WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following may contain images, story and voices of deceased, by and about persons. Discretion advised.

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31 July 2021 // Ernabella Choir

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The Ernabella Choir (1940s - ) has been singing four part harmonies in Pitjantjatjara for over eighty years in South Australia boasts a strong tradition of singing.

Ernabella is situated in the far north-west corner of South Australia in the APY Lands. It was a sheep station when the Church took over the lease to establish the mission. Established in 1937 by the Presbyterian Church right from the start it was different from other missions of its day. There was no pressure on the Anangu to give up their own beliefs or way of life. Instead the Missionaries had to assimilate into the local language and culture. They also established a choir for which Ernabella became famous.

Pitjantjatjara people in those days lived in what we would call a camp situation. They lived in small groups. And one of the basic principles of that life was the people term it ngapartji, which is reciprocity. Life depended on the fact that you shared; both in the good and bad. And people would build their wilches from Spinifex and boughs. Very much living a traditional life in that camp situation. But they would come up to the mission for employment and the craft and sheep work and building. And that sheep work was maintained by the mission and it became very much the foundation of our economic structure.

Song was central to the social life of Aboriginal people. People were always singing and accepted the western form of singing through the school.

In 1954 the choir went on tour for the first time. They travelled 1400 kilometres over dusty roads on the back of a truck to Adelaide, to see Queen Elizabeth on her first visit to Australia. Later the choir sang at a church in Alice Springs, where they met a special guest, Prince Philip.

Since those early days, the Ernabella choir has toured both nationally and internationally.

The running of the Ernabella Mission was handed over to the Community in the mid-70s. Today the school has around 150 students from kindergarten to year 12, and boasts an 80 percent attendance rate.

Now a new group is making its mark on the small community and following in the tradition of the older singers. The Ernabella Children's Choir was established in 2006 following an inspirational visit by Mt Gordon Ingkatji who grew up at the mission.

"You wouldn't get it out of another kid's choir, they just put the foot to the floor and off they go. It's really special," explains school principal, Sam Osborne. The choir of 90 students is about more than just singing. It's also used as a behavioural and language tool in the classroom. 

"Often choir is used as the reason to get back up on the bike and have another go (at school). They get confidence and encouragement from the family about choir. Everyone says, 'Hey, come on, you don't to miss out on choir'," says Sam.

While most of the kids speak fluent Pitjantjatjara at home, English is often a second language only taught at school. Many of the kids in the choir have serious hearing problems in the form of otitis media, a middle ear infection that can cause hearing loss and runny ear.

"What it means is we have to be quite fussy about getting the sound right. If the kids can't hear themselves they tend to go flat on long notes where they can't hear the piano or each other," says Sam.

The junior choir has also formed strong bonds between the young kids and older members of the community. As Sam explains, the Children's Choir regularly performs at community funerals. 

"I've been at funerals that are highly emotive and they are absolutely amazing. They help temper the level of emotion, if there's someone really out of control they just look up and the kids are there. They sort of bring people together," says Sam.

Today Ernabella is an Aboriginal-run community with a rich cultural heritage. ABC documentaries 'No Ordinary Mission' and 'Nothing Rhymes With Ngapartji' have been produced, telling their unique story.

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