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Issue #1607      August 21, 2013

Aboriginal, African kids united in song

Aboriginal children from across Victoria travelled to Melbourne to join the African Children’s Choir from Uganda in song the week before last at Wilan Garden at the Victorian College of the Arts, under the direction of Yorta Yorta soprano Deborah Cheetham.

(Photo: Koori Mail)

The Victorian College of the Arts’ Dhungala Choral Connection features primary school-aged Indigenous singers from Shepparton, Heywood, Healsville, Portland, Mildura, Wangaratta and Worowa.

The African Children’s Choir is composed of children aged seven to ten who have lost one or both parents through war, famine and disease. “These children live as a choir and have come from terrible backgrounds of war. Many of their parents lived under (Ugandan dictator) Idi Amin, or have died from AIDS, and this organisation takes kids in. They live in a boarding school and take care of the children right the way through until they graduate from uni,” Ms Cheetham said.

The Dhungala Choral Connection sang three songs.

“They were beautiful. They got a standing ovation. It was something else,” Ms Cheetham said.

“The first song was the traditional Yorta Yorta Ngarra Burra Ferra, as sung in The Sapphires. This song is not only important to Yorta Yorta people but to Aboriginal people in general, because it’s sung in language.

“Even though there were harsh punishments for speaking our own language, by translating hymns brought by the colonisers we were able to keep practising our language.”

The second song by the Dhungala choir was written by the children of Shepparton.

“It features really powerful lyrics. It asks ‘Do you know me?’ Asks the question Aboriginal children must be asking all the time,” Ms Cheetham said.

“We, as Aboriginal people, are expected to know everything about the Western world, but what does the rest of Australia know about us? This song says ‘I know you but do you know me?’

“After they sang it, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. It was powerful.”

Ms Cheetham wrote the music and said it was a song the children wanted to share with all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and that they hope to soon record.

“It’s a song of empowerment, something children will be able to sing when they’re asked at the last minute to do something at NAIDOC Week. It asks, ‘What do think when you hear the word Aboriginal?’” she said.

As well as working with the Dhungala Choral Connection, Ms Cheetham’s Short Black Opera Company mentors young Indigenous people who want to make a career in classical music, including 19-year-old Chanoa Cooper.

Ms Cooper was a member of the first Dhungala Choral Connection and the children’s chorus of Pecan Summer, the opera written by Ms Cheetham about Yorta Yorta history and dispossession.

“A lot of the kids didn’t know each other. It was a great way of bonding together. It became like family, the choral connect family. It feels like we created own community,” Ms Cooper said.

“I stopped music for couple of years, then I realised something was missing and it inspired me to keep going with music. It’s my passion.”

Ms Cheetham’s passion is reaching out to young people through music.

“Important time”

“It’s the future, we have a generation of Aboriginal children like Chanoa who have graduated from high school, done well at school, and are looking at options at uni, so now is such an important time to remind Aboriginal people they are hard-wired to learn visually, musically and artistically,” she said. “It’s a way of knowledge that empowers Aboriginal people, and we need to reach as many Aboriginal children as possible and see them succeed in studies in the arts and studying at uni.

“It’s irresistible. We get together with family, and there’s music and singing, someone playing a guitar. It’s a part of who we are, a part of what we do.

“Kids are taken by surprise when they learn they can make a career out of music, when it’s a natural part of who they are.”

Ms Cheetham and Ms Cooper are bringing the Short Black Opera experience to northern NSW next month, doing workshops with children in Grafton and Gunnedah, culminating in performances on September 6 and 20, respectively.

The event with the African Children’s Choir was part of the University of Melbourne’s Wilin Centre for Indigenous Development Regional Engagement Choral Program.

Koori Mail  

Next article – Education – “united front” urgently needed

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