The Song Keepers tells us the story of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir. 30-35 Central Australian women from remote communities sing hymns originally taught to their grandparents by German missionaries, translated and composed in Indigenous languages. In 2015 they went on tour to Germany, bringing the hymns back to their point of origin, having taken on their own meaning and relevance to the communities they were brought to. Filmmaker Naina Sen documented the journey.
The Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir is an amalgam of a number of local community choirs whom conductor Morris Stuart worked with over many years. With a dwindling interest in the individual choirs because of their association with missionary control, he merged them into one with a resounding success. The Song Keepers follows the choir from the early days of rehearsals, to their trip overseas (many of the participants leaving Australia for the first time) and to the performances of their songs to receptive European audiences.
The Song Keepers approaches the documentary form with an admirable intent to educate and inform. It’s probably fair to say that choral music is an area of niche interest, so the purpose here is to tell a story most people will be unfamiliar with. There’s no salacious revelations, or dramatic conflict as you might find, say, in a Netflix production, but there is a lot of heart, goodwill and positive achievement.
The documentary challenges expectations by showing what a positive influence these songs and this choir has had on both its members and the community at large. It might be tempting to assume the worst when thinking about the influence of a religious mission, imagining the imposition of one culture upon another, for example. It appears to be quite the opposite here, not only in terms of the historical evidence presented, whereby the mission sought to protect the local communities, but also in how these traditional German hymns melded with Indigenous language and dance to become a fascinating sonic chimera.
The Song Keepers speaks to ownership, of both songs and language, and also of tradition and influence. These songs simultaneously belong to two cultures, as geographically distant as it’s possible to be, yet combine to form something completely unique. And the choir members, through their personal stories, highlight the importance of retaining and maintaining their languages, and why the choir itself means so much to them.
If there is a minor gripe, then the lack of conflict within the narrative means there are no real surprises or dramatic upheaval, but it really is a minor concern. It’s very hard to knock anything about a film so unashamedly optimistic. On purely face value, The Song Keepers offer an interesting insight into a little known musical genre, but it’s also a movie about positivity and what people can do when they connect out of difference, rather than repel because of it.
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‘The Song Keepers’ will begin a limited Australian theatrical run from April 19.