A life-changing moment came for Perth singer-songwriter Gina Williams when, during a British Council study tour last year, she was invited to sing at a London nightclub, The Vortex.
"I sang in English which people liked. Then I thought I’d sing a few songs in Nyoongar language, and they responded incredibly – without knowing the meaning of a single word!
“I always give people an outline of the song’s meaning and explain a few key words. Well, one of the songs I told them about was written for my adoptive father, a deeply personal story. People cried.
“I came back from London with a headful of ideas. I thought, ‘Anyone can sing in English anywhere in the world, but what I’ve got is something precious and there aren’t a lot of Nyoongar speakers left. If we put it out there, we might find we actually have some friends.”
Williams, 45, has turned her ‘headful of ideas’ into Kalyakoorl, an album of Nyoongar songs that, co-written with friend Guy Ghouse, is winning accolades on the national folk circuit and the wider music scene.
Singer Archie Roach – who invited Williams and Ghouse, the co-winners of a 2013 WA Music Industry Award, to tour with him – describes the album as “where the ancient meets the contemporary. It’s beautiful.”
‘Kalyakoorl’, meaning ‘forever’, is an upbeat testament to Williams’ eventful life journey – from losing her beloved adoptive father and enduring foster home life, to finding her biological mother and deciding to study the Aboriginal language that was denied to her as a child.
Williams was adopted as a baby by Aboriginal parents who didn’t identify as Aboriginal. “It was never spoken about, and at the dining table I was told I had dark skin because of an Indian and Malay heritage.”
She only met her biological mother after turning 40. “She is tiny and she grabbed my hands, and I realised we had the same hands and eyes. I couldn’t hang onto any anger – I was relinquished, but she was actually taken away from her mother, who in turn was also Stolen Generation.”
Trained as a journalist, Williams worked as a reporter for Golden West Network Television’s Milbindi Aboriginal TV program while launching her singing career. “I spent years telling other people’s stories and then I discovered that I had a pretty fair story of my own to tell.”
Now she says her London epiphany has made her more determined to write in Nyoongar, the southwest language that has only a few hundred native speakers left. “It struck me that we could promote Nyoongar through song, and Guy playing and producing music so beautifully helps.”
Two days after arriving back from London, she turned to her Nyoongar-speaking uncle Tom Hayden.
“I told him ‘I want to write in the language but I have no idea what to write about.’ And I’ll never forget it, he said: ‘That’s easy, there are four principles – koort, heart; moort, family; boodja, land; and koorlankga, which is children and legacy.’ So every single song is informed by one of Uncle Tom’s four principles.”