Shellie Morris & The Borroloola Songwomen CD

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This represents both a labour of love and a creation of heady cultural significance. Singer Shellie Morris (of the Black Arm Band) returned to the homeland of her people in the Gulf of Carpentaria and penned songs using “field recordings” of the Borroloola Songwomen as a basis. In the process she preserved on disc languages now spoken by precious few people.

That the album’s contents will surprise many reflects just how far we are from familiarity with the culture of the first Australians. To put this into context, I attended primary school in New Zealand where, as a matter of course, we learned (and loved) Maori songs. How many Australians are aware of the traditional music of this continent’s Aboriginal people, beyond knowing what a didjeridu sounds like?

The album contains two discs, the first consisting of the songs crafted by Morris as a response to the extraordinary music and stories she encountered. The second contains 58 pieces of unadorned traditional song (with translations in the cover booklet). This disc, for me, is the real event.

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Shellie Morris & the Borroloola Songwomen.

The Borroloola songwomen keep alive the songs and languages of the Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Gudanji, and Marra peoples of the McArthur River region of the Northern Territory. Their singing carries such primal power as to almost give you an adrenalin rush as you listen. It is an equivalent effect to that of the early blues artists of the Mississippi, Spain’s flamenco singers or the Balkans’ Gypsy ones. Yet we import such performers to headline our festivals while the treasures of our own land are ignored.

The sense of being part of the landscape conjured by the lyrics is remarkable, as is the warm emphasis on community. Sometimes the mood is poetic and sometimes it celebrates such pragmatic events as hunting sea turtles.

Morris has used (with permission) the traditional material with due empathy and reverence, and her voice is often arresting. The drawbacks are a wishy-washy quality to several of the original melodies and the use of beats and atmospherics – all, presumably, an attempt to make the material appeal to a wider audience. In reality these additions mostly lie somewhere between being superfluous and being irritating, although the beautiful use of strings on My Song proves that there was, indeed, scope for an astute arranger’s skill here and there.

Having assimilated the polished product it was astounding to then play Disc Two and confront the power, energy and sadness of these women wailing out their songs in the raw, so to speak. They may not be professionals, but they live their music – unlike too many professionals! – and this, as a consequence, is much deeper art. Rather than the material she has crafted herself Morris’s real achievement is using her name to expose these traditional songs to a wider world that is likely to be stunned by what it hears.