Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Lullabies and five words

15 February 2020

Bourby Webster is moved as much by Perth Festival’s Koorlangka as by Gina Williams’ determination to revive and promote Noongar language.

Review: Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse, Koorlangka ·
Government House Ballroom, 13 February 2020 ·
Review by: Bourby Webster ·

Koorlangka is a stunning suite of children’s songs and lullabies in Noongar language, and the date of its performance, 13 February, was purposely chosen to mark the 12th anniversary of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s official apology to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is the first part of a four-work contemporary Noongar song cycle – the other parts will be performed, one a year, on February 13 over the next three years.

Williams has built a remarkable award-winning career by singing in her own Noongar language, no easy feat considering she didn’t learn to speak it until she was an adult. Her reputation for combining her ancient language with contemporary songwriting has been applauded by the likes of Archie Roach, who compares her to Edith Piaf.

It’s more than Piaf you hear as Williams and Ghouse perform – other artists like Doris Day, Eva Cassidy and Shirley Bassey flooded through my mind, even Elton John! I could hear influences such as Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Jamila’s “Stop”.

Williams and Ghouse excel in writing songs that instantly feel familiar, despite being sung in an unfamiliar language. Williams is out to change that. Only 400 people speak Noongar fluently, and she told the audience of her passionate plea for us all to learn five Noongar words – #fivewords.

Most of the songs were short but full of character, emotion and visual imagery, enhanced by Russell Holmes’ world-class piano playing and the performance by the Dolce Ensemble string quartet, with all arrangements sensitively and creatively penned by Holmes. In choosing their musical partners, Williams and Ghouse intuitively lifted the program’s appeal from songs merely for children to beautifully crafted, highly idiomatic stories for all ages.

Williams said she was in awe of the musicians behind her but brought things down to earth by exclaiming: “I can’t read music, but they can’t speak Noongar so I figure we’re even!”

The concert’s 7.30pm start time meant only a handful of children could attend, but I am certain every audience member in the capacity crowd came away inspired, uplifted, and part of Williams’ army, determined to revive the Noongar language.

While Williams is clearly a gifted songwriter and singer, her warmth, humility, humour and passion for her culture and language mean she has developed a passionate following. She got a rock-star welcome when she walked on stage, with whistles, cheers and stomping.

A gifted storyteller, Williams’ tales were punctuated with displays of pure emotion and raw moments (she said she should have got Kleenex to sponsor the concert) and brought a tear to many an eye.

She also taught the engaged audience a few Noongar words, and I’m sure many audience members will have left the performance intending to learn #fivewords – a sure sign Williams isn’t just hoping to sustain her language, she is actually doing it. Now it’s over to us to listen and learn. “I’m not singing in French, not German,” she said. “I’m singing in the language that belongs to this country.”

This was a moving, engaging and important performance, but more than anything it was simply wonderful music brilliantly performed, bringing the Noongar language to the hearts and minds of a wider audience. And that, surely, has to be what Iain Grandage’s emphasis on Indigenous works in this year’s Perth Festival is all about.

Pictured top: Gina Williams, with Guy Ghouse, right, Russell Holmes on piano, and the Dolce Ensemble, gives a moving performance in ‘Koorlangka’. Photo: Tiffany Garvie

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Author —
Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the Founder and CEO of Perth Symphony Orchestra one of WA’s newest and fastest growing arts companies. She is a graduate of Oxford University in Music and the Royal College of Music and is a professional violist, lecturer, presenter, and producer. She can’t even look at a playground as she suffers chronic motion sickness.

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