At the Mildura Writers’ Festival in July, I performed a selection of my song lyrics that were first published as stand-alone poetry in Quadrant.
I began my set with an Indjubungi Aboriginal translation of my song “Shaddap You Face”, accompanied by clapping sticks and an impromptu “traditional” dust-stomp dance I made up on the spot. The man who translated this lyric for me, Aboriginal elder Gnarnyarrhe Inmurrie Waitarie, whose people come from north of Broome (and whose name means “little blue joey kangaroo born by a spring in the Dreamtime”) and I premiered this variation some years ago at La Mama Theatre in Carlton and later the Sydney Festival.
The next day, at lunch where I was one of the guest speakers, someone approached me and asked who had given me permission to speak that dialect and do that dance here in Mildura on Latje Latje and Yerre Yerre land. I answered that I didn’t need permission as it was my own original song, not a traditional sacred song or dance. Apparently two local Aboriginal people, her guests, had been in the audience and had taken offence; one had got vehemently angry and walked out. I replied that I was sorry for the misunderstanding but that I had performed this variation dozens of times all over the world, in front of Aborigines and whitefellas both, and had never had that kind of reaction. Usually Aboriginal people come up and thank me for learning the language and pronouncing the words correctly. (I worked hard at it.) I had a perfectly clear understanding, from my work with Gnarnyarrhe, that in Aboriginal culture, it is permissible to perform non-sacred songs and dances in public. How else would any of us have ever seen them otherwise?
This memoir appeared in our October 2012 edition
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The suggested idea that I would have to be granted a sanction from someone to sing my own song anywhere, in whatever language I chose, offended me. I was sorely tempted to go to the podium and announce: “I apologise for performing my own composition here on Latje Latje and Yerre Yerre land and I would now like to take this time to acknowledge the traditional owners of Mildura … the dinosaurs, who were here 40 million years ago.”
But a cooler head prevailed. After all, many Aboriginal people have been traumatised by racism in this country and the distress is real and not something to be made fun of. Yet and still, I knew from my work with Gnarnyarrhe Waitarie that Aborigines, like Italians and Australians, do not walk continually on eggshells but also have a brilliant sense of humour and love to take the mickey out of anything and everything. Witness the highly successful SBS show Bush Mechanics. So my humorous dialectal rendition of my own song was coming from a place of respect—and I had taken the bloody time to actually learn to sing it in an indigenous language, something not too many white entertainers do in this country, or third-generation Aboriginal-Australians for that matter. So lighten up here. I am not the enemy.
I asked that if my Aboriginal friend Gnarnyarrhe had been on stage with me performing this exact variation, would those two people still had been offended? The answer was: probably not. So it’s not really about permission—but about a whitefella appropriating Aboriginal culture.
It’s pretty hard to learn something without borrowing something from it. I publicly acknowledged my co-writer as an Aboriginal elder. Come to think of it: I was also an elder to this very person criticising me. What’s a matta you, eh? Respect!
So who is a real culture thief? Who is the protest directed at? Who is this whitefella fella?
Two Aboriginal activist-poets and quite new friends of mine came over for dinner last month. One of the questions I posed was this: if all the white people left Australia tomorrow, would the Aboriginal people be able to live in peace and harmony? The woman poet said yes, it would be difficult at first, but they would work it out.
Then I continued: and would all the whitefellas leaving also have to include the yellafellas (Chinese and Japanese) and other blackfellas (the Africans and Ethiopians) not to mention those Muslim fellas? Would all these cultures technically be classified as whitefellas, now redefining the meaning of the term to signify “any imperialist occupier of the land coming from non-Australian indigenous background”?
Yes, I was told, they would all have to leave too.
Then I asked: and would there then have to be some kind of system to determine how much Aboriginal background, or blood, someone would have to have to be considered an Aborigine who could stay? Would someone four generations removed, with a single Aboriginal ancestor, be classified a whitefella or a blackfella? Would these folks be considered eligible to stay, or would they have to leave too? This question didn’t elicit a quick response. I think it went into the too-hard basket.
Finally, I proposed: if all the whitefellas left tomorrow, including the Japanese, the Chinese, the Russians, the Jews, the Italians, and agreed not to come back, do you think Australia might then be ripe for a decisive invasion from Indonesia, or China, or anyone really, and, without a standing Aboriginal army, navy or air force in place, or international relations with the very peoples that have been thrown out, for assistance, wouldn’t exactly the same thing happen again, only with a different set of players?
I think I was talking too much, as I am wont to do, but these basic questions seemed obvious to me and I have yet to hear them addressed.
The key word, realistically here, is merging. Two or more lines of traffic converging into a single lane. With respect and weight given to each. Slow down, drive carefully, easy does it, merge. A single country cannot live practically with multiple sets of law systems. Religious laws, maybe. Civil laws, impossible. It won’t work for Aboriginal–Australian conflicts and it won’t work for Muslim–Australian conflicts, not to mention Aboriginal–Muslim conflicts (good luck with that one, by the way).
We live under Australian law and whether one would prefer Muslim, Aboriginal, Catholic or Jewish law, we must view these as subsets or parochial religious guidelines under the umbrella and authority of the one larger whole community law, to which they must always defer. The argument, “I only answer to God’s law, not government”, is insane. Government was created by civilisation to keep God’s multicultural feuding clans from massacring each other.
More of Joe Dolce’s poetry and song lyrics will be appearing shortly in Quadrant.