Audiovisual Heritage of Torres Strait Singing and Dancing

Post date: 
Friday, 27 October 2017

World Day for Audiovisual Heritage raises awareness about the importance and vulnerability of audiovisual collections. It is predicted that the preservation of video and audio magnetic tape collections in use since the 1940s will become unviable in less than 10 years, as costs increase due to a lack of suitable analogue playback devices needed for their digitisation (NSFA 2015). For AIATSIS the content at risk includes recordings of Aboriginal cultural, social and political life from the 1940s to early 2000s.

Ephraim Bani points to a model of the island Bawdhar
Ephraim Bani points to a model of the island Bawdhar, that is sung about in 'The Chart'
Ephraim Bani explains the co-ordinates of the fishing spot
Ephraim Bani explains the co-ordinates of the fishing spot as sung about in 'The Chart'

'The Chart' is a song about locations and navigation in the Western Islands of the Torres Strait and is performed by Ephraim and Petharie Bani. As Ephraim Bani explains, singing and dancing is the 'literature' of the Torres Strait Island people – a type of literature best captured by the video format on which it has been recorded, allowing the composition of the song to be heard and seen in an engaging and novel manner.

“The importance of dancing and songs in the Torres Strait Islands…[is not] mere entertainment…[but] is the most important aspect of Torres Strait lifestyle. The Torres Strait Islanders preserve and present their oral history through songs and dances; in other words, the songs and dances are Torres Strait literature material. Just like any written materials, which are usually illustrations, the dances act as illustrative material and, of course, the dancer himself [sic] is the storyteller” (Ephraim Bani 1979, Importance of Torres Strait Islander Singing and Dancing).

The song comes from a collection item produced in 1979 entitled the Importance of Torres Strait Islander Singing and Dancing. As Ephraim Bani further explains:

 “Some of the songs are composed to explain the many faces of the Torres Strait weather and there are songs composed about the movements of the heavenly bodies and the effects of the moon on the tides; this is astrology. There are songs composed about the many difference faces of clouds and its effect on the weather; this is meteorology. There are songs composed on the many myths and legends of the Torres Strait; this is mythology. There are songs composed to express the purpose of the marine lives in the sea; this marine biology. There are songs composed on the many totemic gods and their practices; this is could be theology. And there are songs composed of certain events and important occasions; this is historical literature.

And there are many, many things involved in the composition of songs in the Torres Strait. The dancing and its movements express the songs and acts as the illustrative material. So this is why the dancing and songs is of utter most importance to Torres Strait Islands and the Islanders” (Ephraim Bani 1979, Importance of Torres Strait Islander Singing and Dancing).

This collection item is also an important record of changes in ethnographic film making in Australia and concerns regarding the lack of Aboriginal participation; concerns that resulted in a training program for Aboriginal film makers by the then Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS).

This training commenced with a short course for two Torres Strait Islander men, Trent and Dimple Bani, resulting in the production of Importance of Torres Strait Islander Singing and Dancing, which was the first of numerous items produced by the Bani’s included Torres Strait socials, festivals and dancing. For AIATSIS, the video was produced:

“…on the cusp of the transition of the Institute from a conventional academic research institute ‘doing research on Aboriginal topics’ to a new institution that fully recognised the need for Aboriginal involvement and substantial control of a collaborative research agenda” (Bryson 2002:66).

Collection items produced by Trent and Dimple Bani were recorded on J-format video tape reel, a commonly used video format at the time due to the portability, inexpensiveness and minimal specialist training required to use a video recorder. Although the final quality of this format is less than ideal, this collection item has been digitised and its content is not at risk; however, the challenge to preserve other audio and video materials is ongoing. Whilst progress with the digitisation has seen 35,000 hours of video and audio magnetic tape preserved, AIATSIS currently holds 13,500 hours of video and audio magnetic tape requiring digitisation with more vulnerable material regularly being added to the collection.


Bryson, I. 2002. Bringing to Light: A history of ethnographic filmmaking at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

National Film and Sound Archive 2015. Deadline 2025: Collections at Risk. National Sound and Film Archive, Canberra.

Last reviewed: 27 Oct 2017