Djinama Yilaga choir reclaims once-forbidden Indigenous Dhurga language through song: ABC News

ABC South East NSW  / By Vanessa Milton

Posted Sat 16 Sep 2023

As a young girl, Walbunja-Ngarigo artist Cheryl Davison wondered why her father could not teach his children their ancestral languages.

It was only years later that she heard the story from her cousins.

Ms Davison’s father and uncle would hear their mother and her elders sitting at home speaking Dharawal. But when the kids came into the room, they would stop.

“It must have been the teachers that told the welfare protection board that the kids were coming to school, talking in language,” Ms Davison said.

“The police turned up at my grandmother’s house one day, and said, ‘If you teach the kids any of that language anymore, we’re going to chuck you in jail.’”

Ms Davison is now on the path to reclaim her language through song.

In 2019, she founded the Djinama Yilaga choir in her role as Aboriginal producer with Four Winds, an arts company based in Barraga Bay, near Bermagui on the NSW far south coast.

The choir began singing covers of popular songs and hymns that Ms Davison remembered her elders singing at church services and funerals.

But soon, the choir’s ambition grew.

High angle shot of two women writing lyrics on a large sheet of paper.
Tamsin Davison writing a song in the Dhurga language with Lou Bennett. Supplied – Elise Idiens 

Ms Davison met acclaimed singer-songwriter Lou Bennett, and worked up the courage to ask if she would help the choir learn to write songs in the Dhurga language of the far south coast.

With no musical background, and “bits and pieces” of language written down on paper and in notebooks, they started on the path to what Ms Davison describes as “a life that we never thought we’d have” — writing, recording and touring with the choir.

Two hands on each side of a large piece of paper, pointing to words in Dhurga language.
Choir members write songs in a language their elders were forbidden to hand down. Supplied – Elise Idiens

Language ‘rematriation’ through song

Dr Bennett is a Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung woman, best known as a member of trio Tiddas and Black Arm Band. In 2015, she completed a PhD on Aboriginal language reclamation.

“Across the southern, eastern parts of Australia and up the east coast, you’ll find many, many languages that haven’t been spoken or sung for centuries,” Dr Bennett said.

Woman wearing a cap and Djinama Yilaga choir t-shirt sit at table deep in conversation.
Dr Bennett works with First Nations communities to reclaim their languages. Supplied – Elise Idiens

As a Senior Lecturer at Melbourne University, working in the field of language rematriation, she works with communities to bring back their languages through their own songs and stories.

“Song is what gives us our lore,” Dr Bennett said.

“When we listen deeply, we allow our language to come alive in us, because it’s alive in the country.”

For Cheryl Davison, part of the experience of writing and singing songs in Dhurga has been a realisation of what is lost when language is not passed down.

Side angle of a woman looking up at a tree with her hand on the trunk.
Cheryl Davison works as an Aboriginal producer for Four Winds. ABC South East NSW – Vanessa Milton

“I understand now, how destructive that is to all Aboriginal people, for us not to be able to practise our language,” Ms Davison said.

“The way we are learning is for us a very healing way, it’s a very cultural way. Singing, it’s a way of coming together as well.”

Since the first writing workshop with Lou Bennett, a Dhurga dictionary has been published, and members of the choir are studying and teaching the language.

“I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime to speak fluently again,” Ms Davison said. “But I know with our younger generation, they’re going to be speaking it.”

Side shot of young woman in glasses with meditative expression looking out at a wetland.
Tamsin Davison writes and sings songs in her ancestral Dhurga language. ABC South East NSW – Vanessa Milton

The choir regularly performs at festivals and public events around the country. And the new songs keep flowing.

“If you told me five years ago that I’d be doing this, no way in the world,” said Cheryl’s daughter, Tamsin Davison, who has become an accomplished songwriter and language teacher.

“I feel filled with pride to be able to share that with my aunties and my cousins. Yeah, just pride.”

Read the original story here on ABC website