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1793: A Song of the Natives of New South Wales

Keith Vincent Smith (notes)


‘A Song of the Natives of New South Wales’, written down in London in 1793, documents the first Australian Aboriginal song heard in Europe. The singers, Bennelong and his young kinsman Yemmerrawanne, were far from their Wangal homeland on the south bank of the Parramatta River in Sydney, New South Wales. Against the rhythmic beat of hardwood sticks clapped together they sang a universal theme, ‘in praise of their Lovers’. Their performance intrigued one listener, Edward Jones (1752-1824), the Welsh harpist, composer and bard to the Prince of Wales (later George IV), who published the words and score in Musical Curiosities in London in 1811.

The British Library holds two copies of this extremely rare work. Musique des naturels (‘Music of the natives’), including the chant of cou-he (coo-ee: ‘come’ or ‘come here’), was collected in the Sydney area and set to music by the French astronomer, Pierre-François Bernier, in 1802, but was not published until the second edition of the Atlas in François Péron and Louis de Freycinet’s Voyage de découvertes aux terres Australes … (Paris, 1824). This was previously thought to be the first European attempt to record Aboriginal music. In 2010 the words of Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne’s song rang out after more than 200 years at the opening of the MARI NAWI Aboriginal Odysseys 1790-1850 exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney.

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