Anika Baset for Right Now: Your music is said to have jazz-blues roots, but is sung in Noongar. Is there something about jazz/blues music that complements the Noongar language?
Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse: We have not made a conscious decision to explore any particular genre, other than what we feel best serves the song and what it represents. Gina has a deep passion for, and was inspired by, the music of great jazz performers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. This was a wonderful gift passed on to her from her father. We are simply conduits for the language. It is the story and narrative that dictates the style in which it is delivered.
Do you think that Aboriginal narratives have been made invisible in Australia? In what way, and if so, how might we begin to unravel this erasure?
From 57 Murray Street in Perth, a document was signed that had devastating implications for the Aboriginal People of Australia. [57 Murray Street once housed the Office of the Chief Protector of Aborigines, AO Neville, who created the policies that led to the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families.] The language and cultural development of Aboriginal people was changed. People were forbidden to speak their own language (including Gina’s grandmother and mother). There are many stories of people, having “language beaten out of them.” Lore and culture started to erode and as a result, a large section of history has been removed and in many cases misrepresented. Atrocities that are still in the memories of elders – the stories of battles for equality are many.
How we see it is that in France people speak French, Japan it’s Japanese etc. Language and culture still exists and it was allowed to naturally evolve to be part of a modern society. Aboriginal people were not afforded this basic right. So the ‘invisibility’ as you put it has been by a cruel and inhumane design. BUT what we do is to demonstrate, in the only way we know how, is that this language, this culture and the Aboriginal people of this nation are beautiful. The language is stunning and people need not fear. If we could just embrace it and try to understand that this culture is not based on living in a modern economy but rather a modern society (and more so ‘a community’).
We have a responsibility to collectively learn from the past, be honest in how we represent and reflect on what has gone before and learn from this. Then we move together unified.
What role do you think music can play in healing the legacy of intergenerational trauma, within Indigenous communities and in Australia more broadly?
Uncle Tom Hayden from Kellerberrin gifted Gina what we have come to know as the Balladong principles. These principles are Koort (Heart), Moort (Family), Boodja (Land) and Koorlangka (Children/Legacy). These are, in fact, universal principles, that if kept in focus, all else falls into place. All we do is inspired by these very 4 principles. Therapeutically, music and song writing enables us to unpack what may be buried deep. This is not something we do alone. Poets, artists and musicians through the centuries have done this as it has proven to be often the only visible truth in a tormented and traumatised world.
It’s estimated that of the 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, only around 120 are still spoken. Of these, approximately 90 per cent are endangered. Beyond music, what else can be done to promote the use of Indigenous languages?
The current population is just shy of 25 million. If every person in this country learned just five words of the languages of the land they are living, our languages would be secure. Gina calls it #5words.
Given that relatively few people who hear your music understand Noongar, what is it about the music, and the Noongar language in particular that make it accessible to a wider audience?
When we see someone laughing so deeply and uncontrollably, what do we do? We laugh along, often not knowing the reason. Same with all emotive human responses. When Gina sings, she connects people by sharing stories and of collective experience. We all understand love and loss, joy and heartache, regardless of language. She explains the back story to each song so people have an understanding of what is to come. But more than that, when the songs begins Gina has an innate gift to find her way into even the most guarded of hearts.
We perform at many corporate events. Some are critically important, yet often those presenting are reading off a sheet and delivering something carefully considered with stats and information that simply does not translate to the human heart.
People NEED to be inspired. So, Anika, I invite YOU to be front and centre, and listen to Gina sing. You breathe and you have a heartbeat, therefore you WILL feel it. After the show, let’s address this question again. You will have your answer!
Does telling stories in language, through music and spoken word empower Indigenous story-tellers?
Of course. Our languages and stories have been reduced to a whisper – the only way to reverse this is to sing language and country strong; to continue to tell stories and engender a sense of an inspired continuum (as we are equally inspired by other indigenous story tellers).
Do you think promoting the use of Indigenous languages in Australia can also serve to deepen Indigenous peoples’ connection to country, particularly in instances where Indigenous peoples have had their connection to country severed?
Without a doubt. What we know is there is an innate connection to country which cannot be broken. This has been proven many, many years on. Language was an aural tradition which connected us to the land, to our families.
As a result, what we are currently seeing is a renaissance of language and culture and with this comes a sense of renewed pride in where we come from and who we belong to.
What role does the celebration of Indigenous language and music play in the broader conversation on reconciliation in Australia?
As a starting point it reminds us that this is where the Australian music industry starts. Our national voice and sense of pride can be shared and (in turn) deepened by embracing songs in the language of the land on which we live.
Music is a great learning device – it makes language accessible to people who otherwise may never hear or experience the beautiful depth of Indigenous languages.
The music can evolve and be the ship on which the language can sail upon. Language represents an identity which hasn’t died out because of past policies, it is simply resting. Revert that, and people feel a sense of pride, belonging and no longer second class and down trodden.
Right Now is proud to support The Museum of Freedom and Tolerance’s In Visible Ink Project. The aim of In Visible Ink is to make visible the often invisible stories and lived experiences of Australia’s First Peoples, migrants and refugees in meaningful ways that create opportunities to increase empathy and diversity, to address prejudice, and for truth telling, healing and reconciliation. Find out more about the work of the speakers mentioned in these interviews here, and about the In Visible Ink project here.