A dead technology is being revived in a riposte to the anthropologists who thought they had recorded the last Indigenous voice.
For more than a century the wax cylinder recordings Horace Watson made of Fanny Cochrane Smith have been touted as the only sound recording of the traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal language.
The recordings of Smith singing, made in 1899 and 1903, were held up as an example of modern technology preserving a dying culture. But in an ironic twist, the technology has died while the culture lives on.
To make the point two Aboriginal musicians are reviving the obsolete wax cylinder technology to make their own recording of a contemporary song in dialogue with Smith’s voice.
Nardi Simpson and Kaleena Briggs are best known as Stiff Gins, a soulful vocal duo with three albums to their name. But their new project Spirit of Things-Sound of Objects is much more than just music.
The pair are seeking inspiration from the Indigenous objects that have been removed from their cultural context and creating music in response to objects languishing in museum storage.
‘We are exploring the residual meanings that we believe are engraved in our cultural materials,’ says Simpson. ‘Country has stories so what about objects made of country, maybe they have a yarn too. And they are made by people who have lots of yarns.’
One of the most moving objects Simpson and Briggs found was from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery: the sound of Fanny Cochrane Smith singing in her native Tasmanian language, which can be heard on the video clip below.
‘We thought that story came to use for a reason. We thought, why is that story only in the past? We really feel connected and related to that, how can we show that? So we thought we could create our own wax cylinder. We didn’t know how hard it was. We knew the technology was rare. We didn’t know it had stopped being done.’
But far from being put off by the obsolete technology, they found the old recording device a perfect symbol for what they were trying to achieve. ‘The idea of having something that can no longer be used but still has that embedded story and sound is exactly what we are talking about so we thought it would be the perfect rounding-off of the project for us to create our own thing, to show that we can reinterpret and breathe life into our history and our objects at any stage on our journeys.’
Finding the equipment to make a modern wax cylinder recording has involved an international search with the help of Peter White from the National Film and Sound Archive. White initially approached the Edison Museum in the US and then sought help from European museums. He has now located the necessary equipment and is waiting for it to arrive and be tested.
White said it was particularly powerful to use a wax cylinder recording because of the way they had been used in the past. ‘This kind of equipment was primarily an anthropological medium. Anthropologists would go into communities and make recordings so it’s great that Aboriginal people are turning that around and making their own recordings and creating and celebrating their own voices.
Simpson and Briggs hope to take the song they make for the wax cylinder recording on tour and to perform in places like the British Museum, which holds significant Aboriginal objects.
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