Translating Indigenous language for classical music audiences

29 June 2019

It was 2013 when pioneering Indigenous soprano Deborah Cheetham first visited Gunditjmara country in Victoria’s southwest.

Deborah Cheetham on stage in front of an orchestra
Eumeralla performance featuring Deborah Cheetham with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Image: Laura Manariti

As the Associate Dean for Indigenous Development at University of Melbourne she was there to launch a new course in ancient and contemporary Indigenous art. Uncle Ken Saunders, a local Gunditjmara elder, was a keynote speaker, and Deborah stayed at Lake Condah Camp, near the old Lake Condah Mission Station, northwest of Port Fairy.

It was there that she had an experience that still disturbs her to this day. “I was visiting that area for the very first time but there was a really strong presence of an unrest in the land, a kind of a vibration that comes from the stand of trees that is behind the old mission,” she says. “If you're there and you're still, even just for a short time, you'd have to be practically in a coma not to feel it.”

Gunditjmara country, which encompasses the coastal area from Port Fairy to Portland and inland to Camperdown, is the site of a bloody war between the Indigenous locals and white settlers during the time of Australia’s colonisation. Known as the Eumeralla Wars, the fighting lasted 23 years during which the Gunditjmara clans, estimated to be in their thousands, were decimated.

“I've been down to that country many times since, and that unrest, that vibration that comes from those trees, it's those souls that were trapped in that act of brutality and it's still as strong today as it was the first time I heard it,” Deborah says.

Deborah, a Yorta Yorta woman from New South Wales, was no stranger to feelings of unease on sites of Aboriginal resistance and slaughter, but the anguish she felt emanating from those trees rocked her to her core. The experience was so troubling that Deborah had to cut her two-night visit short.

“The brutality of colonisation, the dispossession of the land from Aboriginal people all across this continent, there is a feeling wherever you go,” says Deborah. “There are other places that I've definitely had a sense of what had gone on before but this was just so strong. It left an indelible impression on me and I knew that my response to that would be through music.”

It was Uncle Ken who invited Deborah to create a work in response to her experience at Lake Condah. His initial suggestion was an opera, but Deborah was inspired by Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem to create a choral work that is sung to release the souls of the dead. Like Britten, Deborah started working on adding poetry to the traditional Latin requiem mass but struggled to reconcile the content with the history of Australia’s resistance wars.

“The pivotal moment came about when I was analysing the sixth movement, the Agnus Dei,” she says. “In the Latin, Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi is the notion that Jesus Christ was the sacrificial lamb who had died to take away the sins of the world. But it's a well-known fact, or at least it should be, that Aboriginal people were sacrificed so that sheep could be brought onto their land. It was the Gunditjmara people who had been sacrificed for the sake of the sheep, not the other way around. I couldn't use that imagery, I couldn't use that text and I quickly realised that I needed to write a text that was going to more powerfully represent the Gunditjmara experience and the experiences of Aboriginal nations across the continent.”

A great deal of the Gunditjmara language has been lost, so Deborah turned to Gunditjmara language custodian Vicki Couzens and linguist Kris Eira, who worked together to reconstruct a sufficient vocabulary for Deborah to write a new work – a major project in its own right, and one that will hopefully contribute to the revival of the language.

Five years in the making, Eumeralla premiered on country at the closing night of the Port Fairy Spring Festival last year. The world premiere of the full orchestral version, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in June as part of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, sold out quickly but will be aired on ABC Classic in July. Its realisation coincides neatly with two other milestones – the ten-year anniversaries of Deborah’s two companies, Short Black Opera and the Dhungala Children’s Choir.

Both companies have played a critical role in removing some of the barriers Indigenous people often face in participating in the arts.

“I love the fact that I'm able to pass on what I know about music and its power to kids who may have had their pathways predetermined by a set of assumptions about Aboriginal achievement that are false,” Deborah says. “The arts are not new to Indigenous people. Indigenous people have contained all their knowledge and their way of seeing the world within art for 7,000 years. We've made a real difference there in connecting Indigenous artists with the knowledge of classical music.”

As for Eumeralla, Deborah hopes that it will be part of the continuing conversation around bringing Australia’s Indigenous history into common knowledge and healing the wounds created by colonisation.

“I think that music has a way of helping people to understand really complex and challenging ideas and histories and stories,” says Deborah. “My intention is that [Eumeralla] will help people to understand better and to make their own declaration of peace in their own way.

“I'm not looking for guilt, I'm looking for understanding; I'm looking for a kind of way forward that Australians could feel as though we are all part of the continuation of the longest continuing culture in the world. But you can't have that until you know what it is, and we're still on a journey to know what it is. We're not there yet.”

Eumeralla was broadcast on ABC Classic on July 10, 2019.