Spotlight On: AWME and the Songlines of Music

Thursday, 10 Dec 2015

Michael Hutchings, APRA AMCOS ATSI Representative, sat down (daat/nyin1) to talk to Gina Williams and Jess Beck at the Australasian Worldwide Music Expo (AWME) about the role of oral history in the development of the musical landscape.

Gina has been steadily gaining a reputation across Australia for bringing a fresh, modern take to ancient traditions; merging evocative sounds, natural acoustic instruments and poignant stories sung in her native Noongar language.

Rising talent Jess has a voice that’s sweet, raw, and unaffected, reflective of the beautiful red gum country of Mingbool, SA, where she grew up. Jess' deep connection to these roots and her Indigenous heritage mean her fearless lyrics get straight to matters of the heart and spirit. With her band Pirra (meaning moon2), Jess joins Gina to talk about musical history and inspiration.

With the incredible history of oral traditions, music and story telling, how is this strong cultural element represented in contemporary art forms?

Gina WilliamsGina: “There are less than 400 people recognised as fluent Noongar language speakers, so I am a little evangelistic about it, I suppose. For me, language through song is a personal mission because it is a living resource, a library collection of a different kind, a legacy for the next generation. It's a way of representing history and rewriting the script of our people, a positive, embracing script. There is a saying: every time an elder dies, a library burns down - and in this case, this is true.

“Some might see songwriting and performing only in the Noongar language as too narrow a focus, but actually it’s because of this single-mindedness that I am able to create a living for myself and my family, and every day I am doing what I love. It's an incredibly beautiful language – when I hear Noongar language I hear music, it literally sings to me. 

“This year I have performed and engaged in 100 workshops across the country. My daughters also occasionally sing with me. You don't have to understand the words, just close your eyes and feel the emotion, the story – it all means the same in any language. Audiences respond to the performances and I think it's because they hear the familiar themes of love, loss, happiness and success in my music, in an immersive way.

“Music is a great memory trigger and that’s why it’s so important to bring music and language together at an early stage. I came into my language late, in a quest to find my birth mother and country, as an adult. 

“I engage with adult workshops at schools to encourage the kids to get in touch with the Indigenous people of their own region, and embark on some songwriting together to bring it into their everyday lives. I want all of the community to have a sense of place, because once that regional dialect, that ‘limited edition’ is lost, it is incredibly difficult to revive”.

Check out Gina singing in language below:

At AWME, Gina Williams’ workshop centered on songs as more than just a tune, as a part of preservation of history. As a younger artist, how relevant is this for you, Jess?

Jess BeckJess Beck said, “Being the granddaughter and daughter of stolen generation survivors, sadly language isn’t something that has been passed down. My mother was only able to meet her birth mother (my Grandma Linda) when she was 30 and I was about four or five. Our nation, Lurita, was only confirmed in 2011 when they finally found who our relations were. We met our long lost family members at a big family reunion in Alice Springs organised by The Central Australian Stolen Generations & Families Aboriginal Corporation.”

"I've always known I was Aboriginal and it's something I have always been proud of. I've always tried to be as connected as possible, by participating and being active in community and the arts. For someone in my situation, this is the best way I could connect. I've been fortunate enough to be accepted by the community here in Sydney and nothing makes me prouder and happier than performing at Indigenous event and festivals. 

"The best way I can learn more about our culture is to continue to connect with community, visit my Grandma Linda in Darwin and hopefully take a trip down to where she was born. I certainly want to learn the Luritja language and after meeting Sammy Butcher (a fellow member of the Luritja nation) in 2012 he taught me a few words.

"I think it's wonderful that there are performers like Emma Donovan, Shellie Morris and Gina Williams that sing in language. It's also extremely important that this continues and continues to grow. 

“I hope that in the not too distant future, I too can begin to learn the Luritja language or possibly compose a song in language by working with other Luritja artists such as Sammy Butcher. I am on my journey and I feel that there’s still some important steps I need to take to help this happen.”

1 Daat nyin – 'sit down' in Nyoongar language, from the south-west region of Western Australia
2 In Luritja - a nation in the central desert of NT where some of Jess’ family are from.

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