Identity Politics and ABC Classic

Listeners to ABC Classic did not respond well in September when Cancel Culture made a brief appearance. A regular presenter, Stéphanie Kabanyana-Kanyandekwe, had wondered on-air if it was time for the FM station to retire the popular Hiawatha Overture.

All week she had featured works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (right), Britain’s first black classical composer, and audience interest in his broader oeuvre was distinctly building. Requests were coming in, while other presenters were adding his music to their program playlists. Then Kabanyana-Kanyandekwe voiced doubts about the merits of the Hiawatha Overture, his best-known orchestral piece. Her listeners were advised how, according to “contemporary social thinking”, Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha cantatas, composed between 1898 and 1900, are nowadays not acceptable to right-minded people. She did not cite any authority or source for this assessment, although she suggested the overture had racist overtones.

Being inspired by Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha, and using at points melodic fragments from Negro Spirituals, this composition surely embodied the prejudices of unenlightened times, because the music “celebrated the White man’s triumph” over Native Americans. The Indian chief Hiawatha and his lover, Minnehaha, were gauche cultural stereotypes in the poem, thereby indicating the oppressive society which violently drove First Nations peoples from their sacred homelands.

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Kabanyana-Kanyandekwe described the former custom in London for family groups attending performances of the Hiawatha cantatas to bring along their children dressed up as Red Indians. Some may still think this practice cute, but surely it was a lamentable custom from colonial Britain’s racist past.

Of course, her sentiments smacked of the movement in America which strives to remedy “cultural appropriation”. Schoolteachers are brow-beaten into removing from studies literary works—including Longfellow’s Hiawatha—by white male writers which portray ethnic peoples in disapproved ways. County councils are pressed to bar white children from publicly wearing Indian and Mexican costumes at Halloween. Protests are staged outside urban restaurants where white chefs cook Mexican, Soul Food or Asian dishes. Little is exempt from condemnation by a new Thought Police.

It looked as if this same Cancel Culture was migrating to ABC Classic. In a form of straw poll, FM listeners were invited to “text-in” whether it is now time to cease playing the Hiawatha compositions.

This did not go down well. Admittedly responses were filtered, Kabanyana-Kanyandekwe reading out portions of their comments. Only two people appeared to support a partial ban. Others labelled the suggestion “oppressive thinking”; called it wrong-headed to get “moralistic” over music; insisted that composers be free to exercise creative licence; and contended that making music about other races is “not colonising” them. One cheeky respondent suggested ABC Classic place a broadcasting ban on Wagner.

What disturbed about the entire business was that professional opinion was not sought. At no point was it said, “These are complex issues, we must get experts in to discuss them.” Instead, matters moved hastily, with concerns that material might be politically risqué leading straight to the suggestion it be proscribed. This is the same unthinking path that historically has led people to start defacing statues and burning books for purportedly ethical reasons.

Already a musical Cancel Culture has been quietly introduced by Greens politicians elected to Melbourne’s suburban councils. They are against playing religious music in public. So each festive season community choirs and music groups that apply to local councils to perform Christmas carols in shopping strips and parks can find striking restrictions imposed on their repertoire.

Only secular tunes are allowed in Greens-controlled suburbs. Where “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are acceptable, “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” cannot be sung, nor may instrumentalists play music from Bach’s Christmas oratorio. In one memorable year the Greens-controlled Darebin City Council deliberately substituted irreverent new verses in sacred songs performed at its annual Carols by Candlelight.

It is unlikely ABC Classic would even consider adopting the same secularist guidelines, most presenters clearly taking pleasure in planning music for religious festivals. A veto would not only see each year’s carefully designed Christmas and Easter playlists monumentally redacted, but weekly listening would also lose the popular program For the God Who Sings, while a great deal of music spread over each week throughout the year would have to go. One suspects the production staff would be mortified.

It is one thing checking music for disapproved content, but what does the national broadcaster consider meritorious? In 2021, ABC Classic and ABC Jazz launched the “Composer Commissioning Fund”, a scheme to support emerging musical talent. At first appearance it looks like a generous initiative: like a sports sponsorship, but targeting the highly talented in classical music and jazz. However, there are strings attached.

Instead of being open to all of proven ability, the ABC’s new music grants are available only to “women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people with disability, gender diverse people, and other diverse voices”. Why just individuals in these categories are singled out for support is not explained. Would the same restrictions be placed on sporting talent? It recalls the ominous sign put up by the new managers in Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Favouring people in this way would make sense if this were a prejudiced society where those singled out do not get an even break. But for decades we’ve had government legislation to prevent such bias. Besides, anyone familiar with bohemia in this country knows how our performing arts scene has long been known for its diversity. Just what we have enjoyed was apparent several months back when a small non-white ensemble visited Australia, and its director spoke on ABC Classic of lingering prejudice in orchestras overseas. Her remarks made quite a contrast with our own companies, such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which has been a flagship for inclusion and has embraced talent irrespective of ethnic, racial or sexual identity. Witness Hiroyuki Iwaki’s twenty-three-year tenure as the MSO’s chief conductor.

Something similar might be said of Australia’s jazz scene. Historically our jazz crowd has marked itself out by its open support for non-white and gay performers. Take the Second World War years when visiting African-American musicians drafted into uniform performed alongside whites in the hotels and clubs of Melbourne and Sydney. Segregation was shunned here, local audiences ejecting from those jazz venues US military police who tried to impose it.

That determined attitude remains evident in the robust egalitarianism of our music, drama and visual arts schools. As inclusion goes, I could tick each of the ABC’s minority group boxes several times over when reviewing students I taught during my twelve years at the Victorian College of the Arts. And they included refugees, too. In selecting students we made a genuine effort to interview, audition and then enrol any talented person of high promise. And we supported them in the same manner throughout their studies, guiding their artistic growth towards maturity into skilled and creative professionals. The teaching staff were just as varied ethnically, racially and sexually, many of them unwittingly becoming role models.

But ABC Classic and ABC Jazz are having none of this. Like teenagers listening doubtfully to their parents’ talk of the past, those at the national broadcaster know prejudice was rife in the grim olden days, so the cultural and music scenes cannot be egalitarian and inclusive. Only they can introduce such values.

ABC Classic, as regular listeners know, has a commitment to music with indigenous leanings. The station supports current composers who blend Aboriginal components with Western instrumentation. Leading this field have been the efforts of the renowned soprano Deborah Cheetham, who is excelling in short compositions for groups of native women singers. Especially significant is her “Welcome to Country”, a musical arrangement to accompany an Aboriginal speaker giving a set address before a public concert. Setting a contemplative tone before the performance begins, this has been much needed.

ABC Classic has also been attempting to press indigenous elements into the classical repertoire. The FM station has been spruiking for music where a didgeridoo is used in an arrangement for orchestral instruments. Likewise it promotes compositions where, in similar manner, a soloist sings in an Aboriginal language while accompanied by Western musicians.

The results are mixed, very mixed. You can’t select a key with a didgeridoo or support a melody being played, while harmony is anathema to traditional tribal song. A few efforts stand out, like Peter Sculthorpe’s measured compositions with William Barton—extolled by the station as “a didgeridoo virtuoso”—but much doesn’t cohere. And despite the vocal intensity of the Yolngu singer Gurrumul Yunupingu—a favourite of presenters—his untranslated chants still amount to a tuneless drone driving against the background instrumentation.

It does not help such work that, like talk of the fabled Emperor’s New Clothes, what is said of Aboriginal music appears gush. No one in ABC Classic ever discusses Aboriginal music technically. Do they know how? So audiences listen as the station plays awkward efforts to meld utterly different traditions, the didgeridoo honking noisily over a chamber quintet.

Much of this recalls similar orchestral efforts blending European with Indian, Chinese or Japanese instruments, which were often heard on ABC Radio in the 1970s. Such efforts to mix Western instrumentation with Asian forms are now forgotten, although they did result in a fine recording of Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar playing together. Little else of those cross-cultural musical experiments has survived—perhaps there is a lesson here.

There is a curious aspect to ABC Classic’s enthusiasm for things indigenous: the acknowledgment of country has been extended into a new component in concert music. In its radio and television news, the national broadcaster adds Aboriginal country names to news items, and now if an orchestral piece was recorded in Australia, the FM station has begun to declare which tribal homeland the musicians were performing in. For example, before playing a concert of Stravinsky’s Firebird recorded in Sydney, the presenter announced it was “performed on Eora country”. The Aboriginal location was even cited when publicising the broadcast.

This is tokenism. There is no reason for doing it. There is no musical connection between the Aboriginal tribe and the concert. But the tribe is introduced in a manner which implies it has contributed to the performance, like a guest soloist. Tribal homelands will be inserted into the details of the concert, listed with the conductor, orchestra and any singers.

Connecting concerts with tribal land can lead to strange talk on ABC Classic. Certain presenters adopt a reverential tone when saying how orchestral works were performed “on country”. It is as if tribal location has enhanced the composition’s content, giving it emotional depth. Did Mahler and Holst realise that their concertos and symphonies sound best when played on Aboriginal homelands?

Of course, assorted composers have explored their own ethnic roots via music, often by tapping traditional melodies. Grieg delved into his Norwegian heritage, Chopin quoted Polish folk tunes, and Bartok would echo Hungarian song. Shostakovich soaked up all he heard: Russian country dances, washerwomen singing, spruiking street vendors, coachmen’s whistles. Is this earthy material with its stress on authentic identity so remote from talk of indigenous content? Using the term “homeland”, Czech musicians will even speak of how Dvorak’s compositions express his spiritual attachment to Bohemia, his own native “country”.

So how does ABC Classic intend to handle Australian concerts of such works? It would be improper to declare that a concert of Dvorak’s symphonic poems, steeped in Czech folklore, was being performed on, say, “Wurundjeri country”. Ethnic listeners may be distressed at a dedication to another’s homeland imposed upon their own heritage, especially for music with a nationalist flavour.

We do not value recorded music more if we know where it was taped. Apart from notable recordings of works historically associated with, say, La Scala or Bayreuth, it is not customary at ABC Classic to announce where a recording was made. All day on the FM station when the track is played listeners are told the composer, title and performers. This is to identify the music. The presenter will say, “Here is the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony performed by the Berlin Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan.” That’s the full deal. Why, then, announce tribal country for classical concerts that have no Aboriginal component whatsoever?

Where does this tokenism stop? Like watching a person in the grip of obsessive behaviour, with identity politics at ABC Classic we must wait and see.

Dr Christopher Heathcote, a frequent contributor, lives in Melbourne

30 thoughts on “Identity Politics and ABC Classic

  • March says:

    Can’t help but think a lot of these issues would go away if it was sold off and run as a private business along with the rest of the ABC.

    • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

      That will never happen of course because of Labor and the Greens but in the unlikely event we ever get a conservative government into office it might consider moving the ABC headquarters to Pannawonika in WA as an exercise in cultural diversity. A broadcasting studio could be established there and each ABC employee involved in broadcasting rotated through there from time to time.

      • doconnell says:

        Pannawonica please, lovely small town in the middle of the Pilbara making lots of tax dollars for the various governments from cutting the tops off hills (mesa) for the iron ore.

  • wdr says:

    Appalling. Why on earth didn’t the Coalition do something about the ABC?- such as cutting its budget by 20 per cent or so? Its failure to do this shows how naive and out of his depth Scott Morrison was.

  • GG says:

    We the majority of Australians are sick to bloody death of the ABC blathering that someone is a “proud Bingabunga woman” from some alleged place called “Ungabungabugger”. It’s boring, irrelevant, and many of us are teaching kids to rightly mock such pretensions. It’s catching on. Before long such nonsense will at least get a good laugh.

  • Aussietom says:

    Used to listen but too frequently over the last few years have tuned in to some discordant rubbish and/or the announcer pontificating about something woke.

    • gareththomassport says:

      Also was a previous regular listener, but have completely given up, having become tired of being preached to.
      Classical music is the music of Western Civilisation. It continues to expand in scope, but it is not the music of Aboriginal Australia.
      The ABC is free to devote an entire station to Aboriginal music, but should not seek to infiltrate classical music with something anathema to its very essence.

  • Sindri says:

    What conceivable “expert issues” are involved in determining whether the Hiawatha cantatas should be banned from broadcast, and, presumably, from performance altogether? Exactly what field of expertise is involved? You only have to pose the question to appreciate that, with the greatest respect, the suggestion was the result of a momentary brain snap.

  • Daffy says:

    As a proud French-Celtic-Australian man of Cumberland County, I wonder why people of ethnicities other than broadly Western and pilloried for their cultural appropriation of Zegna suits or Sargents shoes?

  • Daffy says:

    I also wonder where a local council, the lowest form of government gets off interfering with our natural freedom of speech and assembly? Don’t they realize the long term outcome is it will com back to bite them; just consider Stalin and his pals who ended up dead.

  • Katzenjammer says:

    Have they begun yet, announcing Aboriginal terms for composers’ or performers’ preferred pronouns?

  • Stephen says:

    Western Music would have to be the most popular and successful cultural export loved the world over. Asian countries which have their own musical forms have adopted it with enthusiasm. Traditional Chinese opera still has its constituency (to my western tuned ear it sounds like someone pulling a cats tail!) but western forms and instruments dominate in China. Even the Chinese National anthem, March of the Volunteers, is western music using the well tempered scale and western instruments.
    Do the idiots at the ABC want Penny Wong to discuss this with her Chinese interlocutors when she visits China. Should she point out to them that loving Western Music, wearing western clothes et al is all cultural appropriation. Should we demand that they compose a new national anthem and ban all cultural imports before good relations can resume?
    What a lot of rubbish people go on with these days. The ABC desperately needs reform. Many of the staff need to be sent on a very long “well earned break”. And if I have to sit through another welcome to country I’ll probably throw up!

    • Brian Boru says:

      Stephen, don’t throw up, just say aloud, “I don’t agree”. If you do not do this, then you have acquiesced and thereby agreed to what has been said in that welcome.
      Further than that, by remaining silent you have acknowledged Australia is not your country. That is unless you are aboriginal and believe it belongs to your mob.

  • STD says:

    The ABC is an entertainment medium for whom?
    Why on Earth is the ABC pushing this to all and sundry? When the first invaders only make up 3% of us ,and I just wonder how many indigenous people who are wholly and solely connected to country ,actually pine for classic FM.
    What peeved me this morning is waking up to acknowledgement of country and their connection ,and wait for it ,and to its water courses- I mean really. I resent being bludgeoned with this at 5am, don’t the misfits at their ABC realise that their revolutionary brother’s in arms at JJJ have the market cornered on refuse- everything weird perverse and nonsensical.
    Can the minister look into it and advise those who hate us, that we know, and what we would like is a safe space between our ears for our melons.
    Or will the communications minister make a fist of it ,as well?


    “No one in ABC Classic ever discusses Aboriginal music technically. Do they know how? ” The answer is no, they don’t know. That’s because there’s nothing much of a technical nature to discuss. If there was, the ABC would be able to publish musical scoring and lyrics for their beloved Aboriginal music. This quote from DidgeridooBreath gives the reason: “Sheet music for didgeridoo? Not something that exists yet as a standard amongst didgeridoo players. This is probably due to the didgeridoo being so unique to the individual. In fact it’s one of the beautiful things about the instrument, there are no rules.” Yet the ABC wax on like they understand Aboriginal music and culture. For exaple, the ABC’s most venerated instrument of Aboriginal music, the didgeridoo, seems to have instrumental equivalence with the clarinet. Evidently, cultural equivalence is the driver for ABC policy. This is a pity, because instead of promoting the the cultural freedom to be uniquely individual, the ABC’s policy of cultural equivalence appears to be cultural lip homage which, ironically, promotes cultural striving.

  • Alice Thermopolis says:

    Rats in the roof, termites in the fence, bats in the belfry, and now a choir singing a Xmas carol in a First Nations language on ABC Classic.
    On another intriguing matter, how did the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor chap get his name?

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    As a variation on the musical theme, radio 3AW Melbourne is being bombarded with a commercial featuring ABC Chairman Ita Buttrose advertising post-Covid anti-viral drugs, sponsor Pfizer.
    There is much controversy on blogs and some in medical literature re the true, measured performance of Covid vaccines from cited firms mainly Pfizer and Moderna. These firms are being widely questioned about their ethics. The controversy might spill into their anti-virals.
    Why is the Chairman of the ABC sprinkling for Pfizer?
    Should she invoke potential conflict of interest and redact herself? Geoff S

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    We (musically trained hubby and non-musically trained self) don’t listen to ABC Classic any more if we can avoid it. Couldn’t avoid it on a recent car trip to Queensland, so suffered what they offered. Luckily, it was symphony time and they had to play some ‘greats’, which we enjoyed. Otherwise they play what we call ‘good for you’ music by obscure composers who have remained obscure for excellent reasons; they are not very good. And now it’s worse because the obscure and dull also have to be indigenous.
    Philistine that I am I like to turn to the commercial station Classic FM the minute I depart from Heathrow in the UK, and keep it on constantly in the car, for they play broadly ‘classical’ music that is popular and has always always been so, in short bursts, rather than with all the boring bits. It’s a for profit station. They have lots of ads and a dedicated and quite musical following. Suits me. It is a pity that a similar station doesn’t set up in Australia, but I guess they just don’t have the numbers. Someone should take a punt on it though, for it just might replicate here the successes in Britain.

  • john mac says:

    Classical music , once the haven from the nastier aspects of life has now been poisoned too by the ever vigilant activism of their ABC . For at least a year they have been throwing around aboriginal geography as if it has always been so ! The Insufferably smug blow in Torrance the worst offender , but now all are on board the woke train . Just this week two female presenters (Genevieve Lang and the aforementioned Polly Syllable) were letting listeners know of their indifference to Christmas , Lang saying that her family has cancelled it , and Polly waxing wistfully of the wonderful wedding season in December in Rwanda overshadowing Christmas . The classical content is shrinking by the week as world music , saturation of Aboriginal content and politics is increasing . That my taxes pay for this stealthy “Voice” propaganda and identity politics is quite infuriating . Oh for a government to decommission it !

    • bearops says:

      Agree totally. ABC Classic is now as Tourette inducing as the rest of State Broadcaster.
      Someone once said the Left poisons everything. How fascinating that the “New Left” exists to support all those institutions it once opposed and held to account.
      It is populated by the most privileged, sanctimonious and financially secure.
      I guess if one has been convinced of one’s own intellectual superiority and aren’t psychopathic enough to be one of the elite you can at least get on the payroll.

  • Joseph says:

    Perhaps we should be a bit more sympathetic to the beleaguered Classic FM announcers. After all this must be one of the sweetest gigs going, with many people offering to replace the current line up of announcers. How better to keep your lovely job than being loud and proud with numerous repetitions of music involving clap sticks, didgeridoos and singing in one of the indigenous languages. Sure beats giving heartfelt, but gratuitous advice on how to deal with the current hot weather. Besides the sound of clap sticks takes me back to Darwin where several street corners were occupied by casually dressed gentlemen attempting to attract donations via their skills on the clap sticks.

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    Place can be misleading. I wonder what Kabanyana-Kanyandekwe would say about Sobre las olas (Over the waves) composed by Juventino Rosas in 1891. It was a favourite of Stanislavsky for the waltz in Act III of Chekhov’s the Cherry Orchard for his productions at the Moscow Arts Theatre. In Act 3 the family continue dancing to a waltz and leisurely playing cards, while off-stage the orchard is being auctioned off for development. Rosas was a pure-blooded Otomí Indian who settled in Mexico City and was 1st violin in an opera orchestra at the age of 16. He composed almost exclusively in the style of Viennese waltzes.
    Stanislavsky’s other favourite for the waltz in Act III was ‘Waves on the Danube’ (Valurile Dunärii) composed not by any of the famous Viennese but in 1880 by the Romanian composer Iosip Ivanovici. Mention of the Danube tends to bring to mind Vienna and Strauss waltzes. In fact it flows through ten countries and is largest in its final course in Romania where it broadens greatly and opens into a 4,300 square km delta around Sulina on Romania’s Black Sea Coast. It has been an important commercial highway between central and eastern Europe from antiquity. Today you can sail on it all the way from the North Sea to the Black Sea. So choosing a Romanian piece wasn’t odd at all for a play by Chekhov, who lived in Crimea and Moscow and knew about the steppe and the grain trade first hand.

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    What you need to understand about Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe is that:
    “Through her viewpoint as a synaesthetic “third-culture kid,” her research-based arts practice investigates the construction and archiving of culture through transcription into visual languages.
    “Stéphanie uses music and performance practice to articulate these languages in a tangible, story-telling format, which enables cultural context to remain and be respected.”

    I hope that clarifies any misunderstanding.

    (From her bio on ABC Classic.)

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    As an immigrant to Australia from the UK may I say, If you think the ABC is biassed and woke just be thankful it is not the BBC. Not only is the BBC realy, really woke, it is funded mainly by a mandatory tax, the BBC licence fee, levied on everyone who ones a radio or TV even if they never listen to the BBC. What is more, the BBC’s monitors have legal powers of entry to find any receivers being used illegally to listen to broadcasts by any station, not justthe BBC, and to fine the offenders, who, if they refuse to pay, will find themselves in court facing a prison sentence.
    For comparison the UK TV advertising market is worth around £4 billion a year, while the BBC licence fee generates £3.8 billion. So the BBC’s licence fee income is almost as much as the entire income of every other TV broadcaster combined.

  • R J Cunningham says:

    Both ABC and SBS have an ‘”Elevated Reconciliation Action Plan’ that requires staff to promote aboriginal issues. That is why the announcers now tell us from which tribal country they are broadcasting and why SBS features unmeritorious aboriginal music. The RAP is approved and audited by Reconciliation Australia Limited. How the ABC and SBS can claim they are independent when they have their operations approved by an external organisation defeats me.

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