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Features/Opinion/Music

Requiem leads path to truth and reconciliation

3 October 2022

Gunditjmara culture is brought to life by the power of collaborative music. Barbara Hostalek soaks up the sharing of truth telling and the freedom of voices singing strong, proud and loud.

Deborah Cheetham’s Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace is an important story of resilience, reconciliation and hope. Listening to Eumeralla performed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Short Black Opera was my first experience of Gunditjmara language and cultural narratives and I look forward to learning more.  

As a person who is trying to learn my grandmothers’ tongues (Gija and Yawuru), it is encouraging to see that a diverse range of people with incentive and access to knowledge holders can learn a language that is not their mother tongue and then sing it – and share it with the world.   

At the Perth Concert Hall, I recognised a lot of people and advocates who work in Aboriginal organisations gathering in and around the foyer, many of whom I had never before seen attending a major theatre space. I was glad I wasn’t alone but part of me was still a little on edge, surrounded by various levels of privilege.  

But the strength of music transcends those boxes. I felt proud and relaxed hearing Noongar Elder (Birdiyar) Walter McGuire speak and sing in his mother tongue as he gave the Welcome to Country.  

As the performers arrived on stage, the spectacle of diverse faces, ages, gender and heights made me feel very proud, seeing people collaborate to deliver a united performance. Access and inclusion of voices of under-represented minority groups in mainstream institutions throughout this nation is gaining momentum. 

The Short Black Opera production was directed by composer and soprano Yorta Yorta woman, Deborah Cheetham AO. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey, accompanied the Dhungala Children’s Choir, Penrhos College Chorus and the WASO Chorus.  

Cheetham’s composition is incredible – the way she has created music to match the story and convey the truth of the land and people, enabling the intersection of Gunditjmara and western classical music cultures. Cheetham creates an opportunity for people to reflect on their personal journey of reconciliation, and undertake a process of change, beginning with the truth and ending in the realisation of the dynamism of legacy. 

A conductor with his back to camera raises his baton to the musicians facing him. It is Benjamin Northey conducting WASO's performance of Eumeralla.
Benjamin Northey conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Linda Dunjey

I am no stranger to sitting with others in prayer on a pew. But what I experienced was something beyond a sermon – I was part of the solution, I had a ticket with a front-row seat to make a difference.  

For 70 minutes I was carried on a journey beyond the realms of reality, my eyes and ears making sense of all that was before me: the unfolding story, changing tones, colours and melodies of a combined orchestra; the soaring highs of Cheetham’s soprano voice and mezzo soprano Linda Barcan battling it out with the deep lows of soloist Gungarri man, baritone Don Christopher.  

The changes in music tempo and intention were paralleled by digital projections of vibrant paintings of artworks created by Gunditjmara, Yorta Yorta and Wemba Wemba artist Tom Day. The artworks focus on the Budj Bim landscape and the Eumeralla River, with colours and shapes signifying many aspects of ancient Gunditjmara culture from the great creator (Pernmeeyal) to the devastation of war (the monster).  

I was not taught the history of widespread and systematic massacres of Aboriginal peoples or the frontier wars when I attended primary, high school or university.  When I became aware of massacres on Noongar Boodjar I was saddened, angry and confused, and it is hard not having these events recognised publicly in the same way we remember many other war engagements as a nation.      

This difficult fact is always going to elicit disbelief, anger, deep sorrow and loss. However, classical music – respected as a traditional culture of its own – has the power to transform barriers where other forms can’t.  

Eumarella celebrates one of the most ancient cultures in the world, whose ancestors survived the effects of invasion, settlement and colonisation. The production was sung in the dialects of the Gunditjmara people of southwestern Victoria. 

I have huge appreciation for senior Gunditjmara language custodian Vicki Couzens and linguist Kris Eira for their translations and for this collaborative opportunity to keep language alive, apply it and celebrate its revival and longevity as it is sung out loud and embraced by many people far and wide.   

There weren’t any subtitles projected on a screen to accompany the performance. However, my handy programme is a gift, with the text of the 19 movements of the Requiem translated in both languages, plus the paintings, that will allow the experience to linger far beyond the performance.  

This was a momentous occasion with many firsts, and I hope not the last of a unique way of sharing the truth of ruthless violence and brutality, as well as the benefits of showcasing collaboration and composition.  

Eumeralla is accessible to a variety of people and not in a routine “sit down, eat and forget” kind of way, like the streaming we have taken up in an alarming way since COVID.

My curiosity was maintained well after the performance, as I tried to make meaning of what I experienced. This requiem will be heard internally and reflected upon again and again in mind, body and spirit.  

And that is the triumph of humanity, that we can choose to be not just the problem but also the solution. If we choose, we can heal deep and festering wounds or excise them and live with truth and pride.  

Ignorance of past atrocities is no longer an excuse to ignore the benefits of reconciliation and the role we all have to play in reconciling with ourselves. This may involve first recognising what is not known so the truth is understood by all. 

Footnote: An Aboriginal person of mixed ancestry (Yawuru and Gija and Territorian, Czech and Greek with English), I am not of this beautiful land (Noongar Boodjar). Born on Larrakia Country with maternal ancestral connections to Beagle Bay Mission, Thangoo Station and Turkey Creek, I have no right to represent the views of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There is much diversity among us in more ways than one. I write from my standpoint – and see it both as an opportunity and a challenge!  

Benjamin Northey and Deborah Cheetham acknowledge the audience after a triumphant performance of ‘Eumeralla’. Photo: Linda Dunjey

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Author —
Barbara Hostalek

Barbara Hostalek is an independent First Nations playwright proud to be living with Noongar Boodjar. She began writing plays at Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s Writers group in 2015. Her work has been produced by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company (Cracked), Black Swan Theatre Company (Unsung Heroes monologue series: Own Way) and Mudskipper Productions (Banned). Park fun play? Hands down, the sandpit.

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