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Reviving Aboriginal language and song


Ethnomusicologist Associate Professor Clint Bracknell.

Karaoke and sharing songs via bluetooth are just two of the tactics that Wirlomin man and ethnomusicologist Associate Professor Clint Bracknell is using to breathe new life into ancient Nyoongar music.

Professor Bracknell, from Western Australia’s South East coast, is using an Australian Research Council Discovery Indigenous grant to revitalise the song traditions of the Nyoongar language and secure their survival for future generations.

Nyoongar is one of the largest Indigenous language and cultural groups in Australia with more than 30,000 people identifying as Nyoongar. Despite this, less than 500 people identify as speakers of the language which is now considered endangered.

Professor Bracknell said song forms a central part of Nyoongar culture and is key to understanding language and traditions.

“Song has always been used to sustain knowledge and ways of being and knowing in this country,” he said.

“It is an important domain of Nyoongar language and the way that you would sing an old song is sometimes different from the way that you might speak in conversation.

“Old songs are useful in language revitalisation because they have been composed by fluent speakers and offer insights into poetic use of language.”

Professor Bracknell has put his years of research into practice by developing a collaborative model which encourages song circulation among Nyoongar communities.

He assists the Wirlomin Nyoongar Language and Stories group in running workshops and gatherings for Nyoongar people in the south coast region, to recirculate old and sometimes forgotten songs and help piece together incomplete material.

These workshops aim to empower and engage the community to reignite and help sustain their rich traditions by relearning, performing and sharing songs.

He has also produced karaoke style videos which are easily shared through the community on smartphone via bluetooth.

Professor Bracknell said the project has far reaching benefits.

“One of our key strategies is to get everyone together and singing,” he says.

“We create a safe space where we can break down some of the barriers that have been imposed by the way that music is taught, thought about and represented in Australian society today and that’s a really powerful thing.

“Song is a domain for language use that people can engage with and participate in. If you want to sustain a language, people need to use it and music is a good way to do that.”

Hear more from Professor Bracknell at an upcoming public lecture at ECU’s Mount Lawley Campus at 9.30am on Wednesday, 7 August. To register for this free event, visit ecu.edu.au/ecu-lecture-series.

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