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Teaching music in Arnhem Land

Coldplay, Peer Gynt and crocodiles.  

DL Upon Reflection News Term 44

My journey began in Nhulunbuy, a remote mining town about two hours by air from Cairns. As my plane swooped down towards the runway, I was overwhelmed by colour: red earth; green eucalypt scrub; an expanse of blue sky; and in the distance, a wisp of grey bushfire smoke. 

At the airport, I accepted a ride to town from a local family. “Call me Ocker!” said the Dad. There’s an underlying toughness here that seems to come with isolation. The climate is unforgiving too, with fierce sun, high humidity and soaring temperatures.

Teaching that goes the distance
I started my Fellowship at Yirrkala Homelands School, about a 20-minute drive from my accommodation in Nhulunbuy. Life feels different here. The pace is slow and the challenges are unlike any we experience at Wenona. A dog was eaten by a crocodile in one of the school communities in my first week! It was a stark reminder of the respect and awareness required to survive in this landscape.

Yirrkala is perhaps best known for Yothu Yindi, the band who pushed Indigenous music beyond Australian borders. The annual Garma Festival, which is held nearby, helps to shine a spotlight on local Yolngu music, ancient storytelling and dance. Yirrkala also played a significant role in the establishment of Aboriginal Land Rights. The famous Bark Petitions originated here, leading to the 1967 Referendum, which recognised Aboriginal people in the Constitution. 

The School delivers educational programs to more than 100 Indigenous students scattered across communities in North-East Arnhem Land. Here, the desire for bilingual teaching runs deep, based on a belief that children should be taught in a language they understand well. The students, aged from Pre-School to Year 12, speak English as an Additional Language. Six Departmental teachers work out of Yirrkala. Each week, they travel by four-wheel drive or light aircraft to spend three to four days at community-based Homeland Learning Centres where they work in close partnership with local Indigenous teachers. Together, they focus on literacy, numeracy, cultural knowledge and skills, in both English and the students’ first language.

The School holds a central place in the life of these remote communities. Families, elders, local rangers and community leaders work in collaboration with teachers to innovatively blend traditional and contemporary learning. A central focus is the Learning on Country program, a Government-funded initiative designed to make school more relevant for Indigenous students. It draws heavily on local knowledge, taking children ‘on country’ to encourage them to connect, and stay connected, to Indigenous culture. This vocational program not only helps to improve school attendance and strengthen communities, it lays the foundations for future employment.

"My Fellowship has taught me more about our First Australians’ struggles than any previous experience, course, book or film. It was a privilege to play a small part in a unique educational program that celebrates the richness of local knowledge, language and identity. Despite the enormous challenges of remote teaching, including isolation, climate and limited resources, teaching music in Arnhem Land was an unforgettable experience.

I would go back tomorrow."

Teaching ‘Gangan-style’
In my first week at Yirrkala, I workshopped music activities with the teachers to engage and inspire their students. I then accompanied one of the teachers, an IT coordinator and the school caretaker on a three-hour trip to Gangan Homeland Learning Centre.

A sturdy vehicle is mandatory to cope with the rough roads and straying animals here, particularly the feral water buffalos who startle easily. Equipped with a GPS tracker, satellite phone and plenty of water, we arrived mid-morning at our destination, a demountable-style, aluminium-clad classroom with no air-conditioning. It was a blistering 42 degrees outside. Although there was some accommodation, there were builders working in the community so some of the visitors had to sleep outside in swags, exposed to the heat, insects and dogs!

The students were scheduled to do some online testing, but the computers would not work in the heat. This meant that the IT coordinator and caretaker had to drive off in search of a spare modem. By the time they returned, we had lost all power and temperatures were soaring. 

Thankfully, an hour later the power resumed and the students were able to complete the online literacy and numeracy tests. It was useful for me as a teacher and as a learner to observe multi-stage testing of this kind. It also gave me a chance to make music with the other students.

That afternoon, 10 students - and a few family dogs - came over for lessons. I started off with some simple drum stick activities and rhythm games, which they loved. I then introduced music notation in a game. Although this was new to them, they were quick to recognise visual patterns and accurately matched sounds to notation. A video of my Year 7 students at Wenona singing a ‘Hello’ song to their Arnhem counterparts, a world away in a Sydney classroom, had the students transfixed. But it was Coldplay’s Viva La Vida clip that inspired the students to form their own band. Soon they were playing keyboard and using drum-sticks on desks, along with some very creative backing vocals! 

The following morning, 12 students came to class. We sang the ‘Hello’ song, then watched a video of Peer Gynt on my laptop. The students were captivated by Ibsen’s fairy tale of mountains and trolls, and clearly identified the musical events that explained the story. We then listened to a dub-step version of the music and practiced the theme on the keyboard.

DL Upon Reflection News Term 43

Outdoor learning
The students were keen to give me a guided tour of their community. On our way to the river, they taught me about bush food and medicine, and showed me which tree to climb if I was chased by a water buffalo! Banathini, the Year 12 student leading the tour, showed me where horsemen had thrown his people into the water. “A massacre?” I asked. He nodded and pointed to the memorial nearby. 

Crocodiles are an ever present threat at the river’s edge. News had just reached us of a crocodile caught in a pig trap downstream. A sudden movement in the water startled everyone and the children shouted at the dogs to stay away. Back in the classroom, the students lay on mats while I played the flute, which they’d never seen up close before. It was a great opportunity to introduce the recorder. I had brought 10 recorders and some music scores for the students so they could continue playing and learning after my visit.

Dhalinybuy and Garthalala
Next my journey took me inland to Dhalinybuy, where I was delighted to chat to a group of teenage girls about local students who had boarded at Wenona. Teaching me Aboriginal dance moves had them in fits of giggles. They also explained how to harvest cycad nuts, which they use as flour for cooking.

I then travelled to Garthalala, a tiny community surrounded by a stunning aqua sea, filled with saltwater crocodiles and deadly Irukandji jellyfish! Mobile coverage and internet access are limited here, so there was a huge cheer when the Telstra helicopter flew in to repair the landline. The students are naturally curious and eager to learn music, so it was great to hear that the local teacher, Lombinga, has continued their music education, inspired by my original workshop at Yirrkala.

Back to Nhulunbuy
When I returned to Nhulunbuy, I enjoyed an enriching stay at Culture College, an Indigenous cultural and outdoor education program to educate the ‘leaders of tomorrow’. A highlight was having dinner with the Lacey family from Nyinyikay, a remote coastal community that Dr Scott has previously visited and home to one of our former students, Rihannah. I strongly hope Wenona continues to maintain its connection with this very special part of Australia.

Dr Dianne Langan
Music Teacher