January 26 1938 marked the 150th Anniversary of European settlement in Australia. But, while white Australians around the country celebrated, a group of Aboriginal men and women gathered in a hall in Sydney and pronounced the day “a national day of mourning.”
The Day of Mourning (also known as Aborigines Day) became an annual event, held on the Sunday before Australia Day from 1940 to 1955.
The National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) formed in 1956 and moved Aborigines Day to July to make it more of a celebration than a protest. NADOC became NAIDOC in 1991 with the inclusion of “Islanders”, and a week of celebration from the first to the second Sunday in July officially became known as NAIDOC Week.
Anne Martin, current Co-Chair of the NAIDOC Committee and member since 2006, has seen the event bloom into a nation-wide showcase of music, art, intellect and community pride.
“We now have, across the nation, an awareness of our culture and history,” says Martin.
The NAIDOC theme this year is “Our Languages Matter”, reflecting an emerging appreciation of indigenous languages within the community and the compelling need to learn and preserve them.
“We have an amazing amount of languages… I think around 250 distinct language groups covered Australia at first European contact, and within these languages would have been so many dialects that could have run into the hundreds. Today we have about 120 that are still spoken,” laments Martin, “And the sad thing is, many of these languages are at risk of being lost.”
One of the challenges is the strict cultural protocol that surrounds the imparting of language and customs. Elders must give permission and be involved in instruction to ensure that the knowledge is being received correctly, respectfully and deservedly. It’s not merely about vocabulary. Indigenous languages are imbued with law, geography, history, family and human relationships, philosophy, religion, anatomy, childcare, health, caring for country, astronomy, biology and food. Acquiring them is complex and slow. The elders are becoming fewer and many live in remote areas, so saving the remaining languages is getting more difficult and more urgent.
Martin is optimistic, though. Her own grandchildren are now learning their original language, and she has seen an increase in interest within the community in general.
Schools, community groups, businesses and organisations around the country are encouraged to participate in NAIDOC Week. In Sydney, community station Koori Radio will be hosting Klub Koori at Carriageworks. The all-female program will be headlined by Casey Donovan and include sizzling young talent at the brink of stardom.
Artistic Development Coordinator for Koori Radio, Sally Nowland says
“It felt right to bring back an all female line-up this year… [with] the political climate, it’s a great time to support women’s voices and make sure that they’re heard in as many avenues as possible.”
Koori Radio is very active in nurturing and promoting black talent. They’re helping Donovan re-launch her career and their Young Black & Deadly program is aimed at assisting young emerging artists. Klub Koori is a regular event that provides a platform for indigenous performers.
For Nowland, NAIDOC is “a chance to really celebrate and showcase art and music.” Not only that, but the week-long festival gives many indigenous artists an opportunity to actually work and be seen. With regard to this year’s theme, Nowland shares Martin’s views.
“There’s so much woven into the language in terms of law and tradition and song lines and secrets…it isn’t something to be taken lightly…You have to prove that you’re worthy of taking on this ancient knowledge.”
That the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and languages are amongst the oldest on the planet, make them, in Nowland’s eyes, globally relevant – all the more reason to respect and preserve them.
One of the graduates of Koori Radio’s Young Black & Deadly program is Mi-Kaisha Masella who is on the bill for the NAIDOC Klub Koori event.
With a Tongan (dad) and Aboriginal (mum) background, she has a rich cultural lineage from which to draw influence and inspiration.
“Music plays a really really big role in those two cultures and I think it’s just something that’s always been a part of my life,” says Masella.
At just 16 years of age, Masella already has quite a resume, appearing on The Voice Kids, having a vocal part in The Sapphires, writing and recording her own songs and performing live. Yet the Klub Koori event is special.
“When they first contacted me to ask if I wanted to do it I was completely stoked. How cool is it that? I get to perform, you know, do what I love, …with people who are of the same culture … it’s probably one of the best gigs that I’ve ever scored to be honest!”
The all-female line up is an added bonus. Growing up with high aspirations in a society full of negative messages, Masella turned to indigenous female performers such as Jessica Mauboy and Christine Anu for inspiration.
“By having these women challenge the stereotype – actually be the complete opposite of the stereotype – that opened up a completely new world for me,” says Masella. Where once she thought it was impossible, she was now saying “you know what? I’m going to dream the biggest dream possible and I’m going to shoot for the stars.”
Masella writes her own songs, allowing her thoughts, feelings and experiences to organically shape them. She attributes her need for sharing stories through music to an instinctive connection with the oral tradition of her culture.
“It’s my biggest dream to record albums or just write songs for other people and share my music and share my message. I believe that’s my pure purpose on this earth,” Masella says.
For her, creativity and heritage are interwoven.
“My music is what comes out of me and my culture is who I am.”
Klub Koori: Jul 6, 7pm. Carriageworks, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh. $15. Tickets & Info: www.kooriradio.com/klubkoori.html, (This is a licensed, all ages event.)
NAIDOC Week: Jul 2-9, Info & Program: www.naidoc.org.au