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Getting to know Catherine Grant

UON music lecturer, researcher and PhD supervisor, Dr Catherine Grant is an ethnomusicologist in the School of Creative Arts. She is also an activist and advocate for communities whose cultural traditions are at risk.

Catherine was recently awarded the 2014 Future Justice Medal for ‘future justice leadership and initiative in early career’ for her work on endangered music, and was also awarded funding for six undergraduate students to travel to Cambodia on a graded volunteer placement program in 2014.

We caught up with Catherine this week on Engage:

Tell us about your background, including what drew you into ethnomusicology.

I grew up in Canberra. Both my parents are pianists, and the family home was always full of music. Perhaps it was inevitable that I’d get into a musical line of work! I moved to Brisbane for uni, and did a Bachelor of Music Studies at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University and a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Queensland.

In between, I had several years in continental Europe (Germany, Italy, Austria and Hungary), where I taught English as a Second Language and indulged my love of classical music. Further travels in Asia opened my eyes and my ears to the music of other cultures. It’s that interest that led to my PhD and my current research, which explore ways to help communities keep their musical traditions strong in the face of external pressures like those arising from globalisation and urbanisation.

I came to Newcastle in April this year, to carry out postdoctoral research on this topic in the School of Creative Arts at the university.

What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far? 

I never fail to be struck by the passion with which communities and individuals work to maintain their cultural traditions. I’ve carried out some fieldwork in Cambodia, a beautiful country, but one where the life expectancy is around 62 and almost half the population live in abject poverty. In these circumstances, I find the immense commitment of both young and old to protect, maintain and revitalise their musical and cultural heritage extraordinary. 


Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?

My favourite approach to getting myself inspired is reading and talking to people outside of my own area of expertise. Probably for this reason, a lot of my research sits at the boundaries of disciplines. For example, my book Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help draws on the work of linguists to explore ways to help protect and promote the world’s musical diversity. Also, I’ve just published an article that uses a concept from social policy planning – the wonderfully-named idea of ‘wicked problems’ – to suggest new ways of thinking about music sustainability. I love learning about social innovation and design thinking too, as they can help find cutting-edge solutions to old problems. 

What are you passionate about? Can others in the community get involved?

I believe in the importance and value of culture to individuals and communities. In an article in The Conversation earlier this year, I argued that all of us should care about the loss of cultural traditions and cultural diversity globally, not just those directly affected. In Australia, we’ve already lost around 98% of Indigenous performance traditions. I feel it’s our responsibility to learn what we can about this situation – it’s been called a ‘massive cultural extinction’ – and to take whatever action is appropriate to help improve it. That may just be shifting our own attitude; or it may be talking to others about the problem, and raising awareness that way. 

What do you hope will be achieved by what you are doing? 

The problem of music endangerment is a big one. I hope my research and activism might make a small contribution to the efforts of those communities who are trying to keep their cultures strong. Culture enhances the opportunities available to all human beings, and I want to do what I can to improve the opportunities of people around the world.

What’s been your proudest achievement to date? 

This one is still foremost in my mind: I’m very honoured to have received the national 2014 Future Justice Medal, awarded to Australian individuals or organisations for leadership and initiative in the advancement of future justice. Future Justice is concerned with what those living today leave behind for future generations. Often this is thought of in environmental or economic terms – extremely important issues – but I’m thrilled that my work relating to cultural sustainability has been recognised in this way. 

What would be your dream project? 

I have a few! I’m lucky to be embarking on one of them next year. I’m  heading back to Cambodia on a six-month Endeavour Australia Research Fellowship, to carry out research that explores the links between cultural revitalisation and poverty alleviation. Activities that aim to revitalise music traditions, for example, can help generate income and employment. They can also broaden career capacities and opportunities, particularly for young people, and provide other tools to fight against poverty, for example by stimulating entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation. I’m looking forward to working with and through the non-government organisation Cambodian Living Arts during my stay.

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 What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why? 

I love the nooks and crannies of the Hill near Fort Scratchley. Going for a stroll there recently on a Sunday morning, I happened to wander down a little laneway. There in the middle of the street, barefoot, was a lady whirling a hula-hoop, with a little white cat watching her from a few feet away. Priceless!   

Can you name a local hero? 

Toby Whaleboat. Toby’s a Torres Strait Islander who has lived in Newcastle for some years. Working with choirs at the University of Newcastle, Toby teaches Indigenous and non-Indigenous people the songs, sung in language (Meriam Mir), that he has been singing since childhood. He and his brother Tat, along with the Elders of their community, are committed to maintaining the language, music and culture of their Murray Island home, so that they can be passed on to future generations. In a recent interview published in Deadly Vibe, Toby says: “I hope that if I teach people and they teach others, it is a form of reconciliation. Music is an instrument that we can use to reconcile people”. I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Toby through his collaboration with the School of Creative Arts at the university. 

What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer? 

Walking along the beautiful beaches and dipping in the Ocean Baths, water temperature permitting!

And winter?

Bunking down with a good book and latte at one of the many cosy cafes around town.

Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?

Delectable fish and salad prepared fresh at Sprout café at Newcastle Museum. Great atmosphere, and remember to visit the museum while you’re at it! 

Best place to get away to?

Stradbroke Island off Brisbane, but perhaps I shouldn’t give the secret away! It’s a simply stunning piece of our country. 

Your #1 Newcastle insiders tip?

I’m afraid I don’t feel qualified to give an insider’s tip – I’ve only been here six months and am still soliciting tips from everyone else! I’m looking forward to getting to know Newcastle better – I love what I know so far.

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