The changing faces of Australian Identity as heard through children’s voices in Kim’s Song by Ros Bandt

The changing faces of Australian Identity as heard through children’s voices in Kim’s Song

Ros Bandt

Copyright © 2003 by Ros Bandt

Kim’s Song is a short 3 minute electro-acoustic radiophonic work commissioned by the ABC for their Earclip series in 2002. 
Kim’s Song at
It was a response to their call for works embracing the theme of “This world My Time” I felt the future of Australia is so firmly in the hands of the children that I should consider them as source material to endorse a spirit of hope for the future. My choice to work with cross cultural children who live in very different minority communities was motivated by my concern with the depressing political racism we have seen in decisions concerning the boat people and refugees in recent years. I thought it would be interesting to work with the children from different groups Vietnamese and Aboriginal to see how they were also grappling with how to cross the enormous cultural differences that are side by side in Australia.

The authentic voices in this piece are those of children whom I know and love. Kim (far right) is the daughter of Le Tuan Hung, a Melbourne university colleague and co-founder of the Back to Back zithers cross cultural ensemble. Her mother, the composer performer, Dang Kim Hien and I were collaborating on a work Inside Outside when this song was recorded as little Kim wanted so much to be part of our rehearsals. Hien decided the song didn’t belong in what we were designing at the time so this piece for little Kim was made separately. The aboriginal children are my partner’s grandchildren, Kara Rayner, and her cousins Casey and Renee Sweetman and their new sister, Aaliyah O’Brien.

Left to right: Casey Sweetman, Aaliyah O’Brien, Kara Rayner, Renee Sweetman, Kim Le

The voices were recorded at their own homes in Springvale and Glenroy respectively, and the children were delighted to be recorded in each case and found it very exciting to hear their own voices. Kim sang her Vietnamese song perfectly twice. Then her father sent me a recording of her singing Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree which he told me was her preferred song choice now that she had started school. In Glenroy, the cousins played games with each other and sang numerous playing and clapping songs over a period of an hour, running in and out, practicing and coming back in when they were ready. The simple stereo mike and DAT recording machine were not too obtrusive but still were objects which they wanted to touch, hold and listen to. Many minutes were spent under headphones by them all, even the baby.

Back in my office with Pro Tools, I decided to enter all the recordings to see how compatible the sounds were and edit from there. Once in the machine, certain musical elements, timbre, pitch, loudness, density, phrasing and syntax directed my intuition, more than the content of the words they were singing. The texts of course were in different languages, Vietnamese, Aboriginal and English.

The Texts

1. Vietnamese Children’s song

Gà mơ cục tác
Mỏ nhát cầm chèo
Con mèo bẻ lái
Con nhái chạy buồm

Thuồng luồng tát nước
Gà xước nấu cơm
Con chồn hái mướp
Ăn cướp vô nhà
Kỳ đà cản mũi
Dế nhũi lăng xăng
Thằn lằn liếm mỏ
Con thỏ dọn mâm
Con tằm bưng chén
Chim én vỗ tay
Con nai ngơ ngác
Cao các giựt mình
Giựt mình, giựt mình, giựt mình
A, chúng em chơi nhà chòi

Ý thiệt là vui ghê!
Ý thiệt là vui ghê!

English translation:

The hen crows,

The snipe rows,

The cat steers,

The frog pulls the sail,

The crocodile bails the water out!

The rooster cooks,

The fox picks the bitter melon,

The robber enters the house,

The salamander stops him,

The cricket bustles in and out,

The lizard licks its mouth,

The rabbit carries the tray,

The silk worm holds the bowls,

The swallow claps,

The deer is dazed,

The bird startled by the sounds!

Startled by the sounds, startled by the sounds, startled by the sounds!

Ah, we are playing the hut-game,

We have good fun!

We have good fun!

2. Aboriginal Song

Inanay is a traditional Aboriginal song learned by the Sweetens at Koori school,in Shepparton. It was a song the teacher taught them from the Tiddas version. Their version of Inanay appears on the CD Sing About Life, 1993 ID Phonogram Recordings 1993 with thesummary traditional aboriginal song (Words not Available). The fact that it is being transmitted still by oral tradition in a non-scribal manner is noteworthy.

3. Australian Songs

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree

Merrymerry king of the bush is he

Laugh kookaburra laugh kookaburra laugh

Gay your life must be.

A range of play songs were recorded showing the influence of television and the media as well as those from the schoolyard. Snippets of these appear at the end as well as the children’s laughter.

Yet much greater than the texts was the vitality and energy of the children’s rendition. It was this that influenced me to choose one fragment over another, confirming my interest in non-verbal communication and extra-linguistic behaviours including body language. The element of communication was very evident in the aboriginal children’s play songs as they were communal, but it was also in little KIM. She sang quite vehemently, having a great sense of self and a very confident song knowledge, coupled with a marvellous performance energy for a four year-old. In working with the children, there seemed to be an overriding cultural agenda, the collapsing of cultural boundaries through sound.

The mapping of the piece

The mapping of the piece reflected this cultural intersection. Firstly, eachchild is looking at the world from a different place and cultural identity. For Kim it is represented by the Australian Song overtaking the Vietnamese song in the mix as the dominant culture is shaping her Vietnamese roots and traditions. For Casey and Renee, they have a living link through school to the cultural origins tho not the songs of their own family group.

They were happy to share this song with their cousins in Melbourne and taught it to them, quite naturally during playtime in the backyard. Both aboriginal groups shared their common play songs from the Australian school yard. These can be heard at the end of the piece, especially the clapping song. It was decided to use a loop and treatment of the Inanay song as a landscape during the entire piece with respect for the aboriginal heritage of the land and ancient culture unto which we have all come.

Several electronic effects, fades and treatments allow the materials to flow from one layer to another. The end result is summarised in the programme note.

The programme note reads:

Kim’s song is based on a recording of a Vietnamese children’s song I recently recorded in Springvale, Victoria. Kim, a young Australian Vietnamese girl has just started school and now prefers to sing Australian songs rather than the Vietnamese songs she learned at home from her parents. The Vietnamese song she sings is a game song playing with animal names and activities played out in the hut. It becomes overtaken by ‘kookaburra sits in the old gum tree’, representing the dominant English speaking culture in which she is living and into which she has been born. The song comes in and out of various contexts. A landscape of place is created with the treated and untreated layer of Inanay, an Indigenous song sung by my partner’s Aboriginal grandchildren who also live in Melbourne. They were taught this song at school in Shepparton. It will be up to Kim to make her place in Australia and the world. Her identity and language will be shaped by how she interprets being born of migrant parents in Australia. She will make it her world in her own time in her own way.”

Compositional Process

Kim’s song is composed entirely on computer as an entirely electroacoustic piece designed for radio in stereo configuration. The elements of the soundrecordings were cut, reassembled,
treated and designed into a three minute piece, the length being defined by the ABC.The piece was mixed on Pro Tools and engineered by Iain Mott.

I would like to thank everyone for helpingthis piece to occur, the children, their supportive parents, the mixer, and the commissioner. Kim’s Song is dedicated to the children and all those working onthe ground for Australian culture which respects indigenous culture. It is they who determine the real future of Australia at this time.


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