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Cultural Heights – a legacy of traditional language and song

Performance of new work Cultural Heights was a highlight of Cairns Indigenous Art Fair's 10th anniversary 


Cultural Heights, a large-scale work combining First Peoples’ choral songs, traditional languages and storytelling, was commissioned for the 2019 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) and performed at the Cairns Performing Arts Centre.

The work celebrated the powerful cultural expressions of Far North Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, with audiences experiencing traditional songs and stories rarely heard outside First Nations communities, along with the unique vocal styles, music and instruments of the region.

CIAF collaborated closely with three choir directors: Deline Briscoe (Bama Choir Yarrabah, Wujal Wujal and Hopevale communities); Joey Tapau (Mer Ira Watai Choir – Mer); and Phillemon Mosby (Kulkalgal Choir Poruma, Masig, Iama and Warraber). Choir champions were also heavily involved these were: Merindi Schrieber (Bama Choir); Karen Noah (Mer Ira Watai Choir); and Freddie David (Kulkalgal Choir). 

The premiere production was one of the first projects funded through Arts Queensland's Backing Indigenous Arts Performing Arts (New Commissions) funding stream, which supports Queensland’s First Nations peoples and communities through commissioning of new works, creative development and audience building initiatives. 

CIAF is an event where independent First Nations artists and companies, Indigenous Art Centres and communities present the unique stories and extraordinary art works of the region and share their culture for all to enjoy.  


When and where

13 July 2019 at Cairns Performing Arts Centre



Key stats 

  • 160 Queensland artists and arts workers, including 148 Indigenous artists and arts workers (90 per cent)
  • 8 communities participated (Torres Strait Islands of Poruma, Mer, Masig, Iama and Warraber and FNQ communities of Yarrabah, Wujal Wujal and Hope Vale)
  • 3 choir directors
  • 2 performances
  • 1348 audience members


Arts Queensland investment 

$150,000 through Backing Indigenous Arts – Performing Arts (New Commissions) for new contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performance works.

The Queensland Government’s landmark Backing Indigenous Arts initiative supports sustainable and ethical Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts industries across the state.



  • Widespread community involvement: This project attracted a diverse range of people and the repertoire was developed in consultation with Elders, song custodians and communities. Rehearsals took place in participating communities in the months leading up to the event.
  • Professional creative services sourced from local communities: Choir directors, champions and members devised stage costumes, with help from their community Indigenous Art Centres, First Nations artists, designers and dress makers.
  • Cultural protection of intellectual property: With the help of Artists in the Black, CIAF sought pro-bono legal services from Luke Hawthorne, Senior Associate at King & Wood Mallesons, to develop an unprecedented IP agreement for all involved. 
  • Skills development: The project provided professional development for participants. Choir directors and champions advocated for intellectual property rights protection and experienced the machinations of theatre presentation. Champions assisted in the management of choirs, developing a greater understanding of contracts and project deadlines and increased knowledge of intellectual property. 
  • Documentation and archiving materials: Cairns-based Indigenous videographer/photographer Victor Steffensen, of Mulong Productions, was engaged to film community rehearsals, choir activities and capture the paradisiacal natural surroundings. The footage was edited into five vignettes presented as a backdrop (on a large projection screen) during the performance. A video was also produced featuring the community footage and the live concert performance.
  • Social, cultural and health benefits: Choir members said the project supported cultural pride and social empowerment. The project provided an opportunity for Torres Strait Islander and mainland (Bama) participants to discuss their Songline stories of connection. Choirs developed an inclusive unified approach, across gender and age groups (from 11 to 90 years of age), strengthening individual and social wellbeing. Elders undergoing medical treatment said they felt healthier during the rehearsal and performance week in Cairns. 


Learnings and reflections

CIAF's approach to the protection of cultural property, sacredness of the songs and acknowledgement of song custodians and communities was received favourably, ultimately strengthening the relationship between CIAF and those who participated in the project.

Elders and participating communities provided clear instruction to CIAF that the use of traditional songs and original new songs devised through the project were only to be distributed to those involved. This was a pivotal direction that reinforced connection to Country, song, language and culture. 

CIAF was also advised by the communities to produce five separate Songbooks to reflect the five language groups: Miriam Mir (Mer), Kala Lagaw Ya (Central Islands), Gunggandji (Yarrabah), Guugu Yimithirr (Hope Vale) and Ku Ku Yalanji (Wujal Wujal). Each choir and community group received their own audio recording and video. They also received their choir group version of the Songbook, with songs written in their traditional language and images.

The project set an unprecedented legal framework for intellectual property and cultural protocols, while educating communities on protecting culture and language. 


Tips for others

Respect cultural protocols: The project published a Cultural Heights Songbook, featuring lyrics in traditional language with background story to the songs, and images of choir members and community, in line with cultural protocols, and followed Elders’ advice that these songbooks were only provided to participants and their communities, not to the general public. 

Encourage feedback from participants: CIAF was in constant communication with choir directors and champions seeking feedback and advice, which assisted in guiding the project. Choir directors delivered reports monthly and a final debrief was held. Elders, choir members and community leaders and members also provided feedback during the pre-production process.


What next?

  • James Cook University invited Yalanji Wungabadi Bama (Wujal Wujal) Choir to perform for its TEDx program in October 2019. 
  • Yalanji Wungabadi Bama Choir performed in November 2019 alongside harpist Natalia Mann at Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns.


Find out more