Contemporary First Peoples Composers

Australia holds one of the oldest living cultures in the world, and First Nations music making is the oldest continuing form of music making.

For the Songs of Home exhibition, Sydney Living Museums collaborated with five talented contemporary First Peoples composers to create five unique new compositions.  Commissioned and recorded exclusively for the exhibition, these remarkable pieces can be heard in the exhibition and on our website.

The talented composers come from a diverse range of musical backgrounds. Brenda Gifford, Tim Gray, Troy j Russell, Elizabeth Sheppard and Nardi Simpson worked closely with Sydney Living Museums to create the pieces, which speak directly to the exhibition’s themes of country and dispossession, and to their own personal interpretations of ‘home’.

The collaboration was supported by the Ngarra‑burria First Peoples Composers initiative, a program founded by Darug man, composer and mentor Chris Sainsbury. The songs were performed by musicians from the Royal Australian Navy Band alongside other artists, and were recorded by ABC Classic.


 

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Brenda Gifford

Photo © Marissa McDowell for Sydney Living Museums

I take my inspiration from my people and my culture. As a Yuin woman that comes to the front of whatever I am working on.

Brenda Gifford

Brenda Gifford is a proud Yuin woman, originally from Wreck Bay on the South Coast of NSW. An accomplished saxophone player, Brenda played with reggae artist Bart Willoughby in the band Mixed Relations, and worked with Kev Carmody on his album Eulogy (for a black person), playing saxophone on the track ‘Blood red rose’. She has toured and performed extensively around Australia, and internationally, to Native American communities and in the Pacific Islands. She has worked with remote Indigenous broadcasters and taught music to Indigenous students in the TAFE system. As a composer, her music draws on rhythms from nature and is a reflection of her strong connection to country, her home and her culture. The title of her composition, ‘Munggurra’, means ‘home’ in the Dhurga language.

Tim Gray

Photo © Andrew James / James Horan Photography Pty Ltd for Sydney Living Museums

As I grow, becoming a better person, songs map my recovery and my connection with the spirit world.

Tim Gray

Tim Gray is a Gumbaynggirr/Wiradjuri/Bidjigal man from the Mid North Coast and central regions of NSW. Raised on Darawal country on the Georges River, he trained in classical piano as a child but did not reconnect with music and his culture until 2008, after a period of homelessness resulting from 16 years of alcohol and drug addiction. Tim wrote his first song in Namatjira Haven, an Aboriginal drug and alcohol healing centre, and in 2010 began studying music performance at Eora TAFE College in Sydney. He has been writing songs ever since. 

Tim sings in a group called Voices Carry, led by choral director Tania Bowra, and is the keyboard player in a reggae/ska group, Green Hand Band, with Troy j Russell, a fellow composer with the Ngarra-burria First Peoples Composers initiative. His vision is to empower others with music, through healing and education, and in 2018 he hosted a program called Social change on Koori Radio. ‘Water is life’ is a protest song, encouraging people to come together to heal our rivers and look after our home.

Troy j Russell

When I was young my mother let me explore the world by myself. That’s not a bad thing. I made my own mistakes and learnt by them. Sometimes I flew and sometimes I fell. Most of the time music was with me.

Troy j Russell

Troy j Russell belongs to the Biripai people of the Mid North Coast, and the Gamillaroi of the North West Slopes, NSW. His music explores ideas of journey and homecoming. Troy began learning music aged 11, with lessons from a neighbour. After finding a photograph of his father playing a banjo, he discovered his own family’s musical stories, which still inspire him 40 years on. Troy has performed with and supported musicians such as Yothu Yindi, Troy Cassar-Daley, Dan Sultan, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter. He plays guitar in the group Green Hand Band with Tim Gray, a fellow composer with the Ngarra-burria First Peoples Composers initiative.

Elizabeth Sheppard

Photo © Andrew James / James Horan Photography Pty Ltd for Sydney Living Museums

Our country cradles and sings to us. We hear her music as we gather around Karlinkiri, the heart of home, so we give voice to it.

Elizabeth Sheppard

 

Of Noongar Yamatji heritage, Elizabeth Sheppard was raised in a musical family. She learnt piano and singing at Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium of Music, performed at school, community and church, and sang professionally with the Tasmanian Opera Company, and as a cathedral cantor. At Eora and Tranby colleges in Sydney, while reconnecting with her Noongar Yamatji heritage, she found her unique compositional voice. Her new work, ‘Karlinkiri Hearth’, takes listeners on a journey beyond colonial conflict, to truth telling and a hopeful vision of the future.

Nardi Simpson

Photo © Nicole Foreshew

‘Treading water’ is inspired by Gadigal and Cammeraigal women’s fishing songs, and Irish musical traditions. It is the joining of the waters, the practice and peoples of these unique singing cultures.

Nardi Simpson

Nardi Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay writer, musician and educator from NSW’s north-west freshwater plains. As a member of Indigenous duo Stiff Gins, Nardi has performed nationally and internationally for the past 20 years. She also sings in Freshwater, a group dedicated to the teaching and learning of NSW River languages through song. In 2019, Nardi began her tenure as musical director of Barayagal, a cross-cultural choir of Indigenous and non-Indigenous singers run by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

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