Closing the Gap between Academic Music and Community Music in Australia

It seems that the ongoing Coranavirus pandemic has woken Australians up to the important role that local community and country based music can play, in maintaining human mental health and community peace. Dreaming, performing, and paying attention to community music that comes from actual human situations and real life experiences, instead of giving absolute priority to consuming the music of globalised “stars” from distant places and cultures, has a unique power to enliven, build and strengthen human societies and economies. Song and culture sharing and exchange can, in fact, act as a currency. The theory that supporting local music cultures and religions inevitably produces jingoistic nationalism, xenophobic hatred and war, does not necessarily apply when healthy intercultural communication is properly promoted by those in authority. Accurate, intelligent, respectful intercultural sharing, that outlaws deliberately offensive behaviour, at local level, has the power to discredit mischief making rumours that incite conflict. Cultures that articulate themselves clearly in music, and by describing spiritual and cultural concepts and structures, often communicate with other cultures peacefully, agree to disagree, and find ways to establish reasonable boundaries that maintain peace. In Western Sydney in the early 2000s, the intrepid Australian Bishop Kevin Manning tested and proved this fact beyond doubt, when he organised a productive series of interfaith conversations between peaceful, intelligent Christians and Muslims, that included music, and quickly restored community peace after an isolated provocateur incident, by sharing common ground, clarifying intercultural issues and discrediting false media myths.

Songbooks such as the Dhungala Choral Connection Songbook, produced by Deborah Cheetham, Toni Lalich and Jessica Hitchcock in close collaboration with several Australian Aboriginal communities, are valuable local community building resources for the challenging pandemic era we are living through.

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The Dhungala Choral Connection Songbook and CD is available at http://www.shortblackopera.com

So, how much health-bestowing local community music is being produced and consumed by Australians, right now? Where is it performed and heard, how is it managed, recorded, licensed and distributed, and who is still making it? When an Australian musician or composer writes, performs and records some of their own music, how do they get it heard by Australian and international audiences?  Must the give it away, to be heard? Is wide, government sponsored media distribution provided to our Australian musicians, so their loyal, pandemically challenged fans can access it? And if our local music is being drowned out by insistent promotion of non-Australian music, why is this so?

Have a look online. Many Australian Aboriginal communities are making magnificent, uniquely Australian music. Many non-Indigenous Australian musicians are collaborating with these communities, to grow uniquely Australian community music repertoires with a powerful Australian sound and presence. This is a learning process, but when every Australian gives first priority to supporting uniquely Australian music, instead of believing media hype that promotes non-Australian performers and non-Australian music genres above our home grown music, local community music, community cultures, and community peace, will flourish healthily, and grow.

Obviously, we don’t dislike overseas musics, many are wonderful, but why should Australians prioritize non-Australian genres, or promote them above our own music, to the detriment of the strong multicultural cooperation we have always lived with and built? All Australian citizens have a cultural right and duty to support, grow and enjoy our very own music, that connects us to, and takes pride in, the beautiful country we inhabit.

Australian community music appears to be re-emerging from the cultural silencing that the post World War II flood of imported music induced. We are beginning to realise that muting our local musicians’ voices, and obediently patronising, consuming and imitating the avalanche of non-Australian music genres that were, and in some cases still are, permitted to dominate our airwaves, is not likely to benefit Australia.  Australia is no longer stuck in a colonial music time warp, that deems all imported music superior, and all home grown music irredeemably inferior, but we are still vacillating between patronising non-Australian music, and prioritising our local music. Can Australia’s sovereign music needs and rights really be fulfilled with instore muzak such as “In the Bleak Midwinter”, “White Christmas”, or “Jingle Bells”, to cheer us through our smoky heatwave-and-bushfire summers? I don’t think so.

Sadly, the yawning gulf that divorced the truly Australian community music that many older Australians still know and love, from the overwhelmingly foreign music repertoire studied and performed in Australian Universities, Conservatoria, and concert halls, has certainly not been bridged. Hands up, if you’ve heard identifiably Australian music, performed, recorded and distributed by Australians, in Australia, on an Australian-produced radio or TV program, or a streamed podcast. Hands up, if you’ve played, or sung any uniquely Australian song in the last week. Music by non-Australian composers of non-Australian music genres, still floods Australian airwaves, and is still promoted by massive government handouts of public money, that all flows out of Australia. This money should be flowing into local Australian community music systems, to support and grow homespun Australian music. Supporting local music is not narrow parochialism or isolationist nationalism, nor is it driven by anti-competitive rhetoric, it’s commonsense social capital building.

Many researchers claim that academic studies of “popular music” such as hip hop, rock, soul, electronica and gaming music have broken through the academic / community music divide, by validating the selection and insertion of a carefully selected canon of globalised ‘popular music’ into Australian school and academic curricula. The theory behind this policy, is that establishing a secularised global music repertoire shared by all, would eliminate intercultural and interreligious conflict – John Lennon’s utopian “Imagine” vision of world harmony. But despite this populist educational policy, a strict academic / community music divide is still present in the formal systems of music teaching and examination that many Australian music teachers endorse. Grass rooms musos are studied by researchers, but how many of them read, or are permitted to respind to, the thousands of academic papers written about them? Popular music syllabuses that include lists of set examination performance pieces, and also teach computer music skills, are  shaping future Australian musicians, but only a tiny percentage of the teaching repertoire included in these syllabuses is composed by Australians, or supportive of uniquely Australian music genres and performers.

So what can be done to promote and support the growth of health-giving Australian community music systems and repertoires?

1. Immediately reduce the high percentage of non-Australian music heard on Australian airwaves.

2. Teach Australian children that all home grown Australian music is of great value to Australia, and is just as good as, and much healthier for Australians, than any music of non-Australian origin, or music that is exclusively based on a non-Australian genre, or music that has been exclusively composed, produced and distributed by non-Australian musicians and companies.

3. In our present pandemic situation, generously fund and facilitate the creation and local community performance of uniquely Australian music content, by Australian born and raised composers.

4. When the coronavirus pandemic is over, fund safe live local music events directed and staffed by local Australian musicians, and endorsed by local Australian Aboriginal Elders as fully supportive of our sovereign Australian cultures and ecologies, instead of draining Australia’s music coffers by importing or promoting “big names” who don’t actually need promotion, who often put youth audiences at risk by staging drug-ridden megaconcerts, and then depart, taking our funds with them.

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