These 5 Indigenous Australians are preserving language through music
This year, NAIDOC week celebrates the importance, resilience and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.
It’s good timing, as Indigenous artists are increasingly writing and performing songs in language as a means of preserving and promoting them. The risk of language being lost is very real, and music is one great way to ensure they are preserved.
Double J’s Jacinta Parsons caught up with five Indigenous artists, who told her why singing in language is so important to them.
Emily Wurramara (Groote Island): Anindilyakwa
For me, as an individual, and especially being a female singer-songwriter in this industry, being able to sing in Anindilyakwa is an absolute honour and is an absolute charm to represent my people in this music. I’m very proud of that.
It's like you're in another world. You have to flip back and forth between English and Anindilyakwa and you have to think of different phrases and from different perspectives. You try to communicate and hold the audience, and you try to communicate with your people and hold their attention as well. It's just a different form of communicating, and it's really special.
When I sing in Anindilyakwa my family are super proud and super happy. Because I'm a female and no female from Groote Island has come out and done anything in language or anything in music. So it's very rare, and very precious to me.
‘Ementha Papaguneray’ is made up of two lullabies. The first one, Ementha, means turtle and that’s from my people of Groote Island, and the second one is Papaguneray, which is a traditional hand clapping game from Yirrkala in Northern Territory.
Gina Williams (Perth): Noongar
I'd never really heard Noongar language until I was an adult and it always fascinated me, because I thought it was the most beautiful language I'd ever heard. It felt like, somehow, it was singing to me.
When I started doing lessons I felt really embarrassed, because this is my birthright, and in my first class I was the only Noongar in a class full of wadjelas. The teacher came in and asked why everyone was here.
She looked at me and went ‘Why are you here?’ and I said, ‘I don't know. But I feel embarrassed and ashamed to have to be here to learn what should be my birthright.’ One of the other ladies who was learning leaned over and said, ‘Darling, that’s not your shame. That’s ours’.
The first song I wrote, I was pregnant. I sat down and it was really late, the early hours of the morning, I couldn't sleep. I picked up my guitar and on this really out of tune, dodgy old guitar I wrote this song called 'Iggy’s Lullaby'. It was for my son who I hadn’t met yet. I wanted to play this song for him.
It’s a mix of English and language because I didn’t have enough language words at the time, but I thought it was a really good starting point.
I wrote this song and took it to class and sang it for the first time. I’m not a very good guitarist but I know I can sing. I sang this song and my teacher didn’t say anything. She was dead silent. She didn’t even look at me, she just had her head in her hands at this desk.
Then she goes, ’sing it again’ so I sang it again and still nothing. I thought ‘oh no, I’ve butchered Noongar, I’ve broken it’. Then she said ‘sing it again’, so I sang it a third time. Then she goes ‘Sing it again’ and I went ‘I can’t, I need you to tell me what I’ve done wrong’ and she said ‘Oh, there’s nothing wrong! It’s beautiful!’.
I was out on Balladong Country with my Uncle Tom Hayden. I said to him when I first got a head full of steam around this, ‘Uncle Tom, I want to write language songs, but I don’t know what to write about’.
He said, ‘Oh, it’s simple. There are four principles. There is koort, which is your heart. Moort, which is your family. Ngulla boodjar, which is our land. And koolangka which is our children – but it’s more than that, it’s legacy. If you have those four principles in place, then everything else works.’
And he was right. So, everything that we do, all the songs we write, are all informed by one of those four principles.
‘Kalyakoorl’ is the title track to our album, and it’s my favourite word in any language. It means forever, but in Noongar way, it’s like heaps of forever. Always was, always is, always will be.
I wrote this song about custodial responsibility, it’s always good to recognise elders as traditional custodians of this land, but in a modern context, we all have a responsibility because we all call this place home. So, it’s about speaking well, about walking gently, about how the earth constantly turns.
Dave Leha - aka Radical Son (Penrith): Kimilaroi
I wrote my first piece in Kimilaroi last year. Up until that point I’d never written a piece in my language, but it really felt good doing that. Since then, I’ve been able to go out into community and work with emerging artists to do the exact same thing.
I remember being told that if I really wanted culture bad enough, it would come to me. As though it was already within us and we just had to kind of unlock it somehow. But that’s a whole different way of thinking and believing, it’s almost romantic.
I’ve come across artists who talk about how there’s something else. I don’t know what word to put to this – it might be spirituality – but I’ve kinda realised that I may have always had it. When I’m trying to create, it almost feels like I’m connecting to something else, I just don’t know what the words are to describe it.
What we can change is if Australian people can begin to embrace Indigenous culture in some way. Pay more respect and put a bit more value on it.
Tom E. Lewis (Ngukurr)
It’s part of our world. Part of our being, in the country. If you’re going to celebrate, sing to it. Sing in language, you’ll be glorified, the mother hears you singing. When the mother hears you sing and you sing well, everybody dances.
Songs are the strength. My brother said to me the other night, ‘Music and songs are the souls of our life’. The songs in the depths of our ceremonies are beautiful songs. When you dance to them, you connect with the animals, the flies, the possums, the eagles, even the grass and the rocks and the trees.
Look at Archie Roach, look at Jimmy Little, look at the Pigram Brothers, look at our people who sung and danced before us. They’ve paved a lot of good ways of connecting to the western world. Making people listen to their songs. In this country, all the language of the world is in our blood. In our countrymen, in ou families, in our world of Aboriginal people.
Watch a film from Ivan Sen. He’s speaking his language, that fella. He enjoys the two culutres and so do I. We embraced the two worlds. Language is beautiful, It’s like roses.
It’s nice to be at the doorstep of songs and languages again.
Sammy Butcher (Papunya): Luritja
When we’d play out on a stage somewhere, wherever, everybody gets up and sings. Everybody. Doesn’t matter, black or white, colour doesn’t mean anything, the music just brings everybody together.
I grew up as an Aboriginal person, always with the language. We’ve got to keep our language strong so it carries on to the next generation. For us, Warumpi Band, our stories were told in songs.
‘Jailanguru Pakarnu' means getting out of jail. One of the issues which we struggled with.
We wrote our songs in language to educate the problems we had in our lives. Being in jail, drink driving, looking after the kids, being able to eat good stuff. We just wrote songs because how we feel and how we see it, we can spread our news to everybody through songs.
I just want to say to everybody, help those who need a helping hand. And we should be helping with the language, we should be strong with the language, because language is our life.