Music and Minorities in Australia and China

The Music-Making of Cultural Minorities in Australia and China:
Aesthetics, Agency and Social Engagement

Catherine Ingram

This three-year postdoctoral project investigates the musical aesthetics and agency (the capacity to make independent choices) of non-mainstream cultural, ethnic and/or indigenous groups in Australia and China, and represents the first comparative study of the musical activities of cultural minorities in the two countries. It seeks to better understand how music may enhance the effectiveness of cultural minorities’ engagement with their wider social context.

The core of the project comprises a detailed musical ethnographic study of the under-documented musical activities of selected minorities in each country. The China-based project component focuses on aesthetics, agency and modes of engagement manifest in the music-making of Kam (in Chinese, Dong 侗) and Zhuang (壮) minority communities. These groups number approximately 3 million and 17 million respectively, are resident in southwestern China, and are speakers of two separate Tai-Kadai family languages that are completely different from Chinese and have no widely used written forms. Both groups have faced massive social transformations in recent decades due mainly to youth migration away from rural communities for employment along China’s eastern seaboard.

The Australia-based component of the study investigates the music-making of Australia’s South Sudanese migrant — and almost exclusively refugee — community. Members of this community identify with a diverse range of South Sudanese ethnicities or cultural groups. During 2001-2011 they comprised the second fastest-growing migrant community in Australia, and represent a new and significant minority presence in this country.

Through detailed studies of the musical activities of these minorities, combined with information already published about the music-making of other Australia- and China-based cultural groups, this project will produce new, comparative-based frameworks for better understanding individual minority musical cultures within the two countries. It will also provide a cross-national perspective on recent cultural trends and effective strategies for utilising musical activities to overcome social challenges.

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Kam people from Sheeam (Sanlong 三龙) and Bee (Pilin 皮林) celebrate the completion of a new dare low (drum tower) in 2009 with an exchange of Kam big song (Photograph by Catherine Ingram).

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The South Sudanese-Australian audience at Gordon Koang’s Melbourne concert in 2013 joins in singing his songs (Photograph from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TKj1HbXTf4 by Ayuen).