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“Where the ancient meets the contemporary”
With a new album of songs in the Nyoongar language, Gina Williams immortalises the
traditional language and principles. words Victoria Laurie
A life-changing moment came for Perth singer-songwriter Gina Williams when, during a British Council study
tour last year, she was invited to sing at a London nightclub, The Vortex.
“I sang in English which people liked. Then I thought I’d sing a few songs in Nyoongar language, and
they responded incredibly – without knowing the meaning of a single word!
“I always give people an outline of the song’s meaning and explain a few key words. Well, one of the
songs I told them about was written for my adoptive father, a deeply personal story. People cried.
“I came back from London with a headful of ideas. I thought, ‘Anyone can sing in English anywhere in the
world, but what I’ve got is something precious and there aren’t a lot of Nyoongar speakers left. If we put it
out there, we might find we actually have some friends.”
Williams, 45, has turned her ‘headful of ideas’ into Kalyakoorl, an album of Nyoongar songs that, co-
written with friend Guy Ghouse, is winning accolades on the national folk circuit and the wider music scene.
Singer Archie Roach – who invited Williams and Ghouse, the co-winners of a 2013 WA Music Industry
Award, to tour with him – describes the album as “where the ancient meets the contemporary. It’s beautiful.”
‘Kalyakoorl’, meaning ‘forever’, is an upbeat testament to Williams’ eventful life journey – from losing her
beloved adoptive father and enduring foster home life, to finding her biological mother and deciding to
study the Aboriginal language that was denied to her as a child.
Williams was adopted as a baby by Aboriginal parents who didn’t identify as Aboriginal. “It was never
spoken about, and at the dining table I was told I had dark skin because of an Indian and Malay heritage.”
She only met her biological mother after turning 40. “She is tiny and she grabbed my hands, and
I realised we had the same hands and eyes. I couldn’t hang onto any anger – I was relinquished, but she
was actually taken away from her mother, who in turn was also Stolen Generation.”
Trained as a journalist, Williams worked as a reporter for Golden West Network Television’s Milbindi
Aboriginal TV program while launching her singing career. “I spent years telling other people’s stories and
then I discovered that I had a pretty fair story of my own to tell.”
Now she says her London epiphany has made her more determined to write in Nyoongar, the southwest
language that has only a few hundred native speakers left. “It struck me that we could promote Nyoongar
through song, and Guy playing and producing music so beautifully helps.”
Two days after arriving back from London, she turned to her Nyoongar-speaking uncle Tom Hayden.
“I told him ‘I want to write in the language but I have no idea what to write about.’ And I’ll never forget it, he
said: ‘That’s easy, there are four principles – koort, heart; moort, family; boodja, land; and koorlankga, which
is children and legacy.’ So every single song is informed by one of Uncle Tom’s four principles.”
For Louise Devenish, music is all
about her greatest hits.
words Gabrielle Sullivan
As a percussionist, Louise Devenish drums,
scrapes, taps, and even bows an array of
instruments – from vibraphones and bass
drums, to bongos and maracas. From
time to time, she plays less conventional
instruments: “Wooden salad bowls floating in
water, aluminium poles, tuned wine bottles,
cardboard boxes, cellophane and amplified
cacti are all on the list,” Louise explains.
Amplified cacti? “There are no boundaries
to what can be considered a percussion
instrument,” she says, with a laugh.
Louise manages an international
performing career from her Perth base,
lectures at tertiary institutions and directs
UWA’s new undergraduate percussion
ensemble, Piñata Percussion. In 2012, she
teamed up with Victorian percussionist Leah
Scholes to form The | Sound | Collectors.
They have a special interest in new works with
flexible instrumentation that allows the voices
of performers and composers to be heard.
Their next big project is Confluence,
a two-week residency at Perth Institute of
Contemporary Arts, working with a number
of composers. The resulting performance
will include the Australian premiere of US
composer Rick Burkhardt’s percussion theatre
work Simulcast, for speaking percussionists.
“It bridges the gap between theatre and
music, and so asks us to reconsider what we
think percussion music is, or what it can be.”
Confluence, July 18, PICA, pica.org.au.
SHE BANGS THE DRUMS
The | Sound | Collectors Leah Scholes (left) and
Louise Devenish (photography Nik Babic).
Guy Ghouse and Gina Williams (photography Gareth Andersen).
“I thought I’d sing a few songs in Nyoongar
language, and people responded incredibly”.
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