Indigenous singer and actor Della Rae Morrison has turned her country into a symphonic tune. On holidays on the land of the Bibbulum, a sub-group of the Noongar people of Western Australia, she took in the Porongurup Range, the Toolbrunup Peak, the Blackwood River and onto the Derbal Yerrigan, or Swan River.
Della Rae Morrison. Photograph supplied
When Perth Festival Artistic Director and composer Iain Grandage heard the song and lyrics that arose out of her adventure, “he loved it”, says Morrison, who is now preparing to perform her original song Boodja Koorndarminy as part of Perth Festival’s Dreams of Place concerts with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and West Australian Youth Orchestra, with orchestrations by Grandage.
“It’s been a huge healing process for me and taken a lot of self-reflection to believe in myself, but it will also be a dream come true,” says Morrison, who last year starred as the eponymous spiritual figure in Hecate, an all-Noongar take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth at Perth Festival.
“I never thought I would sing again after enduring some damage to my vocal cords in a physical assault that I endured in 2016 … but now here I am getting ready for a moment of a lifetime.”
The concerts will blend Noongar music with works by Sibelius, Stravinsky and Copland, and will be conducted by Thaddeus Huang. Morrison’s favourite amongst this selection is Sibelius’s tone poem Firebird, which the Finnish composer wrote in 1899.
“It takes me straight back to my childhood for some reason and running through the bush and hiding from imaginary friends, but then The Tender Land (by Aaron Copland, about a US farm family, written in 1954) is really heartfelt and emotional, reminds me of long road trips and wide-open spaces in the country.”
Singing the Noongar language part on Morrison’s Boodja Koorndarminy will be performer Barry McGuire, who will also be singing three songs about the dance of the people of the land, the protective powers of the trapdoor spider, and the dreaming story of a boy and a whale.
Barry McGuire. Photograph © Jess Wyld
“I’m singing in Noongar, and the songs come with the beat of a boomerang,” says McGuire. “It’s traditional. When I first did some work with Iain, he wrote it down on paper. I’d never seen the song[s] written. But if you think about it, it has been written – it’s been written into us.” These songs “came to” Morrison when he was on country as a teenager.
McGuire has been very busy as a member of the festival’s Noongar Advisory Circle. The elevation of Noongar language and culture within the festival has been especially pleasing.
“To see our culture and obligations and customs be accepted into the festival has been quite a beautiful pathway, between us as a community and the festival itself,” he says.
“For thousands of years, we’ve always hosted nations here. We’ve been a part of major ceremonies here and all around the country. To work with the festival and give them an understanding that this has always been a part of our lives, in the ways of educating people but also holding people in the spiritual safety of our country … it’s quite amazing.”
As a child, Noongar language helped McGuire, one of seven children, form a bond with his father. Does McGuire believe an event such as Dreams of Place can also unite Australians across the racial divide?
“It’s a great start for somebody to be seeking understanding of the language and the people and the protocols that were here, and the synergies between nations. Art is where you find a lot of people will smile at its presentation. It will stir something within them.”
Morrison says her own musical tastes range from rock to relaxation to opera. She remembers harmonising with her father. “Music is so universal and touches many people in different ways,” she says.
“I run a choir, Madjitil Moorna, and we have all walks of life and all ages attend. People often come along to choir with certain expectations, and also not knowing what to expect. I have had some people attend who have admitted to being racist, but after attending for a while, we learn together about one another, about Aboriginal history and culture, in a safe and secure environment, and it is all through the likes of beautiful music that we share and learn.”
Morrison says she feels “quite overwhelmed” by this year’s Perth Festival line-up: “I feel so proud of all the Aboriginal content we have, I am close with most of the artists and observed how far they have come in their lives and developing themselves as artistic leaders in their own right, and now to be performing on the big stages doing something they love doing, sharing their talent and culture to a world audience is truly amazing and inspiring.”
Elsewhere during the festival, Noongar woman Gina Williams will sing about her experience as a member of the stolen generations in Koort [Heart]. Attractions also include Witness Stand, a music and spoken-word attraction in Noongar and English along six contested sites of the Derbari Yerrigan or Swan River.
Witness Stand aims to bring people together at powerful locations, “somewhere that gives us life and energy and reminds us where our oxygen and fresh water does come from, when we’re conditioned to look at these areas as something pretty, and we tend to forget the substance”, says festival Artistic Associate Kylie Bracknell. “It’s an appropriate reminder of how disconnected we have become.”
Bracknell is pleased that various major city festivals such as Perth now have a strong Indigenous component. “But we need to elevate above and beyond it as a separate focus,” she says. “This is normal. This is embracing collectively who we are here, in this place and space. It’s a part of us, whether you’re Noongar or not.”
Dreams of Place was scheduled to be performed at Perth Concert Hall (Dyeedyallalup) on 5 and 7 February but the performances are being rescheduled because of the COVID lockdown. Details will be available soon on the Perth Festival website