Language is a powerful and important tool. Christine Anu has experienced, on many levels, just how much language matters.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners and readers are advised that the podcast episode contains the name of a person who has died.
Early in her career, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people would approach her, annoyed that she had reworked and popularized an already beloved song of yearning for homeland.
“How dare you sing that song! The Warumpi Band will always do the better version!”
She understood this passionate response. As a backing singer for Neil Murray’s post-Warumpi Band group, she saw first-hand what it meant to people.
“I would get that birds eye view of what that song meant to an audience,” she says. “So it was really a massive responsibility to take something, rework it, and call it my own.”
Her take on ‘My Island Home’ was, of course, a resounding success. And it will forever be a song strongly associated with her. Her delivery of those heartfelt words evokes a weight of meaning and a lightness of a shared euphoria that resonates still.
“It ended up being this amazing blessing in disguise,” she says. “Because it allowed me to follow those cultural connections which would then set me apart from other artists in this country. In terms of how I could connect and the songs I could write about, but, more importantly, the stories I could tell as the performer that was developing right before Australian audience’s eyes.”
While ‘Island Home’ opened up some big opportunities for her, another important song was urging her to deal with matters a little closer to home.
She was already a fan of Arrested Development, so when one of her dance teachers at Bangarra, gently suggested that she should check out Dionne Farris’ solo album, she found herself in the grips of a song that struck a raw nerve.
‘Don’t Ever Touch Me (Again)’, with lyrics like, ‘Releasing the anger, the hurt, heartache and rage / No more feeling like an animal stalked trapped and caged / Because she believes she’s a survivor…’ had an instant impact on Anu.
“She’s singing my life,” Anu says. “She’s singing about, not just me, but all women out there who wanna say it but can’t.”
Farris inspired Christine Anu’s creative output from that moment, as the Australian singer learnt a new way of approaching music.
“She gave me an idea that you can sing about something so dark like that, but you don’t have to go there musically and it really opened my eyes to doing that with lyrics,” Anu says.
Indeed, the song’s soothing, easy R&B feel is at odds almost with the language of hardened resilience Farris delivers.
Perhaps it’s this resilience that speaks most pointedly about Christine Anu’s character and shows us how she could breakthrough and be such an important success story.
“One of the things that came out of training as a dancer for five years at NAISDA (the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association) was that real focus of cultural pride and coming into the realisation that not a lot of students I went to college with had their language,” Anu says.
“By the time I graduated, I kinda developed this sense of feeling really ripped off in my schooling years, because we were never spoken of, we weren’t a part of history.
“My way of trying to reclaim that time I spent, where not one word would be spoken about my culture, or at least was very incorrect, is that I wanted to use language in a commercial way. Because, if I couldn’t put it in the educational books in schools, then try stopping me from writing in my own language. Something my mother wasn’t allowed to do when she was in primary school, it was forbidden.
“So, I wanted to reclaim that and dare the record company, who, kudos to them, put my album (Stylin’ Up) out there. And triple j made it Album of the Week. So, it was impressive to be talking about an album that was received commercially with Kalaw Kawaw Ya and Meriam Mir language on there.
“When people love music, they will find a way to be engaged by it, it’s a very subtle and clever way of teaching someone your language.”
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Christine Anu on Don't Look Back.