"Ancient cultures have been singing our knowledge for thousands of years... in the case of aboriginal Australia, for 2,000 generations. Maybe all this 70,000 years of singing is part of who we are."
By Faizal Khan
Belonging to the colonial curse of the Stolen Generations (children of Australian aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by the Australian federal and state government agencies and church missions, under acts of their respective parliaments between approximately 1905 and 1967), outspoken Australian aboriginal leader, composer and opera singer Deborah Cheetham relies on the potential of music to empower her people. Chosen for the concluding act of the months-long Australia Fest in India in New Delhi at the end of March, the award-winning music composer and singer sang Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aboriginal language to underline that everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community. Before the performance of her Short Black Opera company’s Songs of Belonging, Cheetham sat down for a conversation with Faizal Khan. Edited excerpts:
What is the significance of the aboriginal culture and its traditions today?
Ancient cultures, such as your own and certainly mine, have been singing our knowledge for thousands of years… in the case of aboriginal Australia, for 2,000 generations. Maybe all this 70,000 years of singing is part of who we are.
You are a member of the Stolen Generations. How did that change your life?
A sense of belonging is fundamental to the human condition. When it is absent, we feel ourselves limited. For me, as a young Australian, I grew up without a real knowledge of my belonging to the aboriginal culture. I am a member of the Stolen Generations. I was stolen from my original mother. This was a policy enacted by the British. It was part of the technique of colonisation they imprinted all over the world. I lived without a sense of belonging for many years. It is something that I am still developing now.
I think it is really a deliberate effort on the part of the Australian government to say, ‘Let’s finish this wonderful festival with this story’. That shows strength and courage because Australia has lived in ignorance of early colonisation for 200 years. We have come a long way and sometimes the progress was glacial in its pace. As far as we have to go, what better place to make that statement than in India, a country that understands the ravages of colonisation.
Is it the same sentiment of support and understanding as far as larger Australian society is concerned?
Certainly not all of Australia. In fact, I would say most Australians remain ignorant of the rich and nuanced beauty of the aboriginal culture. Not only do they need to get an opportunity to learn about it, they need to unlearn a lot of misrepresentation. Having said that, I am an optimist. I can use music and art to change people’s thinking, to change their hearts. It is hard to have the conversation out of the framework of politics. But politics is something else entirely. I don’t think politics is representational of people (laughs).
Did the apology to the Stolen Generations by the Australian parliament help?
The apology to the Stolen Generations was in 2008. It was a very important symbolic act. The difficulty of symbolic acts is that people get all emotional and say, ‘Yes, we are so sorry’. Strangers will come up to me in the street and hug me and say, ‘I am so sorry’. Their feelings are genuine enough, but what does it change? Well, it did change things for me. Once I realised I was part of the Stolen Generations, I had to contend with Australians telling me there was no such thing (Stolen Generations)… it never happened. Or we should be grateful—where would you be if you hadn’t been stolen? It is a ridiculous notion. How do you know? You don’t know my adopted family and you don’t know my aboriginal family. So how can you just assume? It is white imperalism. It just assumes that I naturally would be better off in a white family than in a black family. I had to deal my whole life with people telling me there was no such thing as the Stolen Generations. The apology swept that away to a certain extent. It made a difference.
How important it is for you to be an opera singer and an aboriginal Australian?
I only started understanding who I am, how I belong and how I fit in when I realised that I was part of this amazing ancient culture. And how nuanced and sophisticated it really is. I think it is brave of the Australian government to programme me in India. I am very outspoken, not just as an opera singer, but in terms of my public persona in Australia as well. Either I have not been paying attention at all, which I don’t think is true, or they are saying we are mature enough to handle this story being told. And that gives me great hope.
What is the link between your musical works and the aboriginal culture?
All music that I have written is from the ancient languages (of the aboriginal people). The first work in the Songs of Belonging performance is in the Boon Wurrung language from south of Melbourne. Then there is Yorta Yorta, my grandmother’s language. The premier work, Article 27 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is in the Pintubi language from central Australia. The only way that the aboriginal people have survived the ravages of colonisation is through continuing this story through art and music and dance. Unfortunately, that is not enough, but without that, you have nothing at all. So the resilience that aboriginal people have demonstrated is because we have continued to sing and dance our story.
(Faizal Khan is a freelancer)