Research to review music’s impact on First Peoples health

Associate Professor Naomi Sunderland with Uncle Bunna Lawrie, Mirning Elder, Whale Dreamer, and front man for famous Aboriginal band Coloured Stone. Photo: Barkly Regional Arts.
Associate Naomi Sunderland from the School of Human Services and Social Work and QCRC.

Mapping how First Nations’ music mitigates negative health determinants like racism, social exclusion and poor mental health is the focus of an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Indigenous grant.

Led by Wiradjuri descendant Associate Professor Naomi Sunderland, from the School of Human Services and Social Work and Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre(QCRC), it is one of the first arts-health research projects to systematically examine music as a determinant of health in First Nations communities.

“We’re not talking about people coming from outside to run programs within communities. Music that’s culturally congruent, that’s preserving and sharing culture is already happening in these places,’’ Associate Professor Sunderland said.

“This project is about looking at music making that’s naturally occurring and First Nations led, rather than outside interventions with music.”

The research team will create a national online map of health determinant hot spots in First Nations communities before working with musicians, Elders and local leaders to collect data for case studies in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

“Music shares lore, identity, history of Country, geography, even how to be a good parent, all of these elements of wellbeing are carried through songs in First Nations communities.”

Associate Professor Sunderland says the research project is part of a new era of thinking that seeks to examine the strengths of community led interventions and to document and trace the outcomes.

“It’s about identifying what First Nations musicians are doing that works and to systematically document the health-related impact they’re having. One of our advisors, Uncle Bunna Lawrie, has ambitions for international environmental sustainability through his music.”

“This evidence base will help inform policy makers across all levels of government and local communities to understand what sort of outcomes they can expect from their investment in music making.”

Building on more than a decade of collaborative research

Naomi with Brian Jakamarra Moreton at Desert Harmony Festival in Tennant Creek. Brian is a singer songwriter and senior member of the Winanjjikari Music Centre. Photo: Barkly Regional Arts.

The culmination of 14 years of collaborative work with prominent researchers from Griffith and other Universities, Associate Professor Sunderland said she first worked closely with Professor Elizabeth Kendall at Menzies Health Institute as part of the Logan Beaudesert Health Coalition.

“We wanted to address the social determinants of health in local communities with higher rates of preventable chronic disease.

“Through that I learned an immense amount about the ‘causes of the causes’ of diseases. Health care delivery is really only a minor part in comparison to our whole life experience, which powerfully shapes our health and wellbeing.”

Associate Professor Sunderland’s most recent work was with Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre Director Professor Brydie Leigh-Bartleet on the ARC funded Creative Barkly project focussed on the remote Barkly region in the Northern Territory.

“We found this interesting relationship between health and art making in the region. But one of the biggest impediments to being able to carry out cultural activities through the arts was poor health.”

“Access to Country was a profound determinant of health and wellbeing for artists in the Barkly and reinforced to us a strong cultural element to the lived experience and health determinants of First Peoples.”

Once case studies for the new project are complete, they will shape an Australian First Nations’ informed arts-health model that will be tested and refined alongside two major international First Nations’ music health studies underway in Finland and New Zealand.

“This collaboration allows Griffith University to deepen its existing international research partnerships and put Australia at the forefront of international interdisciplinary arts-health policy and practice.”

Investing in the creative arts and First Peoples researchers

Naomi sings backing vocals with Kathy Burns, former Festival and Artistic Director at Barkly Regional Arts, as Uncle Bunna Lawrie performs with band Coloured Stone. Photo: Barkly Regional Arts.

Associate Professor Sunderland is heartened by the ARC’s recognition of the project after COVID-19 hit the Creative Arts industries particularly hard.

“Many of us have fought for so many years to have First Nations issues and arts and culture issues on the agenda. Investing in the arts as a response to health is profoundly holistic.”

“I think it offers a lot of hope that there is a willingness to try to do things differently. It’s a chance for First Nations communities to show what they’re doing and challenge some stereotypes.”

The ARC project will also include early career First Nations researchers.

“My colleagues Clint Bracknell and Darren Garvey from Edith Cowan University, while both early career researchers in institutional terms, are extraordinarily accomplished and have worked with some of the nation’s leading scholars and have even influenced the national curriculum on music.

“To have them both supported in this way further acknowledges their strengths and effort.”

Associate Professor Naomi Sunderland and team have been awarded $820,000 including an ARC Discovery Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fellowship Award for the project: ‘The role of First Nations’ music as a determinant of health’. She is also joined by fellow Chief Investigator Professor Phil Graham from the University of the Sunshine Coast.