There are words and stories of our ancestors which need to be heard. They need to be translated to resonate with people living in this modern society, which is worlds away from what this land once was.
That is exactly what Katie Noonan, in collaboration with the Australian String Quartet and Kaleenah Edwards, were striving to do. A collection of poems written by Great Grandmother Oodgeroo, and translated by her grandson Joshua Walker, was turned into songs by ten Australian composers. These songs reflect oral traditions, the environment around us, the ecological, the spiritual, and the change in Australian society.
Noonan and the string quartet take their place on the stage, dressed in the same flowing scarves, decorated in earthly browns and reds. Designed by Elverina Johnson, they are called ‘paper bark’ – and fittingly, Oodgeroo means paper bark in Jandai.
The night begins with a welcome to country from Aunty Violet Sheridan. Country is a word for all values.
Before each song, Kaleenah Edwards, the great granddaughter of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, reads poems in the Jandai language. It’s haunting, the words almost musical as they flow out of her mouth. It feels like a privilege to experience this.
Noonan’s voice floats from song to song, her voice an instrument reaching impossibly high notes with ease. There are probably no words left that haven’t been used to describe her voice before: angelic, graceful, powerful, ethereal. It is certainly all of these things and more.
There are sombre songs, like The Curlew Cried composed by Thomas Green, and Then and Now, and some with more uplifting messages of hope like, unsurprisingly, A Song of Hope – “Look up, my people, the dawn is breaking. The world is waking, to a bright new day”.
The Australian String Quartet play some songs without Noonan, showing off the incredible skill of their nimble fingers, their precision, and ability to stay in perfect unison.
No More Boomerang is a song which has taken on different iterations. It is a difficult song to listen to, albeit beautiful. “One time naked, who never knew shame. Now we put clothes on, to hide whatsaname”. / “No more firesticks, that made the whites scoff. Now all electric, and no better off.” / “Now we got atom-bomb, end everybody.”
Noonan tells the audience she discovered Oodgeroo’s words when she was seven, doing an English assignment. “I read her words and just fell in love with this world that lifted the window into the learnings and teachings of our First Nations people. Although Oodgeroo’s words are pretty tough and they don’t beat around the bush, what I do love is that her words have a huge amount of hope. We are really glad to be singing these words as a musical offering to the Uluru statement.”
The encore, Maranoa Lullaby, is truly moving, and Noonan dedicates it to Richard Gill and John Curro.
Noonan and her band mates (as she affectionately calls them throughout the night), as well as Kaleenah Edwards, the composers, and all the others who helped to create this magic, have done a magnificent job of bringing these important stories to life in a very different space.