The Stiff Gins, a band formed by Sidney Australian indigenous, recorded one of their songs on a wax cylinder. The experiment is interesting for several reasons. First, because it is the first time that a commercial music is recorded with the phonograph, that Edison invented in 1890 and which is no longer in circulation for about eighty years. Second, because the Stiff Gins – as you can read in an interview published on the online magazine “abc.net.au” – have decided to make this recording after listening the voice of an indigenous woman of Tasmania, stamped on the Edison cylinder in 1903. Listen to that voice, remember the singer of the group Nardi Simpson, was “spiritual” and not simply the contact “with another time and another place”.
Fanny Cochrane Smith – the Aboriginal woman recorded at the beginning of the twentieth century – was born in Flinders Island in 1834 and, like most of the aborigines of that time, she spoke both English and native language . The recordings of his songs are deposited in the archives of the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and represent the only documents in the Tasmanian Aboriginal language.
On this occasion the Stiff Gins have composed a song in the indigenous language on the theme of the spirit, culture, life, and their continuation after death. “We’ve done concerts for fifteen years”, said Simpson”, and we finally did something that speaks of our place in the world”.
From a technical point of view , the NFSA has had to put in place the skills of engineers and archivists to enable the operation. Once retrieved wax cylinder – the only manufacturer of these supports seem to find in England, Devon – have restored an old phonograph and they made it work. The team worked especially to ‘decode’ the operation of the phonograph. As stated by the archivist Graham McDonald, “there is no electricity, the cylinder is driven by a clockwork. You have to sings loudly into the horn, the voice produces mechanical energy that moves the needle up and down on wax cylinder”.
The singers have recorded in a wood-paneled room of the NFSA. Listening to the recording, there is a certain sound compression – which also characterizes the historical documents – which makes the voices much older than they are. The Stiff Gins have commented positively the result, which for them has taken on a symbolic value , as well as cultural-historical, insofar as established a much more direct connection with the historical heritage of Aboriginal musical productions. As they have stated themselves, “It’s not just about collecting something and ticking a box”, it is better know the history and consider it in a framework of respect. From a political point of view, however, the operation performed by Stiff Gins is the desire to tell the conditions of a social group, giving a contemporary voice to an instrument that has always told the story, the past. This reversal, remind us, should push people to change their perspective, not to think of documents as something irreversibly static: “these objects are still alive and they’re talking to each other and there are stories there just waiting to be heard”. Here you can see a video of the recording session.
This article is available also in: Italian