I recently met with Arnhem Land, Gupapuyngu man Gawurra, at Emerald’s Lakeside train station near where he now lives. An Indigenous (Yolngu) musician, speaking 8 Yolngu languages as well as English and performing in at least 4 of these languages, I think that Gawurra is something of a national treasure.
It was as recent as the 1950s (and in WA the 1970s) that Indigenous Australians were disallowed through the ‘Aboriginal Protection Act’ to even speak in their own language, let alone perform live on some of the biggest stages in the country. I feel immense grief in knowing this and also great joy in celebrating Gawurra’s music and voice.
In 2016 Gawurra’s debut album Ratja Yaliyali which translates to Vine of Love; a thread of love that keeps everything connected, received a 4.5 star review from Rolling Stone Magazine and an ARIA award nomination, four NIMA Awards and The NT Song of the Year Award. The first of many accolades I am sure.
Gawurra speaks of the importance of songlines in his music and explains what songlines are. He says they are “the story from beginning to end that tells the history of the people, spirit and land”. Songlines, or in Gawurra’s language, ‘manikay’, are particular to each clan but are also interconnected. His song Mulunda (Kingfisher) on his first album release is a modern rendition of a songline in the Djambarrpuyngu language and was written for his beautiful wife of 25 years, Valda who also came with Gawurra to meet me. The couple’s two daughters, Charlene and Rihanna, go to Cockatoo Primary School and are enjoying their time very much.
I asked Gawurra if people wanted him to sing in English more, or at all. He said he does get asked and he thinks having one or two songs where he sings in English would be fine on balance. “That is the challenge. I am not a white man. I am a black man. I don’t want to sing in English all the time. My Elders would say why are you singing that in English? Don’t loose your culture”. Gawurra has an acute understanding of how his visibility and being heard is uplifting for Indigenous people to, as he says “share and shine in the world, with who we are.” This wisdom is two-fold and is a call for being seen in all of one’s authenticity, for Indigenous people, as well as for all people.
Gawurra explains that he grew up in the bush till he was 12, Gupapuyngu is his first language and his parents taught him from a young age, cultural lore. “I just came from the bush, I am telling my story, I love singing. My dream, my story.”
Talking to Gawurra about his move to Emerald, Victoria from Arnhem Land we expanded to reflect upon the complexity of belonging and identity in Australia. We acknowledged that many people, like myself, are a mix of multiple cultures; be that characterized by ancestral lines, through a connection to one’s place of birth or as an adoptive home through migration. I for example, have a great-great grandmother who was Aboriginal, a grandfather who was Italian, an English Grandmother, a Turkish Father… and so on. Gawurra says to me, “I come from a long way and my spirit is being changed by this land, this land is owning me. I’m not the person I was before I came. I am still Gupapuyngu but I am changed by the embrace of this land. The land is keeping us. Sacred place. We are becoming Wurundjeri. Our spirit is connected to the people of this land – Wurundjeri country. With all five clans across the Kulin Nation, we are also looking after this place. We have mutual respect between past and future. The spirit sees us.”
I feel blessed to hear these words from Gawurra and I imagined life if we all connected to place in this way, what a wonderful sense of belonging we could share as a community and a people.
I am also an artist. I am a dance artist and I told Gawurra that I have a thirst for collaboration and connection with Indigenous people. I asked him to comment on what he thought about collaboration between cultures. Gawurra turns to me and said, “Don’t be shy. I learn your culture and we can know each other better” I come to the conclusion and confer with Gawurra that collaboration that is thoughtful and respectful will come along slowly, if it is based on connection.
Towards the conclusion of our time together Gawurra tells me he has a big question for all people, “Why are you here and what are you doing? Are you here for yourself, for your people or for All?” He points to other people going about their day around us at the train station, each from different cultural groups and says, “They know why they are here and what they are doing, and we have to respect them. We know why we are here and what we are doing.” Gawurra includes all present at the table and says “We are all representing Australia – those who came here from a long way and me as an Indigenous Australian. What I do and make is not just for Indigenous people but for all Australians, making the way for black and white.”
Gawurra’s touring dates can be found at gawurra.com I encourage you to feed your soul and spend some time with him at one of his upcoming shows.
Gülsen is a choreographer and also teaches workshops in contemporary dance technique, as well as in developing choreography and creating dance theatre.