Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse
Perth International Cabaret Festival
His Majesty’s Theatre, 19 June
Nothing about human beings is more fascinating and revealing than language. Our evolution, the way we think and act, the way we view the world and understand ourselves, is told in our words.
A dozen millenia ago, there were many
thousands of independent human worlds scattered around the globe, each only
dimly aware, if at all, of others apart from their immediate neighbours. Each
with its own language.
Four thousand years ago, as hunter gathering gave way to agriculture (the “Greatest Fraud” according to the historian Yuval Noah Harari) and the first territorial empires arose, those worlds had dwindled to a few thousand at most, and, by six centuries ago, most of the people on earth, ninety per cent or so, had assimilated into the vast world of Afro-Asia, with its imperial and nation states, interconnectedness and relatively few languages.
Only in Meso and Andean America, Oceania and Australia were smaller worlds and their languages found. Over the next three centuries they, too, were swallowed by the giant world order.
What has this little history lecture got to do with the opening night of the inaugural Perth International Cabaret Festival? If you were at His Majesty’s Theatre for the wonderful Koorlangka Reimagined by Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse, I think you might know the answer.
Why has the first language of the land of the Noongar Whadjuk people survived, and why does it now enjoy a nascent renaissance in the face of oppression and neglect, the vast tide of the modern world that overwhelmed the small, ancient worlds in its path?
It’s partly because it had thrived for so long, become so deeply imbedded in country, that its deep roots could withstand, if barely, the fires of colonialism and the floods of world culture.
It’s partly because of the dedication and determination of people who kept it alive in their families and through their music and words.
But it seems to me it’s also because, notable among the world’s languages, it is a beautiful tongue, gentle and expressive, musical and full of humour and wisdom. There is a compelling, aesthetic reason for its existence quite distinct from its importance as the language of a continuing people.
I think that’s why the Welcome to Countries before many events have evolved from essentially an acknowledgement of our Indigenous communities and their custodianship of the country they hold to much-anticipated performances in their own right, given with increasing complexity and confidence (Walter McGuire’s witty and wise welcome before Koorlangka was a perfect example).
And it’s a huge part of the force of
Koorlangka, Williams and Ghouse’s song cycle of family and nature.
Many, like the title song, Ngoonyoong Nindjan (Darling Child) and Djinda Djinda (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) are lullabies, others celebrate the natural world surrounding them, - Bindi Bindi (the butterfly) and Gitty Gitty (the willy-wagtail).
Songs in Noongar language transposed into English, and vice-versa (Moon River) show that Williams is a transcendent artist in any language, and her friend and collaborator Guy Ghouse’s generous, serene presence and fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing (often reminiscent of James Taylor, with the thumb taking the place of a pianists left hand) is a show in itself. The supporting ensemble, Russell Holmes on piano and the Dolce Ensemble’s strings add further depth and beauty to the songs, and also the cross-cultural context that enhances the universality of Williams and Ghouse’s artistry.
There’s much more to be said about Koorlangka, and my Seesaw Magazine colleague Bourby Webster does it perfectly (read her review of a 2020 performance here).
Koorlangka is a lovely, warm, even inspiring, experience – I urge you to listen to its songs (easily found on-line, and there is a cd available) and see it live when next it comes to country near you.