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.

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


Mar 14, 2018 – Uploaded by Potential Films

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

The Human Race has Lost a Friend

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On March 8 this year a man died at the age of ninety. He was a German officer, born into an old aristocratic Prussian family whose sons had always been officers in the military. World War II saw the young man leading soldiers far older than he on the Eastern Front. He served his country while remaining aloof from the Nazi party. He saw his men dying needlessly. “He said it was not the business of soldiers to think too much. Orders were orders. (But) the one thing that seemed worth dying for was the erasing of Hitler from the scene.”*

Ultimately, the orders that the young oficer followed were to assassinate Hitler. He was to become a suicide bomber: he would wear two grenades under his uniform and detonate them at a planned meeting with the Fuhrer. But Hitler cancelled the meeting. A later plan had the young soldier bringing a suitcase of explosives into a conference to be held in the “Wolf’s Lair”. He wavered. But he agreed to carry out the order after his father told him: A man who doesn’t take such a chance will never again be happy in life.

In the event, the younger man was ordered not to attend. The plot failed, the father was guillotined, and the son was imprisoned briefly before being sent back to the front.

The younger man’s name was Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist.

After the war von Kleist set up the highly influential annual Munich Conferences. Scorning pacifism, he promoted debate on what was worth fighting and dying for. The great names of America and Germany attended.

To judge by a recent obituary, it seems doubtful that Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist ever smiled, certainly not after accepting his orders to kill and to die.

*The obituary quoted was published in The Economist on March 23 this year. Von Kleist’s true life prefigures the fiction of Hans Fellada (author of the magnificent “Alone in Berlin”); both the book and the life offer an answer to the question, ‘how can a sole human being stand up and stare down tyranny?’; of course, von Kleist’s obituary creates the uncomfortable realisation that we support the action of a suicide bomber.

A word about The Economist: the writing in this magazine is invariably of a high standard. It seems like a colossal waste to devote such a lot of ink and so much talent to a journal about the ephemeral, I mean Business and Economics.  However so long as people keep dying and The Economist selects individuals to obituarise, the magazine will inform, intrigue and surprise the reader.

The trick with The Economist is to start from the back.  Read the final article first. Then, if you are in the mood, read the next-to-rearmost, the reviews of books and the arts. You will be enlightened always, even (as in this case) uplifted. After the reviews you can put the magazine down, unless you lust for exchange rates and gloomy prognostications.

Reading an obituary is cheering proof that it is not your own. You might even smile.