Imagine two birds singing. Their clear, resonant calls sit effortlessly on the air. Two songs are clearly distinguishable, but their sounds intermingle. One bird is a plover, the other an owl. They sit close by one another, heads cocked, listening. A gentle breeze ruffles the feathers around their necks.

This image is perhaps the best way to describe Hand to Earth, a unique and beautifully poised collaboration between Yolŋu songman Daniel Wilfred, Korean-born vocalist Sunny Kim, and trumpeter and composer, Peter Knight. While I have worked with Wilfred for many years, recording the songs and stories of his ancestral homeland, I have never quite heard anything like this. It is a diverse gathering which seems unprecedented within Australian music.

Sunny Kim, Peter Knight and Daniel Wilfred. Photograph © Sung Hyun Sohn

Yet while Kim’s rich vocalisations have been shaped by collaborative work with musicians from Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, the United States and now Melbourne, and Knight’s floating trumpet notes and electronic crackles are inspired by the minimalism of Brian Eno and Jon Hassell, it would be wrong to consider Hand to Earth an entirely new collaboration. Rather, it is a gathering that is enfolded into a song tradition extending back for countless generations.

Daniel Wilfred is a ceremonial leader who performs manikay songs for communities across South East Arnhem Land. In the late afternoon, we sit on the dusty ground and he starts to sing. This is the beginning of a smoking ceremony, to cleanse the house of someone who has recently died, and will continue until sundown. Slowly, friends and family appear, bringing with them children and elderly relatives. Women and young girls start to dance. Half-a-dozen older men have gathered around the yidaki (didjeridoo) player to sing, their voices cracking with emotion, textured like their work-worn hands. Others sit around the perimeter or lean on fences, listening like birds to the stories and laughter.

Wilfred begins a song about two birds that meet to sing a duet together, the Plover and Night Owl. Like many manikay songs, this story is about the connections between families and their country. Wilfred sits next to singers from his märipulu, the family of his mother’s-mother’s brother. The song alternates between the cries of these two birds, representing the different country belonging to those families. While the song brings these kin together for ceremony, it also expresses their differences and the responsibilities they entail: caring for one another and for each other’s country.

Hand to Earth is a similar meeting. Although it was first recorded in 2019, the collaboration emerged over a number of years at the Creative Music Intensive, a practice-based residency run by the Australian Art Orchestra at Tarraleah, in the Tasmanian highlands. At this annual gathering, two birds joined in song for the first time, one from Arnhem Land and the other from South Korea. They return every year to sing together.

Sunny Kim first met Daniel Wilfred at Tarraleah in 2015. She was mesmerised when she heard his voice: “It just captured me. I couldn’t really understand how he was producing those sounds. And the sheer beauty of it. There’s power and strength in it.” Wilfred was also intrigued by Kim’s expansive vocalisations, which for him invoked water, stars and trees. This mutual curiosity became a friendship that developed year after year, as they shared their stories, philosophies and songs with one another.

In teaching with Wilfred at the Creative Music Intensive, I see participants come to hear and understand one another in new ways, as they take time to develop friendships and share their unique musical practices. Wilfred encourages participants to bring their own musical voices into manikay, to sit side-by-side with him and his uncle, David Wilfred. They discovered that manikay is not just a set of melodic and rhythmic patterns, but an opportunity to form new connections through song, and to understand our different stories as they interweave together.

Director of the Australian Art Orchestra, Peter Knight, also understands improvisation as a bridge between cultures: “Music is a powerful way to develop relationships and build community. We move from the intention to form friendships, to seeing what music comes from those friendships.” He has performed with Wilfred and Kim since the beginning, experimenting with delicate electronic atmospheres that support the two contrasting voices. “They find a way for me to sing with them,” says Wilfred. In the sounds that emerge around him, he hears birds singing or stars shimmering, scenes that resonate with his own traditional stories.

Exploring these images through their voices and instruments, the trio has discovered a new way of playing together. Rather than trying to blend their diverse approaches to music, their separate voices are maintained. Like a good conversation between friends, they give space to one another to respond, listening closely to the unfolding narrative. Watching them perform, I hear a story about the friendships and events that bring us all together. Through our separate songs, we can come to know each other more deeply.

In Hand to Earth, we see how Yolŋu have always formed new connections through song, and that our differences are necessary to creating a shared identity. “We meet through the manikay. Together you know, different birds; we fly together,” says Wilfred.

Hand to Earth expresses something of Australia at its best: it is grounded in songs and stories that have been passed on for countless generations, yet is expansive, inclusive and forward looking. “I’m trying to make the new world – what can happen. I’m trying to bring you into the good world, where you can listen and understand,” explains Wilfred.

When our differences allow us to sing together, the world is a richer place.

Hand to Earth will be performed at the Canberra International Music Festival on 2 May. For more information about the collaboration visit The Australian Art Orchestra.

Samuel Curkpatrick is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Sir Zelman Cowan School of Music, Monash University. His recent book Singing Bones: Ancestral Creativity and Collaboration is available through Sydney University Press

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