By Brian Wise.
This weekend’s Boomerang Festival in Byron Bay features the extraordinary talent of Shellie Morris, whose life story follows the arc of so many indigenous Australians of a particular generation.
If you have heard Archie Roach’s song ‘Took The Children Away’ you will know the story. Fortunately, Morris’s life has followed an arc that has not only enable her to connect with her past but also pursue a career in music that has garnered her praise and respect as one of the nation’s most respected indigenous artists.
At last month’s Deadly Awards Morris received the award for Excellence in Cultural Advancement for the stunning album Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu – Together We Are Strong: The Song Peoples Session that she recorded with the Borroloola Songwomen. The recording spotlighted the disappearing Gulf tongue of her grandmother, which is now spoken fluently by fewer than 10 people. It is the first album by an Aboriginal contemporary female singer/songwriter sung entirely in the languages of the Gulf Country.
Born in the Northern territory in 1965, Morris was adopted out to a non-Aboriginal family in Sydney. As a youngster she studied flute, piano and organ and later sang in choirs and took some opera training. Keen to find out more about her roots, Morris visited Darwin and was so inspired that she decided to move back there permanently. Subsequently, she was reunited with members of her biological family.
Although she was employed as a motivational worker and mentored many Aboriginal young people at schools and universities in the Darwin area, Morris was intent on pursuing her music, began busking and then embarked on a contemporary music course at Northern Territory University. Her first official gig was at Darwin’s Australian Music Day in 1999 and since that time she has supported Tiddas, Vika and Linda, Yothu Yindi, Neil Murray and Jimmy Little, performed at Yothu Yindi’s Garma Festival, and represented the Territory at the 2001 Pacific Circle Music Expo in Sydney.
Morris has recently gained even more acclaim for her work with The Black Armband, which was conceived and founded by Steven Richardson in late 2005 following a conversation with the late Ruby Hunter. It is a flexible music and theatre company – which has featured more than 50 artists – focussing on the expression of Australian Aboriginal experience and identity. The company has toured Australia and appeared at the Cultural Olympiad at the Winter Olympics in Canada and WOMAD in the UK.
However, Morris’s new release Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu is perhaps the culmination of her career so far and undoubtedly her most important work.
Tell us how the whole thing came together? What was the inspiration for it?
The inspiration was a good friend of mine, Patrick McCloskey has worked in the Tennant Creek region for over 10 years and he came up with the concept of it – of taking a more contemporary artists back home to where they’re from to work with the language of the area. So I had done a lot of work in Tennant with him and I’d been doing this, you know obviously with my communities for a long time and so then I took the job to go back home to Borroloola and work on this project. I live in Darwin.
Can you tell us a little bit about the area of Borroloola? You said you went back home there. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
It is 1000 kilometres from Darwin in the southeast and it’s a town that’s had quite a lot of Western influence for over 100 years which is quite a long time for some of the remote places of it. It’s a very big fishing area, the Barramundi and things like that. The town itself is situated on the McArthur River. Mostly my family is from the islands and the Saltwater people and that becomes just the absolutely most beautiful place you’ve ever been to.
So obviously, you have this strong connection with the land there?
Yes, I do. I have a strong connection with the people. I mean obviously, Borroloola is just a little town in a very remote place but when you hit the ocean it takes your breath away. It’s so beautiful.
It’s a fascinating area – almost like another country, isn’t it?
Well, it is. Yes. I mean, there’s stations there so we have a lot of Aboriginal stockmen and things like that in the area. Obviously, facilities are getting better and better as time goes on.
What people don’t really kind of understand is the in the history of that area up North Western Australia, how it was sort of multicultural decades before the work multicultural was even used.
Absolutely, I mean my grandmother’s last name is Muir which is Scottish and so there was Scottish blood and there was some trading many years ago. It’s incredible.
You decided to do this project. It sounds like a bit of a daunting task.
It was incredibly daunting. One, I’d being so busy working. I’d just finished this film – a documentary with Gilberto Gil and he came over and did some work with me in Northeast Arnhem Land. My work has taken me to many remote communities but I didn’t really realise that a whole album was going to be in language. I remember asking when I got to Borroloola how many songs did he want in language and he said all of them and that’s when I choked on it and I thought, ‘Oh, here we go. Time to put all your skills in the background and to be patient and to learn.’
I just reckon time stood still for us because I probably did six songs in a week and then went back for another 10 days then I was able to do the rest of the album.
Well, tell us about the Borroloola Songwomen who were involved in this because it’s quite an array of people and, of course, the album is dedicated to your late Grandmother.
Yes, the Borroloola Songwomen? Well. There are four clan groups and obviously, they’ve been singing those songlines and they were taught by the grandfather’s grand father’s and all the grandmother’s grandmother. It’s been since time began and to work with those songs is quite phenomenal. Some of the songs are quite new. I mean the song women, they’re making songs up all the time.
When I travelled to Borroloola many years ago, I didn’t understand much of that Aboriginal culture, obviously. When I made one of those first trips to Borroloola many years ago, it was understanding that the songwomen keep writing. Not only the old, old songs but their writing new songlines as time changes. So that was quite phenomenal into going to the depths of those songs and understand what they’re about.
You say the songs are in language – which they are – and I suppose that doesn’t really matter because you have the English translation in the liner notes – but I think Gurrumul proved that you can have a hugely successful album without having to necessarily have it in English. It’s the emotive of the music and the songs are so beautiful that they have that impact, don’t they?
Yes, correct. When we did a little small show here in Darwin last year, we definitely had that response from the audience in a sold out the venue. There was no real translations and the music was quite emotive to people and emotional really, especially with the women being a part of it.
When you see the women on stage – and they’re between 60 and 80 years old – and you know that you’re in the presence of ancient, ancient stories, it’s like Mother Earth holding you. That was the quote from a young actor from the Tiwi Islands and he said it was like Mother Earth took me to the core of the Earth, nursed me back up to earth and healed my soul while they were doing it. It’s incredibly powerful.
The way I write all the music was to take very good care of that and to not make it too busy. I suppose I was inspired by Robbie Robertson and with his work with his people, the Native American people, was to give it lots of space and area and also, you have to write around those songs.
The women had no idea of pitching to the key of C and so they sang those songs and then I worked with them where they were in C sharp, B flat – and often some of the songs were not even in the keys and they were in between the black and white note.
Obviously, the language is still spoken but is it taught in any of the schools today?
It is. They do have programs but it’s not fluently spoken, only by the old people and, of course, the ones that they have taught because when they put the four clan groups and modernisation comes in and Western ways of doing things, everyone speaks the language and it’s called Creole, which is Pidgin English.
There were so many Aboriginal languages or dialects around. I’m wondering how many of them still exist.
I think it’s about 200 languages alive in the NT and then off that there’s dialects. So, often I might travel to a remote region and there’s a language and then off that there’s eight or nine or 10 dialects off that.
The Nyulnyulan language is predominantly what the album is all in because my family want me to learn that a lot more obviously. Yes, that’s actually quite a unique language because there’s a men’s language and a woman’s language and through all my travels this is the only language group that I’ve ever found that has that specific completely different languages.
So, the languages are completely different so if you came from one of the area of Australia to there you wouldn’t necessarily be able to speak that language at all?
No, not at all. I mean I’ll meet old people there that can speak thirteen fluent Aboriginal languages and English is their fourteenth. That was the way it was done and obviously through hand signals and ceremonies. There’s other ways, obviously, of communication which I’ve learned over the years and often, these people were traveling a lot and they would be learning the languages. I’d say they have a real gift, an incredible gift actually. That was the way it was done.
They would just learn them and through marriages and grandfathers. So some of the places that I’ve visited where the Western influence hasn’t been as much, the children of five and six years old can speak four fluent languages and English is their fifth, which is quite phenomenal. So, they got their mother’s language, their father’s language, their grandmother’s and their grandfather’s.
Did you rediscover all this when you returned to the Northern Territory about 20 years or so ago? Is that when you rediscovered your heritage?
Yes, I did. I knew nothing. Absolutely zip. I was very unlearned.
You have the classic story to tell, don’t you?
Yes. I do. I would never have thought it would have ended up that way. I mean just coming back to Darwin and falling in love with NT Darwin and living here and I had a normal job at the airport and meeting my sister and she speaks another language and hearing that for the first time. I thought that would be it, I’ll just be spending time out here. It just kept plugging away with music and then eventually that became my life working in remote communities and doing some gigs here and there.