TORRES STRAIT CULTURE AND MUSIC
 

Located between Australia and Papua New Guinea, the islands of the Torres Strait are occupied by a people with a rich and diverse cultural heritage, drawn from their Melanesian neighbours to the north, the Australian Aboriginals to the south, along with a touch of the cultural heritage of the islands of the Malay archipelago. This cultural diversity is also evident from the differing linguistic groupings in the Torres Strait islands. The western, northern and central groupings speak Western language, Kalaw Lagaw Ya or dialects of this language, belonging to the Australian language family; while people of the eastern islands speak Meriam Mir, an indigenous Papuan language. 

           

Generally speaking, Australia has two indigenous peoples – Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. These groups share cultural traits, economic and ceremonial dealings, and a customary system of land-tenure law. The indigenous people of Australia migrated here over 40,000 years ago, when Asia and Australia were still connected by a land bridge. As the land masses separated, the population adapted itself to the various environmental and climatic conditions of this continent. Aborigines were nomadic, moving through the land in cycles, sometimes meeting with and sharing stories with other clan-groups. The Torres Strait Islanders were seafaring and trading peoples and their spirituality and customs reflected their dependence on the sea.

Although indigenous beliefs and cultural practices vary according to region, all groups share in a common world-view that the land and other natural phenomena possess living souls. The collection of stories of these powerful beings and the repository of knowledge represented in these stories shapes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law, both its history and future. The Dreaming or Dreamtime is the English name given to the intimately connected but distinct strands of Aboriginal belief; they refer not to historical past but a fusion of identity and spiritual connection with the timeless present. A similar concept with other names stands at the heart of Torres Strait Islander spirituality.

Young men in a native canoe, Torres Strait

When the first Europeans settled in Australia in 1788 there were, perhaps, a million Aborigines in Australia and over 200 different spoken languages. This population was significantly and quickly depleted through a combination of warfare, disease and dispossession of lands. One reason for the cultural acceptability of colonial violence was the mistaken belief that Aborigines had no religion. The continuous Christian missionary presence in Aboriginal communities since 1821 has seen many Aborigines convert to Christianity. Indigenous communities across Australia’s Top End had contact with the Muslim Macassan traders for many centuries before white settlement. In the 1996 Australian census, more than 7000 respondents indicated that they followed a traditional Aboriginal religion.

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Each clan-grouping has an important religious specialist who will initiate and foster contact with spirits and divinities. Specific elders may also be keepers of specific stories or rituals. Sometimes this knowledge is segregated according to gender – there is men’s business and women’s business.

 

Some key beliefs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait people are that the earth is eternal, and so are the many ancestral figures or beings who inhabit it.  These ancestral beings are often associated with particular animals, for example Kangaroo-men, Emu-men or Bowerbird-women. As they journeyed across the face of the Earth these powerful beings created human, plant and animal life; and they left traces of their journeys in the natural features of the land.

The spiritual powers of the Dreaming are accessed by ritual ceremonies which invoke these mythic and living beings. These ceremonies involve special sacred sites, song cycles accompanied by dance, and body painting, and even sports. In addition, at important stages of men and women’s lives, ceremonies are held to seek the assistance of spiritual beings. This makes them direct participants in the continuing process of the Dreaming.

Music has formed an integral part of the social, cultural and ceremonial observances of Torres Strait Island peoples, down through the millennia of their individual and collective histories to the present day. The traditional forms include many aspects of performance and musical instrumentation unique to particular regions and there are equally elements of musical tradition which are common or widespread through much of the Australian continent, and even beyond. The culture of the Torres Strait Islanders is related to that of adjacent parts of New Guinea and so their music is also related. In addition, the death wail is a mourning lament generally performed in ritual fashion soon after the death of a member of a family or tribe. Examples of death wails have been found in numerous societies, but the practice is most commonly associated with the peoples in central and northern Australia and among the Torres Strait Islanders.

Carrying water out to the boats

The musical artistic expression of the Indigenous peoples in Australia is commonly connected to notions of place. Consequently, it is also linked to musical artistic expressions of longing and belonging; two affective emotions readily expressed through music and lyrics. Because over two thirds of Australia's approximately 29,000 Torres Strait Islanders have migrated to the mainland since the second world war, artistic expressions such as music (and dance) are used regularly to establish and nourish connections to the Torres Strait. This kind of arguably fictive yet deeply-felt affective connection is especially crucial to diasporic populations, regardless of whether their migration was forced or voluntary. Music is a very mobile and potentially powerful form of cultural baggage and it was readily carried from the Torres Strait. Indeed, wherever Torres Strait Islanders now live it retains a high level of symbolic importance. It is one way to not only remain connected to home islands but also to differentiate Torres Strait Islanders as a group from the diverse cultural groups (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) that now live together on the mainland. 
 

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Maritime songs provide many insights into how some Torres Strait Islanders used, and still use music to connect themselves with their actual places of physical origin, their equally important symbolic places of cultural origin, or the industries (beche-de-mer, pearling, trochus and crayfishing) and boats (smaller schooners and luggers such as the Grafton and Goodwill and larger cargo boats such as the Melbidir and Elsanna) that shaped and serviced the region. Several distinct narrative themes arise directly from the work and lifestyles of the maritime industries, which were crucial to the development of colonial and contemporary Queensland, as well as other areas of northern Australia such as the littorals of the Arafura and the Timor seas.

Torres Strait: Thursday Island, 1886

In a ceremonial context, songs are seen as having a non-human origin. Old songs, evoking powerful Dreaming stories, are said to be created by the Dreaming beings themselves as they created the country in its present form. New songs may also be dreamed by individuals. The song text can evoke a complex web of associations and meaning for people who have extensive and specific local knowledge of country. Bearing in mind that a performance of a central Australian songline may consist of hundreds of different song texts, the depth of knowledge it embodies and that is required for its decipherment is staggering. Truly the long song series of Australia are among the most impressive monuments of human culture.

In addition to these indigenous traditions and musical heritage, ever since the 18th century European colonisation of Australia began indigenous Australian musicians and performers have adopted and interpreted many of the imported Western musical styles, often informed by and in combination with traditional instruments and sensibilities. Similarly, non-indigenous artists and performers have adapted, used and sampled indigenous Australian styles and instruments in their works. Contemporary musical styles have all featured a variety of notable indigenous Australian performers.

These include award-winning singer, Christine Anu who has made her signature song 'My Island Home', is an anthem for reconciliation among younger Australians and is proudly featured on Pacific Islands Radio. Another Torres Strait Islander with a national and international reputation is Henry “Seaman” Dan, known universally as Seaman Dan, a singer/songwriter whose music portrays a mixture of Blues, Hula, Slow-Jazz and Pearling songs, reflecting the many cultures and traditions found in the Torres Strait.

Australian Aboriginal Music

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 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 15th January 2013)
      
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