The Indigenous composer calling out cultural appropriation in music

Indigenous composer Dr Christopher Sainsbury has created a First People’s Composers program called Ngarra-Burria (meaning to listen, to sing, in the Dharug language) to combat the historical appropriation of Indigenous music.

In his Platform Paper for Currency House, Dr Sainsbury explores how Australian composers have culturally appropriated aspects of Indigenous culture into their music in the past.

“Some non-Indigenous composers have been referencing Indigenous songs and melodies, mainly in the past decades. [They have also used] myths and legends or Indigenous words for titles. And that’s a bit more current,” Dr Sainsbury said.

Dr Sainsbury said the use of Indigenous words as titles in particular homogenises the diversity of Indigenous languages and cultures.

“If a non-Indigenous composer picks a Warlpiri or a Dharug word and throws it in as a title for their piece – we’re calling that out,” Dr Sainsbury said.

“We’re saying: ‘Have you gone to meet with that community?’”

Dr Sainsbury defines the use of a word or story as more ‘light appropriations,’ however he said some instances in the past have been the outright use of Indigenous melodies.

“In part we understand … it’s important that Australian composers as a collective group are looking to Indigenous culture. It shows a certain amount of esteem for Indigenous culture,” Dr Sainsbury said.

“We’ve got to couch it in more respectful terms and protocols now.”

Dr Sainsbury’s paper makes recommendations on how to do this, with consultation and collaboration at the forefront.

“If there’s that genuine respectful collaboration, permissions are sought, protocols have been followed, royalties are split from the piece for instance, then I think it can be positive. And certainly start further awareness through those music artworks,” Dr Sainsbury said.

“I think our [Indigenous] artists have to lead the way in this.”

The Dharug Eora composer’s Platform Paper goes a step further, suggesting cultural awareness programs should be mandatory for non-Indigenous composers using parts of Indigenous culture.

Dr Sainsbury also proposes these composers should not be funded and their music neither rehearsed nor broadcast without the completion of such a program.

“If they’re going to enter that space and earn a buck out of it, I recommend [they] do the training and enter a long-term relationship with Indigenous people in a respectful way,” Dr Sainsbury said.

The composer said the Ngarra-Burria program is bringing Indigenous music back into balance.

The first program of its kind to mentor Indigenous composers in the classical and filmic senses, Dr Sainsbury said they mentor students to help with their composing skills and then connect them with people in the classical and jazz industries.

“It’s very much targeted for established Indigenous musicians who want to step sideways into other [projects],” Dr Sainsbury said.

Although only in its infancy, Ngarra-Burria has hit the ground running, with organisations like the Royal Australian Navy Band joining the program this year.

The local Sydney program has already gathered 10 Indigenous composers and Dr Sainsbury suspects there are many more across the country ready to create.

“We’ve been on the verge of having a real critical mass of composers for quite a while and now it’s really starting to come through with this new platform,” Dr Sainsbury said.

Dr Sainsbury is looking to expand the program to other cities and states and is planning to meet up with universities, TAFE, and other institutions such as WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) to discuss various models of the program.

“I think the musicians are out there, we just have to create a platform where people want to see that they, too, can compose classical or filmic style music for concert,” Dr Sainsbury said.

“I think it’s ready to go gangbusters, but it all takes meetings and time and money.”

By Hannah Cross

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