Dave Walker, a Native American musician who is one of our Advisors, thinks very highly of Guy’s guitar playing. Please check them out if you have a chance.
'The Noongar musician had to take Tafe classes to learn the language of her people, but now she’s spreading its popularity - one song at a time
Singer-songwriter Gina Williams’ creative life hit a high point in 2014 when, along with musical partner, Guy Ghouse, she released their debut album Kalyakoorl - sung entirely in Noongar, the Indigenous language of south-western Australia.
No mean feat considering it was just five years ago that Williams, then 40, signed up for a Noongar language course. “In my first class I remember feeling a bit sick from embarrassment and shame; I’m a Noongar and I have to come to a Tafe course to learn my own language! I was the only Noongar in the class,” she says on the phone.
To commiserate, I share my own humiliating tale of sitting in a beginners Mandarin class, the only student with a Chinese heritage. This much we have in common. But unlike Mandarin, alive and kicking with over one billion speakers, there are just 250 native speakers of Noongar left on the planet – the devastating result of Australia’s historical policy of forced assimilation.
Both Williams’ parents were survivors of the Stolen Generations, and as adults denied their Aboriginality. “I have memories of conversations across the table, with my mum and dad going ‘you have lovely olive skin because of your Indian or Malay heritage’ – which simply wasn’t true.” Her mother was an alcoholic, in and out of her life since she was eight; her father passed away a few days after she turned 12.
Williams was placed in foster care and soon found herself an angry, troubled teen with “devastation and destruction” all around her. It was during an argument with her mother after leaving a second foster home that she found out she was adopted, news that stunned her but eventually led to taking the first steps in recovering her family history. “I figured somebody owed me an explanation and that somebody should be my biological mum. So I went looking for her, and I was really angry.
Williams says this experience – and her desire to move forward – informs much of her music. “We can honour something that’s sad and really heartbreaking, but we can do it in a beautiful way that brings dignity and integrity to a language that’s on the brink of being extinct.”
Like her adopted parents, Williams’ grandmother was also a survivor of the Stolen Generations, under the 1930s administration of AO Neville, chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia. She was taken from her traditional Kitja lands to Mogumber mission, perched on the opposite end of the state, and eventually married Williams’ grandfather, a local Noongar man.
Children on the mission - such as the singer’s mother - “had the language belted out of them, they weren’t allowed to speak language. They weren’t allowed to talk about their families. Mum was moved with her two brothers and she was never allowed to be seen with them.” But the artist has been working hard to reverse the loss of language that scars so many branches of her family tree. “It’s intergenerational trauma and from where I sit I have a responsibility to make sure it stops with me.”
Her first time in Noongar class - that day she burned with shame - her teacher leaned over and said “You know what, sweetie? It’s not your shame, it’s ours,” and asked the singer why she had come. “Without even thinking I said, ‘because I want to sing my language’. So every week she’d go, ‘have you written me a song yet?’ And to get her off my back I wrote this lullaby for my little boy, who’s now turning five.”
As anyone who has studied a new language will know, any hope of mastery requires venturing beyond the confines of a classroom. These days, Williams not only converses in Noongar with her friends and some of the local elders, she has begun to introduce it at home, with her children and mother. “People like my mum who didn’t know [the] language, it’s been quite sad for her, and recently she’s been saying ‘would you teach me to speak language?’”
And while the community is divided as to who has the right to speak it, Williams believes that with so few speakers left, anyone who wants to learn should be given the opportunity to do so. And that every citizen, Indigenous or not, should know at least a little of the language too. “If you live on Noongar country then you should know some of the words of the land.”
Williams says there are several words the people of Perth already use, and may not realise come from the Noongar language. Balga, a suburb of Perth, means grass tree in Noongar. Other examples include the Noongar word Marron (a saltwater crayfish), and Gidgee, a type of spear commonly used by divers.
In performance, including at schools, she and Ghouse have begun teaching audiences a simple Noongar welcome song called Wanjoo. With so many of the nation’s 500 plus native languages now considered “critically endangered”, Williams hopes more Australians will begin to speak the languages of the land they live.
“Not just because it’s Naidoc week and it’s ‘good for reconciliation’, but because this is what we do when we live in this country.”
Four common Noongar wordsKaya – “A very powerful word meaning ‘hello’, and also ‘yes’. It’s the most positive word on the planet”
Kalyakoorl – “My favourite word in any language, and the title track of the album we released last year. It means ‘forever’ – but heaps of forever, not just as in ‘that takes forever’”
Wanjoo – “The word for ‘welcome’”
Borda – “We don’t have a word for ‘goodbye’ in the Balladong dialect, because it’s too final. What we say is ‘borda’ which means ‘soon’. We believe whether we talk to you or see you again, we’re going to cross paths again soon.”
• Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse are touring Australia and performing at theNational Folk festival (2-6 April)