recently completed a national tour. Has the group travelled internationally, and if so, where did they perform?

MS: The CAAWC inherits a tradition of choirs dating back 120 years: mixed choirs, men’s choirs, festivals, and eisteddfodau. Touring was a regular experience in the 1950s and 1960s. This choir began touring in 2013 with a visit to Adelaide. Since that time, the choir has toured Germany (2015), performing in Bavaria, Wiesbaden, Hermannsburg in Lower Saxony, Stuttgart, and at the biennial German Protestant Church Assembly, Kirchentag. This was followed in June 2018 by a second international tour, this time to the USA, to the Serenade! international choral festival, with performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., The Philips Collection, the Castleton Festival and the Olsen Gallery, and in New York City (amongst others). Prior to their departure in 2018, the choir also performed at the Hamer Hall and the Sydney Opera House to sold out audiences. In December 2022 the choir embarked on a tour of three major capital cities, with performances at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) in Brisbane, the Sydney Opera House (SOH), the Melbourne Concert Hall (Hamer Hall) and the Brunswick Ballroom, concluding their tour with a performance at Vision Australia’s annual Carols By Candlelight, nationally televised from the Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne:




The choir has also appeared at the Darwin Festival, the Denmark Festival of Voice and the Hobart Festival of Voices. Other highlights include performing at the “Closing of the Climb” at Uluru and being featured as part of the rebranding of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to celebrate the public broadcaster’s 90thanniversary. The choir was also presented with a NIMA (National Indigenous Music Award) in 2018 in recognition of its outstanding achievements:






Can you tell us more about the documentary by producer Andrew Kay called “The Song Keepers”?

MS: The documentary was produced by Brindle Films, Alice Springs, and launched at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival. I recommend you watch the documentary for any information you may be interested in. Andrew Kay is a leading Australian promoter who has taken on the task of promoting and managing choir tours.

 

I am fascinated with the music selection that the CAAWA sing, i.e. white European dead composers. Am I correct in my understanding that they sing these pieces from the Western classical canon in their First Nations Language? 

MS: The sacred music, as I have said, comprises hymns taught to their forebears (a real cultural exchange) beginning in the late 1880s. The repertoire also includes original sacred songs written by current choir members and by Elders since the 1920s. All songs are sung in the Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages, both living languages of Central Australia, spoken daily as the first languages in communities. In fact, Pitjantjatjara is the most commonly spoken First Nations language (spoken by approximately 4,000 people). Hence my characterisation of a unique compendium.


And can you explain more about the collaborations CAAWA have done with Arafura Music Collective and Plexus? What kind of music was this and how did the collaboration take place?  Did the groups prepare separately and then come together?

MS: The Ntaria (Hermannsburg) women’s choir sings some Bach. They often sing JS Bach’s Wachet Auf in the Western Arrarnta language, which was the piece that they collaborated on with Plexus, the contemporary classical trio from Melbourne that was one of our headliners at the 2023 Desert Song Festival. They rehearsed several times during the festival period and performed the piece as part of the concert by the Soweto Gospel Choir. It has become customary that the CAAWC occupies the first 25 mins of the Soweto Gospel Choir concert when they perform in Alice Springs at the Desert Song Festival. This has been the custom since their first visit in 2011, and during their five national tours of Australia in 2011, 2014, 2016, 2019 and 2023.


Central Australian Aboriginal Women's Choir

The Ntaria Choir sings Wachet Auf to commemorate the farewell to the missionary Carl Strehlow on what was to become his final journey as he attempted to travel with his family to Adelaide for medical treatment. He didn’t make it to Adelaide and died at Horseshoe Bend, near Finke in the Northern Territory. The Chorale was sung by the Ntaria community as Carl Strehlow departed. The book Journey to Horseshoe Bend by his son, anthropologist TGH Strehlow, recounts this episode, as well as being an authoritative tome on Western Arrarnta Culture. A brief extract explains:

Journey to Horseshoe Bend tells the story of the journey Strehlow made with his family and others in October 1922 from their home at Hermannsburg, one hundred and thirty kilometres southwest of Alice Springs. They were hoping to go all the way to the railhead at Oodnadatta, and then by train to Adelaide, where Strehlow’s father, who was suffering from dropsy, could get medical assistance. Horseshoe Bend was to be a stop along the way. The route they selected — the shortest route — was south, along the dry riverbed of the Finke River and through the Britannia Sandhills. The heat was cruel and the journey unforgiving; his father suffered greatly.

The story was turned into a cantata: op. 64 Symphonic cantata for solo voices, narrators, choirs and orchestra by Andrew Schultz, and was performed at the Sydney Opera House on 28 May 2003 with participation from  the Ntaria ladies!

 

Edited by Karen Bradberry, Australia

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