19 Jun 2018

Bringing Aboriginal voices to the world

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 19 June 2018

Choral singing is the most wonderful thing that human beings can do, says Morris Stuart, conductor of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women's Choir. 

A documentary about his choir's historic performance in Germany – The Song Keepers – has been called Australia's answer to Buena Vista Social Club.

Morris Stuart with the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir

Morris Stuart with the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir Photo: Potential films

The choir sings baroque German hymns that were first brought to the Red Centre by Lutheran missionaries in the 19th century then translated into Aboriginal languages and also traditional Aboriginal hymns which date back to the early 20th century.

When Morris met them, Indigenous choral singing had almost died out, he says.

"We caught it just in time. We've had a wonderful journey restoring and reviving this tradition and inspiring younger people."

A still from The Song Keepers

A still from The Song Keepers Photo: Brindle Films

The former pastor first went to Central Australia in 2006, accompanying his wife Barbara – a painter – on what they planned to be a four-month trip.

He kept himself busy by conducting a multicultural choir he'd recruited on the street but was then approached by an Aboriginal woman who had a singing group in Alice Springs.

By 2011, Morris was working with choirs in six different remote communities across a radius of 1,500km.

Some of the women tell their own stories in The Song Keepers, and they're often stories of loss but also of collaboration, Morris says.

"The women talk about holding two strands of culture together – their own and that which they have adopted and changed as well as been changed by."

A still from The Song Keepers

A still from The Song Keepers Photo: Brindle Films

In Australia, Aboriginal people are often defined by their disadvantage, he says.

"We know a lot about how they suffer and die. We virtually know nothing about how they live and what has gone into their stories of resilience. And that is what excites me about working with these women. I'm learning that story. I'm seeing connections with my own story of survival from slavery and colonisation – and the bad ravages of Christian mission, too."

Morris and Barbara Stuart

Morris and Barbara Stuart Photo: YouTube screenshot

Morris was raised in British Guyana, moved to London in the early 1960s, then left 13 years later for New Zealand, then Australia.

He married Barbara in 1967.

"A black man and a white woman getting married in London a year before the release of guess who's coming to dinner … a mixed-race marriage in the 1960s wasn't exactly a fashion statement."

His late-in-life career as an international choirmaster was unexpected but is a source of joy for both of them, he says.

"It's blessed myself and my wife with one of the richest seasons of our lives – and we're in our 70s."

The Song Keepers is directed by Naina Sen and screens at this year's NZ Film Festival.

Watch an ABC programme about Morris Stuart called The Choirmaster here.