Saltwater Sisters a reminder of linear cultural pride

Saltwater Sisters a reminder of linear cultural pride

It’s a Wednesday night and I’m in the backstreets of Glenorchy in Hobart searching for an address.

I’ve been invited to attend a rehearsal for Saltwater Sisters, a performance taking place in a mere two days, to get my head around the concept ahead of a radio interview.

I gladly accept, not just for the opportunity for context – but to witness preparation for what I think will be a special experience.

The Saltwater Sisters performance is an ambitious one. A coming together of island women from Tasmania, Aoetearoa, and Fiji singing the songs of their respective home countries in language, English, and together in Tasmanian Aboriginal palawa kani. More than a performance, Saltwater Sisters is about building stronger bonds within the group and with the community.

The childcare centre where I’ve been told rehearsal is to take place appears in my low beams. I swing into the driveway and am greeted by the heavy silence of outer suburbia where even the street lights are dim and few and far between.

Inside voices bubble from another room. It’s hard to know if the noticeable jump in warmth is due to stepping indoors or the energy I can feel coming from the women I am surrounded by. Familiar faces come to greet me, all women who I have met in a work capacity separate to this event. They don’t just say hello though, they embrace me as if I am a Saltwater Sister myself.

Proud Tasmanian Aboriginal women, Maori, and Fijian women guide a group of nervous younger women through the paces of rehearsal, gently correcting mispronunciations of language as they go.

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There are tears and laughter as the women involved share what this event means to them. There are tears as their voices join and the first strains of Christine Anu’s Kulba Yaday are heard.

It’s been over 20 years since the song was penned in language of the Torres Strait Islands by Anu, a family member, and a cultural elder. It’s a song of lament that speaks to the loss of culture from generation to generation and celebrates keeping culture alive through the use of language. Its relevance to what is happening in a small room in the backstreets of Glenorchy is not lost.

Saltwater Sisters is a performance that has required careful logistical and cultural management under the guidance of producer Joshua Langford and with the assistance of elders.

What is immediately apparent in rehearsal is the impact the upcoming performance has already had upon the women involved. A round of introductions expose the raw emotion Saltwater Sisters has roused. A recurring theme is connection and access to culture.

On performance night, the brief glimpse I had into the meaning of Saltwater Sisters becomes more apparent. The stage is opened by young Tasmanian Aboriginal women, then Tasmanian Aboriginal linguist Aunty Theresa Sainty welcomes the audience to country in the local language palawa kani.

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Saltwater Sisters is a carefully considered celebration of culture and language. Each changeover between group performances is preceded by a handover process between the on stage performers and a blessing from pakana woman Aunty Theresa Sainty. There is a sense of guidance throughout the whole performance, guidance to the younger generations involved as well as to the audience.

For those of us who were there that night, we were there to witness something special. The significance of such an event should not be underplayed, the power of pride in who you are and celebrating culture is palpable.

‘This is the part of the night where we just sing songs we like’ local performer Kartanya Maynard says before the group surprisingly finishes the evening on a gospel note with a rendition of ‘I Just Want to Praise You’.

Saltwater Sisters was performed at Moonah Arts Centre on October 5th. To view the performance click here.

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Image credits: Michael Paxton

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