Photo: Gareth Andersen
Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse will open the Around The Sound-presented Live At The Backlot: Up Close And Personal conversation+performance series on Thursday, September 28. Bob Gordon conducted this interview with Williams upon the release of their pair’s debut Noongar language album, Kalyakoorl (meaning: ‘forever’) in April, 2014. A new album is on the horizon, but this chat provides a nice background to the evening ahead and the passion of the project.
Kalyakoorl was written and recorded entirely in the Noongar language. As a result of members of the stolen generations being forbidden to speak it (including Williams’ own mother and grandmother), the language itself is considered ‘critically endangered’ with less than 250 full speakers left. The Kalyakoorl album represents a commitment for Williams and guitarist Ghouse (also of Desert Child) to celebrate the Noongar language as well as its stories and keep it very much alive.
How long has the idea of recording a Noongar language album been with you and how important is it to you that you’ve done it?
I’ve had to go back and learn the language as an adult, and I thought I would probably write songs as a resource to learn Noongar for me and my kids. For me, this is a personal mission. I grew up not really knowing anything about my family, where I was from or anything about my language. I was adopted, and fostered – twice – so by the time I came to meet my biological family all this was incredibly important. Language has proven to be the last piece in the puzzle of who I am, where I come from and who my people are. So, to have this recording and to be trusted and supported by our elders and community is a great privilege.
Guy has been saying for years that we should write and perform language songs, but until we actually started to do it I had no idea there would be a wider interest in this. I went to London at the end of 2012 and realised there that this was what I was compelled to do. I got back to Perth and we started working on songs almost immediately, and this is the result. Guy and I really formally started doing this about a year ago, and the interest and community support has been incredible. It’s humbling.
What was the process in terms of pre-planning for the album, in terms of establishing themes, sorting collaborations and making sure things stayed within the spirit of the project?
Everything about this project is informed by four principles, given to us by Uncle Tom Hayden in Kellerberrin. Uncle Tom has been a key elder – and an amazing source of support and encouragement. When I talked to him about what we should write about, he said, ‘it’s simple, there are four things; Koort (heart), Moort (family/people), Boodja (land) and Koorlangka (children and legacy). If you have those things in order then everything else should fall into place’. He’s exactly right, and it now informs everything we do. Everything we write endeavours to honour and respect those themes, and every gig we play is done with the mindset that Uncle Tom is going to be in the audience.
In terms of the collaborative process, I am so lucky to work with Guy – he’s a phenomenal musician, but he has an incredible understanding and empathy towards this music. For us, it’s all about presenting this language in a way that gives it as much dignity and integrity as possible, and performing in a way that highlights its beauty and makes it compelling to listen to. We started with me coming along with some rough ideas and he would work out what I really meant, in terms of chords and phrasing. But then it started to evolve – I was hanging out the washing one day and in my mind I heard him play this beautiful guitar, so I sang into my laptop and emailed him the tune. A couple of hours later he sent me back the complete song with almost exactly what I imagined him playing recorded around it… actually it was a whole lot better! That’s how Kalyakoorl, the title track to the album, was born. We’ve had a lot of those things happen, where Guy will write a tune around how he thinks I will sing or I will write songs to highlight his incredible guitar work.
All of this has happened really quickly – I had it in my head we’d be playing a bit longer and maybe record an album in another year’s time – but I’m so glad it’s turned out this way.
Describe each of the themes and what songs relate to those, and how?
Everything is informed by the four principles, but some really clear examples of this can be found woven throughout the recording.
Warangka (Sing), the opening track to the album sets up the experience in that it is all about the four principles which Uncle Tom imparted to us. Sing, my heart. Sing, my people. Sing, my land. I sing. Says it all.
Kalyakoorl (Forever) acknowledges Noongar as the traditional custodians of this land, past and present and our dreaming is here forever. ‘Kalyakoorl’ is my favourite word – in any language! – and I think that sometimes, in spite of what we do, some things will endure and be everlasting. Kalyakoorl also touches on custodial responsibility in a modern context: we all live here now, we share responsibility to be good stewards of this planet.
Nyit Yok Barnap (Little Orphan Girl) is based on a recurring story I was told by various people over the years when I worked as a journalist. So many kids were taken from their families and told their parents and sibling were gone… or dead! I had this idea that amongst the thousands of kids taken and lied to, that one little girl – or boy – stood up to the authorities and said, ‘you’re wrong’.
Balladong Worl (Balladong Sky) is about the feeling you get when you’re driving back to country – for me it’s the drive out to Kellerberrin and Quairading. Guy and I have been working with David Hyams to deliver songwriting workshops – it’s called the Healing Songs Project and it’s managed by CANWA – which took us out there a lot. I absolutely love the drive – the horizon-to-horizon blue skies that lead you back to community and family, and how it makes your heart feel incredibly happy.
Maambart is the song written about my adoptive father. It’s probably the hardest of the songs to sing, because I have such an emotional attachment to it. In our community we have many men, many Maaman who take on a ‘dad’ role, but you only every really have one father, one Maambart. It resonates with me particularly, because I am lucky to have four dads – one biological, one adaptive and two foster dads. I love them all dearly, but my adoptive father is my Maambart. He taught me to sing by listening. On a blanket under the stars, he introduced me to Ella, and Billie, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole. He loved the Glenn Miller Band and we both loved listening to songs written by Duke Ellington.
Dad passed away when I was 12 years old; I was placed in State care, and was in two foster homes. Every night, I make a point of going outside and looking up at the stars. I think of him, and remember the music I listened to thanks to him. There’s a part of me that would like to think he’d get a bit of a kick out of what we’ve done.
How did the songwriting sessions and communications begin, then evolve for the two of you?
We just started playing gigs and working together. We didn’t start with language songs, it was something Guy was convinced I should explore. It took me a while to come around to see how important it was. It wasn’t to say that I wasn’t writing any language songs, I just didn’t realise that together we could create something like this. Once the penny dropped we just couldn’t stop.
At this point in time, Guy and I are compelled to write these songs. It was like once we started, they just kept coming, and even though we’ve just recorded this album, we’re already well on the way to writing the next one – we have enough material for another album. We had this amazing day when Guy was on holidays with his family overseas in the UK. In the space of a few hours we wrote five new songs, from opposite sides of the world. It was amazing that we could actually do something like that. I’m lucky to work with him, he seems to instinctively hear the things I try to communicate and he has this capacity to turn these tiny little humble songs into works that are really beautiful. I’m not sure I ever really want to work it out, how we can write these songs together. Maybe knowing this might spoil some of the magic.
It’s interesting because the language is so central to the premise, but in listening to the music – and not understanding the actual words – it’s still very affecting and about so much more than language. It seems like a lovely and poignant contradiction…
It’s an interesting thing, singing and performing songs in a language that very few people understand, at this moment – we hope that will change. We try to think of other cues for people to listen to, making sure that what we play is keeping in with what’s being stated in the lyrics. There’s a connection to the songs that happens, and I think audiences understand this without necessarily understanding the words. We tell the story and give a translation of the song we perform, then audiences are able to occupy a different space when they actually hear the song.
It’s amazing, because I thought it would be too hard for people to sit through a full performance – they can be up to 90 minutes – but they do, and they’re wonderful in their response to what we do. I think I’m learning there are universal things around love and loss, joy and sadness that we all understand without necessarily being able to articulate it with words. The album is – as much as we can – a real offering from the heart, and is reflective of the live shows. Our language is so rare, and so beautiful, I think that’s another reason why this has had such an incredible response.
Guy has this great concept of ‘rewriting the script’. We acknowledge the past and the sadness which goes with that, but we start creating a new journey of healing from this point on. And I think that’s really what this is all about.
Singer/songwriter Rupert John (who has also performed and recorded with Williams & Ghouse as a harmonica player) will open proceedings with a solo set on September 28.
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