Fanny Smith recordings – songs of survival

No. 39

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The wax cylinder recordings of Tasmanian Aborigine, Fanny Smith, are some of the earliest recordings ever made in Australia, and the only sound recording of the traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal language - preserving this language for time immemorial.

Fanny was born at Wybalenna, Flinders Island, in 1834. She was the daughter of Tanganutura, a Trawlwoolway woman from the north-east, and Nikamanik, a Parperloihener man from Robbins Island. The Aborigines at Wybalenna escaped into the bush to practise their culture. Here, Fanny learnt her language, songs, dances and ceremony. In 1847, Fanny and the other survivors of Wybalenna were moved to an abandoned convict settlement at Oyster Cove in Tasmania’s south.

Despite facing incredible adversity early in life, Fanny’s spirit prevailed. In 1854, she married William Smith and took up a land grant at Nichols Rivulet, keeping close bonds with her people at Oyster Cove. Fanny and William raised 11 children and she became a well-known and respected member of the small community in the Channel region.

Fanny successfully moved within two worlds. She was a proud Aboriginal woman who combined her traditional knowledge with European ways, teaching her family the skills of hunting, gathering bush foods, medicine, shell-necklace stringing and basket-making.

Fanny was celebrated for her lovely singing voice and, in 1899, a concert was held in her honour in Hobart where she entertained the crowd by singing the songs of her people. In 1899 the Royal Society of Tasmania recorded her both singing and speaking in language. Four years later, in 1903, Horace Watson made further recordings of her at his home in Sandy Bay. Fanny died at Port Cygnet in 1905, aged 70.

In recent years, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community has actively re-established ownership over their language through the development of palawa kani – a program that has revived and reconstructed the many different languages spoken by Tasmanian Aborigines. The wax cylinder recordings hold immense cultural and spiritual significance to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community. The recordings provide a tangible connection to the voice and memory of Ancestors and represent the resilience and cultural continuity of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community.

The Fanny Smith recordings where inducted into the National Film and Sound Archive’s ‘Sounds of Australia’ registry as one of the inaugural inductees in 2007. Sounds of Australia (formerly known as the National Registry of Recorded Sound) is a selection of sound recordings with cultural, historical and aesthetic significance and relevance, which inform or reflect life in Australia.In 2010, the NFSA celebrated Fanny Smith’s status by creating the Cochrane Smith Award for Sound Heritage which celebrates the achievements of a person who has made a substantial contribution to the preservation, survival and recognition of sound heritage.

In recognition of their global significance the Fanny Smith recordings were inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register in February 2017.

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