Autumn notes: The Song Keepers

I’m probably posting this too late.

I want to tell you about a documentary movie my wife and I saw a few days ago. The movie overwhelmed me.

My wife and I arrived a few minutes early and we took our seats. We were the first to arrive. We watched trailers of a number of forthcoming films in which an individual or a group achieves redemption through performance of music.

Then our movie began. Within minutes the story is told: a black man who travels to Central Australia finds groups of women choristers, all of them Aboriginal. The women used to sing ancient Lutheran hymns, not in German but in their own (far more ancient) Aboriginal languages. The man revives the choirs, brings them together, trains them and flies with them to Germany where the ladies (whose massed choir somehow includes two men) perform and triumph. Simple story, simply told.

The choirmaster drives from Alice Springs to the settlement of Hermannsburg (126 kilometres), from Alice to Areyonga (214 kms), from Alice to Docker River (673 kms), to meet and recruit his singers. Arriving in one remote community after dark, he feels his way to the little church by torchlight. The church is empty. Addressing the camera cheerfully, the would-be choirmaster says, I wonder how many will come. I wonder if any will come. A handful gathers and embraces the rebirth of their old songs. We see these women, clearly inspired and energised. Something, some memory, stirs them.

We watch these joyous women, mostly old and fat and jolly, in their singing and in their joyous being. We witness the joyfulness of these ladies, the exultation that flows from them and between them as they join together in song. We hear them tell their stories, stories of massacre, of confiscated children, stories of loss and of love. We watch and we tremble with formless stirrings of our own.

We watch the singers clothe their corpulent selves in their gowns of earth colours (I mean earth browns and earth reds), we see them congregate at Alice Springs airport for the unfamiliar enterprise of commercial jet travel. They land in the cold of Germany and discover Lutheran churches vaster and more ancient than they have known. Congregations materialise and the choristers master their nerves and they give voice. The local Lutherans are overcome: here is their old time music brought back alive and pulsating in tongues they do know. And yet they do know.

The locals weep, the choristers weep, and two old Jews seated in the cinema – the sole patrons in this screening –  weep too. My eyes moistened with the first sung chords and never dried, as I vibrated to the passion and the glory. What is this alchemy of sound, of treasured memory, of lost ceremony regained, that lets loose these springs of cleansing tears?

I realise I’ve probably spoiled the movie for you. Perhaps that doesn’t matter: the movie will end its so brief season any day now. But if you do manage somehow to catch ‘The Song Keepers’ remember to bring along a hankie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhEh3kmBSxI

Jun 21, 2017 – Uploaded by MIFF

The Song Keepers Australia | 85 minutes Central Australia’s answer to The Buena Vista Social Club, The …

The Song Keepers – Trailer – YouTube

 2:43

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUFXbQAX9Z4

Mar 14, 2018 – Uploaded by Potential Films

Dir. by Naina Sen, Australia, 2017. 84 min | Documentary Four generations ofsong women that make …

7 thoughts on “Autumn notes: The Song Keepers

  1. I felt as moved as you did and I was struck by the positive relationship the Hermannsburg women felt towards the church that had saved many of them from being ‘stolen’. At last something positive about the church and its engagement with Aboriginal Australia

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    • Lion!

      To be fair one comes across numerous instances where the church is treasured in the memory of its previous charges

      Invariably the grateful are elderly ladies

      These speak and read English well
      ( in the documentary we saw all choristers could read)

      They remember kindness

      In Broome a most tender re-encounter took place about a decade ago, filmed for ABC tv

      The old nuns met their former charges- intending to apologise and seek absolution for their passive part in the stealing

      Instead they found their old pupils embracing them , weeping, thanking them

      For kindness

      The nuns were often novices still
      In their teens, fresh from Ireland

      They too were children far from home

      Love worked its way

      As it does

      Like

  2. funny you should mention that movie Howard I was riveted to the music coming from radio national the other day. I was stopped in my tracks and overcome with emotion and of course it was those aboriginal women singing from the doco the Songkeepers. I will get to it and no you haven’t spoiled it. And apropos of nothing, Hilary Blakiston has a nasty diagnosis and will not be with us for long. You would be very welcome to visit. I fondly remember your mother Yvonne, whose birthday I share !

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