The Song Keepers

Some reflections by Arjuna


Music, the word that we use in our language, is nothing less than the picture of the Beloved. But the question is, what is our Beloved and where is our Beloved? It is because music is the picture of our Beloved that we love music. Our Beloved is that which is our Source and our Goal (HIK). [1]


The Song Keepers: ancient German hymns find new life in Australian outback

‘The subject of The Song Keepers film is the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir, led by Morris Stuart’ [2]

My second viewing of this amazing film brought tears to my eyes more than once. We have just returned from the Red Centre, where we first connected with the choir. I was just beginning to feel like I was back in Bondi, andsuddenly I found myself in that red desert country as I watched the film and listened to the exalted music again. It was like they were singing the land.

After this second viewing I wrote the following:


Music is the Universal language

because it’s the language

of the Universe

‘Uni’ is One

‘Verse’ is Song –

The Universe is One Song –

This is the Music of the Spheres

that Pythagoras wrote about –

The Aboriginal Women’s Choir

are singing the Land

they took their desert song to Germany

where they could sing the song

of the German Land

in harmony with their Western Aranta land.

This is an ecology of culture!

They spoke of being

part of both cultures –

they said they didn’t

need to choose

between the Christian culture

of the missionaries

expressed in song

and their Aranta culture

expressed in song –

They are keeping

their culture strong

through singing both songs –

that’s what they said!

Through language

Through song!

As Hazrat Inayat Khan said

The whole Universe

is an ocean of vibrations![3]

Our whole body is an orchestra

of different organs

all playing their music

all singing their song

all dancing their dance.

Like the dance

of Shiva and Shakti

that created the Universe

This was the Big Bang!

With Shiva and Shakti

making love

in a circle of fire.

This space condensed

into a singularity

whichcould flareforth

as stars and galaxies

as planets and elements

as life – as US!

Ancient cultures

still remember

their Creation Songs –

Bereshith, Bismillah,

Abwoon de Bash’maya

Te Kore –

We dance creation into being

We sing creation into being

We are Creation singing and dancing

itself into Being

That’s why –

Tjukurpa, the Dreaming

is NOW

Bereshith, Creation

is NOW

We are here NOW!

In this3 dimensional space

In this 4thdimension of time

In this 5thdimension of


I first learnt about the choir when we were in Hermannsburg. My partner had gone there to work with the Aboriginal potters, with whom she had made connections some years earlier. She is doing a PhD and part of her research involved examining the ways non-Western cultures approach ceramic arts. I was there as her assistant and endeavoured to connect to the local community and the desert country, while she was engaged with the potters.



As a social ecologist I was interested in the way the arts had put Hermannsburg on the map. We previously visited there 30 years earlier, because of the artworks of Albert Namatjira. At the time it was a sleepy little village in the Western Desert of the Northern Territory. We did discover then that Albert had taught all his 7 children to paint in the western watercolour style he had learnt from the artist Rex Battarbee.[4]This began a whole tradition of Aboriginal watercolour paintings of the Red Centre. It also later resulted indirectly in the Papunya school of dot painting on canvas and in the Aboriginal ceramic art movement, which Karen was researching.

One of the first people we met at the pottery was InkaataNeville, the local Lutheran Pastor. We learnt about the Historic Precinct and other local information about the mission’s work. Then as Karen was working with the ladies during the week, we decided to go to the church service on the Sunday, to get a deeper understanding of this community that seemed to be a hybrid culture of the Aboriginal Aranta people with a strong influence of Australian Lutheran Christian culture. The main language in the village of some 600 people was Western Aranta[5].

The service that Sunday at the local church was mainly in Aranta, with an Aranta Pastor and some in English. The congregation was equally mixed. Before and after the service we spoke with the locals, several of whom were volunteer Lutherans from other parts of Australia. The Historic Precinct, which has now become a major tourist attraction in the NT, was largely run by these volunteers as was the Finke River Mission Shop. As part of the precinct there was an excellent café that served fresh food and great apple strudel. As the precinct had good WIFI and good coffee as well, it was a place I visited daily. The view from the balcony of the café was like sitting in a Namatjira painting.


After the service I was introduced to David, the choirmaster of the Hermannsburg choir.

The choir is led by David Roennfeldt, a teacher, linguist and “bush conductor”. There is a core of 12 singers, who are grouped into three parts. Roennfeldt teaches them each part by playing it on a keyboard. “They listen and pick it up that way,” he says. “There are not many Aboriginal choirs that sing in harmonies like this.”[6]

I said to David that I was involved with the Dances of Universal Peace and we were planning to come to Hermannsburg later that month and maybe we could do something with the local school. He explained that he’d be away then, so I asked if I could come down to the school with him the following Wednesday, which was his regular time to go there. He agreed, and so on the Wednesday, I went with him and we sang songs in Aranta with the infant class. They were so cute! He played his guitar and I played along with my red guitar ukulele and sang Aranta songs, I sang along when I could. Then I taught them Haida, one of our Jewish Niggunim (song without words) from the dances. They loved it! I’d taught it to Aboriginal kids before with great success. The next day the teacher saw me and said she’d googled the song and they were singing it again, as the kids had enjoyed so much.

We ended up with a very loose arrangement that our group might be able to go to a rehearsal of the choir in Alice, after our trip around Uluru, Kata Tjuta and King’s Canyon. I arranged to ring him when we were in Alice on the Sunday. This indeed we did and it turned out we arrived in Alice at 20 to 4 pm on the Sunday and drove past the Yirara College which is a Lutheran college. When I rang David, he invited us to a commissioning of the choir at 4pm at the very college we were very near to. We were clearly meant to be there and so we attended the gathering, along with the local community. It was quite a privilege to be included to what was the send-off event of the choir as it toured to Melbourne, Sydney and then would be attending an international choir festival in Washington DC.

Hearing the choir live for the first time was very special. I had seen the film by then and listened to one of their CDs, but to hear these ladies sing live added a whole extra dimension to the experience. It reminds me of when I’ve seen a famous painting live in a gallery, like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Waterlilies. If there’s an atmosphere around alive artwork like a painting, how much more so around a live performance in song! Here were Lutheran hymns, originally brought by the Lutheran Missionaries to Hermannsburg more than 100 years ago – now translated into Aranta, Pitjantjatjaraand other local languages, sung by a choir made up predominantly of senior indigenous women. They had fused their Aboriginal desert song culture into the rhythms and harmonies of the music.

Then we saw them again live at the Sydney Opera House on the Friday of the same week. On the stage of the Concert Hall, it was a truly spectacular experience. The colourful costumes and the colourful choir conductor, Morris is a real performer and knows how to work an audience. As a one time member of staff at the Opera House, mainly working on stage lighting but also occasionally sound and stage management, it was very moving seeing this Aboriginal event there. Rarely was there any Aboriginal content when I worked there in the 70s and early 80s. What further enhanced the experience of this performance was the inclusion of some South African songs about Soweto and Mandela. So now there was a fusion of  Aboriginal Australian desert sounds, with Lutheran German Christian sounds and with South African celebratory revolutionary sounds – a very rich mix indeed. The almost full concert hall audience loved the performance and this brought out the best in the choir.

This truly was an experience of the mysticism of sound and music that Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote about in his book of that name. It also felt like a coming of age for Australia to acknowledge its indigenous people through song, in the same way as they have been acknowledged in painting, sculpture, pottery and other plastic arts, and in dance through groups like Bangarra, whose performance of Dark Emu I saw the following week – an equally mind blowing experience. It was like being at an authentic Aboriginal ceremony or inma.


[1]HIK – Supplementary Papers, Art and Music 1


[3]‘Thus, the universe is, so to speak, an ocean of vibrations, and every movement represents a wave.’  From Volume IX – The Unity of Religious Ideals – Part V – THE SYMBOLOGY OF RELIGIOUS IDEAS – Jesus Walking on Water


[5]  Variously spelt: Aranda,Arrernte, Arrente, Arunda, Arunta, Arranda …



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