Torres Strait Islanders Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum

A key component of the Australian primary school music curriculum is the exploration of the music of indigenous communities. In this blog article we feature a number of musical traditions from the Torres Strait Islands as well as advice for how teachers can incorporate it into their school music lessons.

Background of Music in the Torres Strait Islands

In the Torres Strait itself, there are over one hundred small islands scattered across two hundred miles of sea. Only twenty are inhabited. Politically, Torres Strait is divided into three groups: Eastern, Central and Western. Linguistically Torres Strait is divided into two groups. The language spoken in the Eastern Islands is called Meriam Mir. The language of the Western Islands is known as Kala Lagaw Ya. Meriam Mir, in structure, is related to Melanesian languages and Kala Lagaw Ya is related to Aboriginal languages of northern Arnhem Land. Despite these differences, the general influence of Papua has been dominant over that of Aboriginal Australia (Beckett 1960).

Singing and dancing is an extremely important aspect of life in the Torres Strait. It is used as a medium to preserve information about their history and culture as well as means to express joy and celebration.

Music can also have a practical application for the population. This video example explains how the lyrics of a song can be used to preserve vital information for a community regarding the details of an important fishing spot. The example of the song in the video gives details on both the location and when the best time is.

Music is also very important for the diaspora who have moved away from the Islands. Since the 2nd World War, over two thirds of the 29,000 Torres Strait Islanders population have migrated to the mainland. As a result, music and dance are used to preserve the connection that population has with the Torres Strait.

Finally, there are many examples of song recordings online which express welcome to visitors to the Islands. Here’s an example of a welcome song sung by Seaman Dan called ‘Welcome to the Torres Strait’.

The Approach in the Australian Primary Music Curriculum

One of the primary aims of the curriculum is for children to develop an understanding of indigenous musical cultures which includes that of the Torres Strait Islanders. It quotes:

“understanding of Australia’s histories and traditions through the arts, engaging with the artworks and practices, both traditional and contemporary, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.”

It goes on to encourage the learning of indigenous songs as well the discussion and consideration of the role music plays within these cultures.

The knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders music is not a required as part of the assessment for music, however it can be included if the teacher decides.

Ways of incorporating Torres Strait Islander music into lessons include:

- Listening to different styles of Torres Strait Islander music - below are some selected recordings of both traditional and contemporary music which can be play during a class.

- Responding to the music - ask the children how each recording makes them feel and what the mood of each piece is. If appropriate, encourage movement or dancing to the songs.

- Identifying people within the community to come in to the school - this could include local language groups, parents or other staff members who have a connection with the Torres Strait. If there is an opportunity for someone from this community to speak to a children, this will help bring the stories of the music to life.

- Explore instruments - look into either bringing traditional instruments in to the classroom or potentially making them with the class. An example would be making rattles out of shells and string which could be used to play along to certain songs.

Australian Primary Music Curriculum

Languages used in songs

There are 2 primary traditional languages from the Torres Strait Islanders which are Meriam Mer (spoken in the Eastern Islands and Kala Lagaw Ya (spoken in the Near Western Islands). An article from, break down the details of these languages as follows:

‘Meriam Mer is connected to the Papuan languages and has two regional dialects, Mer and Erub. It is the language of the older inhabitants of some of the eastern islands, especially Mer. It is spoken by close to 2,000 Islanders.

Examples: Yawo (goodbye), maiem (welcome), baru (yes), nole (no).

Kala Lagaw Ya, still spoken on the main western islands, is linguistically connected to the mainland Aboriginal languages and has four regional dialects, Mabuyag, Kalaw Kawaw Ya, Kawrareg and Kulkalgau Ya. It is spoken by around 3,000 Islanders.

Examples: Yawa (goodbye), sew ngapa (welcome), wa (yes), lawnga (no).

Torres Strait Creole (or Kriol), also known as Ailan Tok, Yumplatok or Broken, is a mixture of Standard Australian English and traditional languages. It developed from pidgin English while missionaries were on the islands in the 1850s. It has its own distinctive sound system, grammar, vocabulary, usage and meaning.

Most Torres Strait Islanders speak Creole, as it helps speakers of the other languages communicate with each other, and each island has its own flavour. Islanders speak Creole in daily life and on some local and regional radio programs. Creole also spread to the Cape York Peninsula with the Islanders’ migration to the mainland.’


Exploring Instruments used by the Torres Strait Islanders

There are many instruments used in Torres Strait song recordings. Below are a selection of photos of traditional instruments from 1907 taken from The Hedley and McCullough Collection from The Australian Museum. Many of them are still used in Torres Strait music today. We have also included some examples of instruments used in contemporary music by the Islanders:

1. Rattles - there are multiple different types of rattles used in Torres Strait music. Here are 3 examples:

  • The first below is a piece of bamboo with a bunch of six sticks tied with string. The sticks are hit against the bamboo holder to create sound. This is called a ‘lolo’ by the Meriam people.
  • The second rattle is made from 5 Haliotis shells tied closely together. This is often used in dancing by shaking it to create sound. This is called “serpa sirip” by the Meriam people.
  • The third rattle is made from goa nuts and ‘matchbox’ beans which have been cut open and strung onto a palm-fibre strap. This is said to be worn during dancing and usually attached to the arm. It is called “goa sirip” by the Meriam people.

Torres Strait Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum

Torres Strait Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum

Torres Strait Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum

2. Flute - This is a bamboo flute with a small oval slit cut close to each end of the instrument. This is called a ‘burall’ or ‘burar’ by the Meriam people.

Torres Strait Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum

3. Jaws Harp - this instrument is made from bamboo. One end of it is round and the other tapers to a point. The thin strip of bamboo at the pointed end is tied with a string. It is played by blowing on the thin strip and pulling the string to change the tones. This is called “darubi” or “daroberi” by the Meriam people.

Torres Strait Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum

4. Pan Pipes - this is a wind instrument made from 4 different lengths of bamboo tied together. It is played by blowing air into the top of each tube and the different lengths are cut to be different notes. It is called “karof,” “piago” or “karob” by the Meriam people.Torres Strait Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum

5. Island Drums - this shows a drum without the skin which would usually be tightly held over the wide circular opening shown in the picture. The drum is typically placed in a player's lap and then played with their hands.

Torres Strait Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum

6. Bamboo Clapstick - this instrument has 2 longitudinal splits in the handle and is said to be used in rain-making ceremonies by moving the instrument sharply up and down to produce a clapping sound. It is known as "kiri-kiri-kiebel" or "kerker keber" by the Meriam people.

Torres Strait Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum

7. Guitar and Ukulele - more contemporary instruments such as guitar and ukulele are thought to have been introduced by missionaries who came to the Torres Strait. This also influenced the music to include more Western and Caribbean styles in to the songs.

Torres Strait Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum

Key Artists and Recordings

Below are a selection of recordings by artists from the Torres Strait Islands. As an exercise for the classroom, you could play each of the songs and then discuss with the class the different elements including: mood, pulse, instrumentation, rhythm, melody etc.

- Tagai Buway: 'Culture Remainz' (I am the Future) - this song was produced by Desert Pea Media and features staff and students from Tagai State College. The song features Island rap (as the lyrics of the song proclaim) and is a fantastically energetic song about the youth of the islands being the future for their communities.

- Seaman Dan: 'Somewhere There’s an Island' - Henry Gibson "Seaman" Dan didn't start recording songs until he was into his 70's. This song has Caribbean and jazz influences and includes many Western instruments such as piano, electric guitar and harmonium.

- Christine Anu: 'Kulba Yaday' - Christine Anu is perhaps the most well known singer with a connection to the Torres Strait Islands - her mother was from the island Saibai. This song, which is sung in local language, speaks of the sadness of Indigenous people losing their culture and the stories that have been passed on from generation to generation.

- Mau Power: 'Island Home' - This is a remake of an Australian classic done in a hip-hop style. The song pays homage to the Torres Strait Islands. The music video was also shot on the islands.

- Cygnet Repu: 'We Sing Kumbaya' - Cygnet Repu is from Mabuyag Island in the Torres Strait. This song includes lyrics in both English and in Kala Lagaw Ya. It also features both Western and traditional instruments.

I hope you've enjoyed this guide and it helps you incorporate Torres Strait Islander music into the Australian Primary Music Curriculum.

If you would like to explore other resources for teaching the curriculum in the classroom, why not sign up to use our 6 weeks free trial:

Dabbledoo Music - Australian Primary Music Curriculum