Balladong Noongar woman, singer, songwriter and storyteller
Kaya, ngany Gina, ngany Balladong yok, ngany Noongar warangka wer Noongar Waangkiny.
My name is Gina Williams. I’m a Balladong woman from Western Australia, and I write and perform songs and stories in Noongar language.
I started in music completely by accident. I used to write a lot of poetry and I used music. Working as a journalist in television, with the long hours on the road, often to pass time I would sit and write little songs just to entertain myself. When I got out of media, someone much smarter asked, ‘Why don’t you do something with your music? We think you can sing’.
After entering a song contest, the West Australian Music Industry Association invited me to come and sing at the awards ceremony. I ended up walking away with the prize. After that, suddenly people were ringing me saying, will you come and sing with me? I couldn’t believe that they were prepared to pay me to do something I’ve always done for fun.
I wasn’t singing in language. I was singing in English. I started working with Guy Ghouse about ten years ago, and he said to me ‘You should write songs in Noongar’. I’d just started learning my language at that time. I said ’Gussy, I can’t get people to listen to me in English. Who is going to listen to me if we use language? Hardly anyone understands the language even on Noongar country’. He said, ‘Trust me, if you write language songs the way you write English songs, people will listen’.
It wasn’t until 2012, when I was in London as part of the British Council’s ACCELERATE program that I started singing in language. I was singing in a club in London and I thought, you know what sets me apart from everyone else who’s ever walked into this club? The one thing that sets me apart is that I can sing my language. So that’s what I did, and I haven’t looked back.
The British Council’s ACCELERATE programme really changed my life. I never saw myself as someone who could actually do much. I always thought that people fell into two categories. Those who changed the world and then those who decorated it. I saw myself then as a decorator, I didn’t see that there was anything that I could really contribute.
My thinking about how I saw myself changed. I had a conversation with a lovely chap from the National Eisteddfod of Wales. We talked about the Welsh language and the parallels to Noongar language, in that it was nearly erased. He talked about random acts of civil disobedience in Wales [to campaign for language], that you need to work out what it is that makes your heart beat faster and pursue that. People will notice and that’s how you will revive your language.
For me it was a no brainer. It was always that I would sing in my language. I came home and I knew what I needed to do.
Language is our birthright. I’m pursuing this because it’s important, not just for me, but for my children. I’m a product of four families, so I didn’t grow up with my Noongar family. I was adopted as a baby and then I was fostered twice. I have a biological family, an adopted family, and two foster families. When I came to language as an adult, I thought that the language was extinct.
I’d seen pockets of people who could speak language, but for me it was something that was entirely unattainable. Then suddenly, the local TAFE (Technical and Further Education) was offering a course and off I went. When I turned up, I realised I was the only Noongar in the class.
I felt embarrassed and ashamed. In true Noongar form, I let rip. Shame on me having to come to class, this should have been my birthright and now I feel embarrassed because I’ve got to come back to school to learn something that I should have grown up with. This lovely lady in the class said to me, ‘That’s not your shame, that’s ours’.
My mother would tell stories about having language beaten out of her. When I made the decision to start singing in language, her attitude was: ‘What do you want to do that for? People didn’t want to hear it then, why would they want to hear it now? Why can’t you just leave it alone?’
I wrote a song called Nyit Yok Barnap. This song is about an orphaned girl, she has no mother or father, she has no love and she doesn’t understand why. The authorities tell her that she has no Mum and Dad and that she is never going to see them again, that they’re not coming back. But this little girl is made of something different, she doesn’t quite buy into this script. She goes outside and looks up at the night sky and in amongst the stars she sees and feels the presence of her families. She goes back to the authorities and tells them, I have a family, I keep them here in my heart.
When I first played it to my Mum she didn’t understand it, so I translated it for her and she asked me to play it for her again and again. I played it for her a few times and she said quietly, ‘You should teach me my language’.
Learning language is a positive way that our entire community can learn together and can heal together.
A song that I’ve written, Wanjoo or Welcome Song, is being translated into all sorts of languages. I’ve collected about nine different translations across Western Australia.
We were collecting one of the translations in regional Western Australia, and it was miles away from anywhere. We’d been told that there were no Aboriginal people there, but we found an elder who could speak the language. She translated our song and then she asked, ‘What happens now? I guess I hear about it later?’. I replied, ‘No, we’re gifting this back to you’.
‘Can I sing this at a Welcome to Country1?’.
‘Yeah, and you can teach it to the local school, to everybody’.
She then called the station manager, his wife and their child, she called grandkids and her husband. In the space of 30 minutes, she rounded up this whole bunch of people and she taught it without even thinking. All of a sudden there were about a dozen people singing this song in her language.
As she walked me to the car she said, ‘This is such a wonderful thing. When me and my two sisters pop off, our language will still be heard. There’s only three of us left that speak my language’.
It’s so sad, but I think we’ve got to do what we can, not just for our own languages but for everybody.
Everything that Guy and I do is informed by four principles. Your Koort is your heart. The second is Moort, your family and the people that we choose as family. The people we work with, people we live with, people we play with. The third principle is Boodja, which is our land. It’s about where our hearts go and our heads think of home.
The fourth principle is Koorlangka, which is children. It means more than that, it’s about legacy. It’s about making sure that we acknowledge respectfully what’s happened in the past, but we can be responsible for this moment and ensure that what happened doesn’t happen again. We learn from it, and we actually make it better for the generations that follow.
The idea now is to do four major works around each of these principles. We’re starting with Koorlangka, which is children, but it’s the legacy that’s important to me.
People expect a certain sound when they think of Aboriginal music. French, German and Japanese are languages that have had no interruption. They’ve been able to grow into different things. They change, whereas Noongar hasn’t had that opportunity. People are expecting us to go back to the point where the interruptions began.
Why can’t we just hear things in a contemporary way? This is where we live and this is our experience.
I’d love to take a performance back to Wales because I was gifted something there that was really life-changing and really important. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able as a thank you to come back and go: ‘This is what you taught me, but this is what I did with it’.
At a campfire jam, Guy started playing Under the Milky Way by The Church. We were next to the fire and we were under a billion stars. I started singing. I managed to translate the first and the third verse, and then I’d sing the second verse in English.
A few months later my phone rings and the voice on the other end is The Church’s Steve Kilbey saying, ‘So I believe you’ve done something to one of my songs’. He asked me, ‘How about you jump up on stage and do your language version with me?’. After the show we were out in the car park and he asked, ‘Darling, why didn’t you translate the second verse?’.
‘”Lower the curtain down in Memphis”? The Noongar don’t have curtains, come on, you’ve got to chuck me a bone here.’
‘No, I’m not singing about that. I’m singing about Elvis; I’m singing about how the King is dead. The boss is gone. He’s not coming back. We can’t just sit around talking about it. We’ve got to keep moving under the Milky Way’.
And so the second verse is now:
Ngalang burdiya baal wort-koorl Baalap yoowart, yoowarl-koorl
Yoowart yelakitj, yoowart daat-nyin, waangkiny Ngarda djinda kedala-k.
It is literally: ‘The boss is gone and he’s not coming back. We can’t wait, we can’t sit down talking under the stars tonight’. It worked and he loves it.
We’re now seeing the emergence of what is being called New Noongar. We are hearing new words that are not based on old words. It shows that there’s actual growth, there is health around the language. It’s robust enough to be able to stretch, to be played with and find new ways to be used.
There are 25 million people living in Australia. If they learnt five words of the language of the land in which we are living, our language would be secure. We would be having different conversations because Noongar and all the other languages of the land would be ordinary.
Language and Music is also available on the Diversity Arts Australia Colour Cycle Podcast. The full podcast is available at: britishcouncil.org.au/crossingpoints