This paper reviews and examines historical literature around Noongar songs from south-west Western Australia and attempts to position song composition and performance as a primary means by which Noongar dealt with change while maintaining cultural heritage and identity.
Noongar, the Aboriginal peoples of south-west Australia, have observed and interacted with Europeans since before the dawn of the nineteenth century. Historians have long relied on expedition journals and the diaries of colonists for constructing interpretations of south-west Australian frontier history. More recent work in this area emphasises oral histories and the perspectives of contemporary Noongar. Focusing on the region know today as the City of Albany in Western Australia, Tiffany Shellam has briefly considered Noongar language as a means by which to determine something of the motivations of certain Aboriginal people engaged in early contact with the British and French. Clearly, any interpretation of what people may have been thinking can be only enhanced when underpinned by an understanding of how they use language. Indeed, a language such as Noongar, which carries very little evidence of the inclusion of other languages, could be considered to ‘represent the distillation of the thoughts and communication of a people over their entire history’.
The bulk of Noongar language material recorded in the nineteenth century comprises wordlists and place names, rather than full texts. However, the few existing records of Noongar songs composed through the nineteenth century offer unique perspectives from the ‘other side’ of the south-west frontier. This is particularly significant because song is generally considered central to Aboriginal historical and cultural practices across Australia and because many Aboriginal songs were composed in response to rapid changes associated with the arrival of Europeans and colonisation. However, Noongar-language songs have been overlooked in previous studies of Aboriginal music, which have predominantly concentrated on central and northern Australia. This paper will review and examine historical literature around Noongar songs from south-west Western Australia and attempt to position song composition and performance as a primary means by which Noongar dealt with change while maintaining cultural heritage and identity.