Music unites African Australians in rural Victoria

Upendo Group Choir from Albury-Wodonga

As a Refugee Welcome Zone committed to supporting refugees and new arrivals, Shepparton celebrated its fourth ‘Taste of African Cultures’ this May at St Paul’s African House.

Rural Victorian groups are bringing together a wide range of African musical traditions to promote harmony and unity in some of Australia’s newest

For those who were resettled in Shepparton and now call it home, “it offers a friendly space for African-Australians to gather and to express, celebrate and share their cultures,” Steve Little, the event’s volunteer manager tells SBS Kirundi.

The event bills itself as a continuous commitment to welcoming new arrivals and promoting cultural diversity. As Mr. Little notes, “it is also an opportunity for the wider community in Shepparton to come and experience some of the music, the food and the cultural displays from African Australians.”


Charles Ogantade with friends at St Paul's African House
Charles Ogantade (left) is the Chair of the Goulburn Valley Africa-Australia Community Association and other volunteers

Charles Ogantade is the representative of the Goulburn Valley Africa-Australia Community Association that helped put the event together. According to him, it’s about sharing a strong message of unity as “through culture we learn how to be better people in the society like living together as brothers and sisters”.

“Coming together means a lot to us as Africans, because through culture we are able to define language, relationships, social norms and customs which are the pillars of any society,” says Mr. Ogantade.


 Sudanese Dancing Group
Sudanese Dancing Group at Taste of African Cultures Event

Burundians beat the peace drum
The Burundian Royal Drums were one of the major acts of the day. The group was created in 2007 and uses drumming to bring the community together and break isolation within the emerging community.

Most Burundian Australians have come through humanitarian visa and resettled in Shepparton.

“It is an honour to celebrate with others,” Ezechiel Ntirenganya tells SBS Kirundi.


Burundian Royal Drums
Burundian Royal Drums at the Taste of African Cultures showcase

For Kaziri Jean Bosco, an elder and drum-maker in his 60s who has been playing drums for the last three decades, drumming is a form of therapy. “When drums are being beaten, people forget their problems and rejoice,” he says. He came to Australia directly from a Tanzanian refugee camp and has never returned to Burundi since 1972.

‘It keeps me connected to my roots” a nostalgic Mr. Kaziri tells SBS Kirundi. “This is an important traditional heritage that we must teach the younger generation.”

A sense of belonging through singing
Fred Nii Addo, a Ghanaian drummer based in Torquay began the day with a drumming workshop outside the African House. Holding a djembe drum, he says, “music is a common language that everybody can speak, and it has the power to bring society together’.


Drumming workshop with Fred Nii Addo
Drumming workshop with Fred Nii Addo

He has been drumming for the last 25 years and uses his drum to bring everyone together in the community, and “promote peace and unity”.

Music also facilitates the transition into Australian life for new arrivals in Albury-Wodonga. Vuganeza Telesphore, also known as Foi, is a young rapper from Burundi who arrived in Australia just two weeks ago with his family. Prior to coming to Australia, he lived in Congo and Kenya.


Burundian singer Foi and his friends from Albury-Wodonga
Burundian singer Foi and his friends from Albury-Wodonga at the Shepparton Taste of African Cultures event

Settling in Australia can be challenging but music gives him hope. “Performing with others today make me feel welcomed,” says Foi, who is eager to pursue a musical passion in his new home. “I will continue to play guitar and write songs to connect with my new home Australia.”

From Congo to the Choir

As a child growing up in Congo, music united family members and neighbours for Jean Michel Batakane, the representative of the Congolese community of Albury-Wodonga.

Having travelled with choir members, rappers and dancers, Batakane says that for people who may be naive to the deep diversity of African nations, events such as this are an opportunity to showcase the diversity of that continent, by exploring the traditions of Burundi, Congo, South Sudan or Sierra Leone.

“There is something powerful and deep when Africans come together to sing,” he says. “Cultural events offer a safe space where anyone can feel welcome regardless of their origin. There is no need to fit in, it’s a day to be you, to be African.”

Choir singing is also an increasingly common bonding experience between African Australians. Annie Nzigire is a Congolese representative of Upendo Group, a choir group made of 20 girls and women in Albury-Wodonga.


Upendo Group Choir from Albury-Wodonga
Upendo Group Choir from Albury-Wodonga at the Taste of African Cultures, Shepparton

“It is very important to be here so that we don’t forget our culture,” says Ms. Nzigire, who explains that through singing, the mothers have been able to teach the language to their children. Whenever the group practices, children are involved and learn African values and traditions. Coming together to sing as a group is also beneficial, as it becomes a source of revenue for some.

“We sing and dance at parties to support us in the future,” Ms. Nzigire says. “Not only for our wellbeing, but we also feel a sense of increased community and belonging.”

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