Inside Story

When did I grow up?

It’s still happening, says the Yorta Yorta composer of Pecan Summer

Deborah Cheetham Extract 18 April 2018 2350 words

The personal and the political: Deborah Cheetham and Marcus Corowa in Pecan Summer. Short Black Opera

It’s not a question you hear very often: “When did you grow up?” But it is one I have asked myself many times. Yes, you read it right the first time and, no, I didn’t mean “where.”

I’m certainly a child of the 1970s — one look at my ABBA collection and that is plain enough to see. But that’s not when I grew up. At least not when I grew up Aboriginal. No, that happened much later. If I am really honest with you, I’m probably still getting there.

If you were here with me now I would probably sing you a song about it. That wouldn’t necessarily establish my authenticity in your mind. I just like to sing. I always have. Not many opera singers in our community. I’m happy to say there are a few more now than there used to be, and I am proud to have had a little bit to do with that. But I digress — you’ll get used to it. In the end, the upper word limit for this account of my life will corral my wandering thoughts into a story that I hope will shed light on how it is I managed to grow up at all, and if it makes sense to you — well, even better.

My earliest memory is of me leaning up against my mother in church. It is the evening service and so I am probably dressed in my pyjamas. Fortunately I’m only three years old, so I’m young enough to get away with such an outrageous fashion statement. My mother is singing a hymn and, if I close my eyes, I can still hear her voice:

Jesus is calling the wanderers yet, why do they roam? Love only waits to forgive and forget. Home weary wanderers, home.

I always wanted to be a singer. I gave my very first audition when I was just seven years old. It was 1971, and I was in the first class at Mortdale Public School, in the southern suburbs of Sydney. Nineteen seventy-one was the year Greenpeace was founded, women in Switzerland won the right to vote, and late-night shopping was introduced in Australia. It was also the year Mortdale Public School decided to record an album — well, more like a seven-inch single to be perfectly honest.

The song to be featured was “Little Sir Echo.” You know the one…

Little Sir Echo, how do you do? Hello! (Hello!) Hello! (Hello!), etc.

The infants department had been rehearsing this song for what seemed like weeks. I had the words off by heart long before anyone else in my class, and I was quietly confident of making it into the choir.

Finally the audition day arrived, when only the very best would be selected for the recording session. In typical infants-department fashion, we were lined up in the playground and instructed to sing “Little Sir Echo” over and over while the choir mistress — the rather imperious and formidable Mrs Brown — made her way up and down the lines, tapping those who were successful on the shoulder.

Those who did not make the cut were not offered a lucrative recording contract like some of the Australian Idol runners-up. No. Those who were rejected were sent to the sewing mistress for lessons in elementary needle threading. I knew I just had to make it into that choir!

As Mrs Brown approached our line I began to sing louder and louder. I’d also noticed during my time at school that those who managed to sit or stand the straightest were often chosen for the prized activities, like cleaning the blackboard or collating the worksheets — and so I had worked this strategy into my audition in order to give myself an edge. Closer and closer Mrs Brown came until she was almost in front of me, tapping my friend Diane Moore on the shoulder. I took this as a very good sign: Diane hardly even knew the words, so surely I would have no trouble getting in.

The moment had arrived.

Little Sir Echo, you’re very shy. Hello! (Hello!) Hello! (Hello!).

To my amazement and horror Mrs Brown passed me by. I felt no tap on the shoulder. Surely this was some terrible mistake! Before I knew what was happening I found myself being marched towards the sewing rooms. This was a disaster! Something had to be done. Seeing no alternative, I decided that I would be so naughty for the sewing mistress that she would be forced to send me to the deputy for disciplinary action — the deputy being none other than Mrs Brown!

My tactics worked, up to a point: I still didn’t get to sing “Little Sir Echo,” although I was permitted to join in on the B-side of the recording, which just happened to be “Advance Australia Fair.” I’ve had quite a few chances to sing that song since my Mortdale schooldays and I’d love to catch up with Mrs Brown sometime and let her know.

The last time I sang the anthem was in 2009. It was at the memorial service after the terrible bushfires that swept through Victorian communities, indiscriminately claiming vegetation, property and lives. I decided to use a fantastic orchestral arrangement that I had sung a few years earlier, which included clap sticks and yidaki (didgeridoo) in a powerful combination. I was accompanied by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Philharmonic Choir: the performance was everything it needed to be for that solemn occasion. Many emails and letters of thanks for the performance arrived in the days, weeks and months following. I was proud to have made a contribution. I still am.

But then a comment appeared in a newspaper that shook me. Journalist Andrew Bolt called into question the need or relevance for clap sticks and didgeridoo and, for that matter, an Aboriginal singer. What did the horror and devastation of the worst bushfires in over half a century have to do with Aboriginal people? And there it was. My coming of age had arrived. Insensitive and ignorant of the fact that Aboriginal lives were counted among those lost on that day, Bolt proclaimed that the anthem had nothing to do with my Aboriginal self and, although it pains me to credit such a person with a role in my personal growth, he was right. I finally realised that this song had nothing to do with me.

More than that, it has nothing to do with anything. I used to justify the lyrics by saying that Australia was a young nation and the many injustices and errors of judgement around the treatment of Aboriginal Australians were a product of youth and inexperience. Like many Australians, I had blindly accepted this premise. Even setting aside 70,000 years of Indigenous cultures for a moment, it has been more than a century since Federation and we’re over 200 years into colonisation, so, at the very least, you would have to say the anthem’s words lack a certain level of accuracy. As Australians, can we aspire to be young for the rest of our lives? If we are ever to mature, we simply cannot cling to this desperate premise.

This was a hugely significant moment in my journey of growing up Aboriginal. Finally I recognised that no amount of justification could make those words right. That for a descendant of the longest-continuing culture in the world, our national anthem has no business to tell us that we are young. Equally, I would have to say that until the day my partner Toni and I could celebrate our relationship (twelve years and counting) with an overpriced, over-catered affair for 200 of our nearest and dearest, I wasn’t that thrilled with the word free either. So what was to be done?

Within a year the solution presented itself. Later in 2009 I was approached by music legend Judith Durham and Mutti Mutti singer-songwriter Kutcha Edwards with words they had written for a new national anthem. A song with the inclusive kind of language that could change the way we think about Australia forever. Honouring the Dreaming, our sacred land, and the many and diverse cultures that combine to make Australia what it is today, with a call to live in peace and harmony. It was a brilliant anthem, and participating in the launch of those new lyrics was yet another rite of passage.

The chance to test out these new lyrics came in 2015. Sadly, this was a year when Adam Goodes, one of the great champions of AFL, had been subjected to the kind of racism that would crush a lesser being. I received a call from the event company responsible for staging the AFL grand final preshow, which of course includes a performance of the national anthem. The AFL wanted to show support for Aboriginal Australians and somehow make it up to Adam, and I guess they thought asking an Aboriginal singer to perform the anthem would make a positive statement. I agreed to sing the anthem on the condition that I would be permitted to replace the words for we are young and free with peace and harmony:

Australians all let us rejoice in peace and harmony

Friends were urging me to just do it. Just insert the new words. I could have, but that would have created a different conversation to the one we are having today, and no doubt would have provided the likes of Andrew Bolt with several column inches of vitriol. In the end the AFL said no to my request and they found another singer — who inadvertently got the current lyrics muddled anyway. But through the process of saying no to one of the biggest gigs in the Australian calendar I had come of age and gained a level of maturity in my understanding of what it truly means to be an Aboriginal Australian.

My ancestors come from the rich green land of the Yorta Yorta nation, which embraces both sides of the Murray River. We call this river Dhungala, and the Dhungala has been home to the Yorta Yorta people for more than 60,000 years. My grandfather James came to Yorta Yorta country from Wallaga Lake in the early 1930s and married a local girl. Her name was Frances McGee, although she was fondly known as Cissy. Together they had seven children, the youngest of whom was my mother Monica, while Colin, Betty, Freddie, Ernest, Madeline and the eldest, Jimmy, were my uncles and aunties. I am one of nine children myself.

It would be fabulous to tell you some hilarious story about growing up with so many brothers and sisters, uncles and aunties and countless cousins, but I can’t. You see, I didn’t grow up with them. For the first thirty years of my life I didn’t know anything about them. At just three weeks of age, I was taken from Monica.

I am a member of the Stolen Generations. So, you see, the voice that I can recall from my childhood wasn’t that of Monica, but of my adopted mother, Marjory, singing in church. Still, all my life, the voices of my ancestors have been calling to me from the banks of the Dhungala, even if for more than thirty years I couldn’t hear them. When I finally heard the calling, my response was the opera Pecan Summer.

Pecan Summer tells the story of the walk-off from Cummeragunja mission station in 1939. This was a moment in history when the women and the men of the Yorta Yorta nation took their destiny into their own hands and walked off the mission in protest at the appalling conditions that had been imposed on them by seventy years of intense colonisation. I chose this story for its obvious dramatic content: the exodus of the Yorta Yorta people from their homeland, and their inevitable and unending search for belonging are themes of an epic scale perfectly suited to and deserving of an opera.

Less than a month into researching the history of the walk-off I made an astonishing discovery. The Aboriginal grandparents I had never known — James and Cissy Little — were actually part of the story I was telling. They had carried their firstborn son, Jimmy, off the mission, crossing the Dhungala from New South Wales into Victoria. Suddenly I had a family that stretched beyond the limitations of my knowledge. And people were telling me how much I reminded them of my grandmother Cissy and how she had been a singer with a beautiful voice known to one and all. Suddenly I had a past that linked up with my present and my future and I just happened to be writing an opera about it.

Sadly Monica and Cissy did not live to see Pecan Summer come to life in 2010, but their stories are threaded through each page of the libretto and their voices can be heard in every note of the score. Writing, composing, directing and performing in Pecan Summer has provided me with an opportunity to connect with my community, family and history, and has finally given me the chance to grow up Aboriginal. Even more than that, it has set me on the path to helping Australia take that same journey. Just as I have gone from not-knowing to knowing, from youth to maturity, I think it is fair to say that, in Australia, we could all benefit from growing up a little more Aboriginal.

Aboriginal, Indigenous, Koori, Yorta Yorta, Australian, adopted, stolen, lesbian, soprano, daughter, mother, sister, partner, wife (still pending). These are all facets of my identity and my experience of growing up Aboriginal, and I carry each of these identities in equal measure. I’m happy to say that I am still learning. There is no other way I can or would rather be, and accepting this has made all the difference. •

This is Deborah Cheetham’s contribution to Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss, published this week by Black Inc.