Deborah Cheetham AO
Mahmood: In this episode of the Rising Podcast, opera singer Deborah Cheetham speaks with journalist Daniel Browning about The Rivers Sing; a large-scale sonic artwork made in collaboration with Byron J Scullin and Thomas Supple.
Deborah: The ancestors that I speak of on the banks of the Dungala had sung their songs can conducted ceremony dance, the dancers painted the knowledge all along the side, that river, that river system as it flows through the Bama forest, which is really the lungs of Victoria, the largest river red gum forest in the world. That river is so important to the forest and the forest to the river. And they have communication, the forest and the river.That we don't hear it so much now that we don't understand it says more about us than it does about the river or the forest.
Daniel: Deborah Cheetham welcome to the Rising podcast.
Deborah: Daniel, it is so lovely to be speaking to you today. I'm so honoured as a descendant of the Yorta Yorta and the Yuin people to be creating this work on the land of the Boonwurrung and the Woiwurrung people of the Eastern Kulin nations, and to be able to draw energy from the two great water sources, the Maribyrnong and the Birrarung.
Daniel: Tell us a little bit about what we hear. And how do you articulate the voice of these rivers, the Yarra and the Maribyrnong?
Deborah: You'll hear the human voice in every conceivable form that you could imagine. These compositions are built on a foundation of humanity and that is our voice. But they are amplified not only by the mechanism of the technology that's used, but by the river itself. We know as First Nations people that to sing alongside the river was a great means of communicating like telegraphing a message. Rivers are great amplifiers in themselves of sound. And so when you bring these multi-layered compositions that are all built on human voice, that are all built on breath, and you marry them with these two incredible sources, these bodies of water, it creates a composition that you couldn't actually achieve anywhere else. No concert hall could be the equal of the locations that have been chosen for the river scene for the river sings project.
I just hope to be as truthful, as honest, as respectful as I can be on someone else's country.
And in order to do that, really what I've had to do is bring my own spirituality to the process. And to say, this is how I encounter these, these bodies of water. As a visitor,I find that that's a useful position to take Daniel, you know, not only in this project, but in many other instances where I am either performing or composing a new piece of music or whatever the activity happens to be. I found it very useful to help people to understand that I too, have been a visitor in my own culture, and in the culture of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And that process of being a visitor comes with certain duties and responsibilities. And that as a member of the stolen generations, I've had a much longer journey to be able to understand what those duties and responsibilities are. But having come to a certain point where I'm more confident in those responsibilities, those duties of care, I can now talk about how the spirituality of another group of people, another nation, can speak to me as I go about my day-to-day life on this country.
Daniel: I think it's important, Deborah, to kind of point out, you know, why rivers are so evocative. I mean, they're incredible bodies of water. But as Aboriginal people, we derive so much cultural and spiritual meaning from those bodies of water.
Deborah: Definitely, you know, the first word that I ever learned in my, in my own language in the language of my mother of my grandmother, my great grandmother, of course, that's Yorta Yorta language. The very first word I ever learned was Dungala. Which is the name of the Murray River as it flows through Yorta Yorta country. That's been called Dungala for more than 60,000 years, and I remember Aunty Lillian, teaching me that word for the first time and she said to me, You must always speak this word gently, and with great respect.
So for me, there's been such a very strong connection with the river of my ancestors.In this, particularly in this last decade, but I'll tell you something, Daniel, the rivers have called to me, all of my life took me a long time to hear them. But once I did hear their song, I was so much richer for having heard it and I could never want to and I never could unhear those songs.
Daniel: We are going to be talking about The Rivers Sing, of course. But I want to just kind of go back to something you said there about the song of the river. But I think also in the river scene, you talk about the voice of the Yarra and the Maribyrnong. So they almost have it, there's almost a sense of personhood. Those rivers have a voice.
Deborah: Yeah, they do.Everything in nature has a voice.We like to think as human beings in the 21st century that, that we alone have language and voice. And that's what sets us. That's what sets us apart from the rest of the organic and living world. But everything has a voice.AndI think what's changed for us in this 21st century is that we don't have the means to hear those voices, often all. In fact, those voices are being drowned out by just so much white noise quite literally and figuratively as well.
The ancestors that I speak of on the banks of the Dungala had sung their songs can conduct ceremony dance their dances, painted their knowledge, all along the side of that river, that river system as it flows through the Bama forest, which is really the lungs of Victoria, the largest river red gum forest in the world. That river is so important to the forest and the forest to the river. And they have communication, the forest and the river.That we don't hear it so much now that we don't understand it, says more about us than it does about the river or the forest.
Daniel: Yeah, I mean, just those words that you use, the lungs.You know, we do think about you know, our waterways, those bodies of water. They're sacred to us as black fellows. We do conceive of them as almost like a body. They have a personhood.
Deborah: Yeah. Well, they are sacred to us. But here's a newsflash, they’re sacred to everyone. It's just that we recognise that they're sacred. Actually, it's one of the things that really struck me in the research for the river Sing, one of the most valuable conversations I had, and have been many over these 18 months. But one of the most valuable conversations was with Auntie Carolyn Briggs about the course of the various rivers that flow through Boonwurrung, and Woiwurrung country and how they've been altered, and what the consequences are. And just the really empowered way that Aunty Carolyn speaks about returning those watercourses to their, to their natural directions, their natural flow. And it's a thought that hadn't even ever occurred to me, you know, that, that we could champion the rights of the rivers to have their natural courses.
Daniel: Of course, that Birrarung river of mist, you were talking there about the, you know, this tendency to change the course of bodies of water which has happened not just in Melbourne but in many other parts of Australia. But that act of diverting that action waterfall around that area of Prince's bridge.It's an act of extraordinary cultural vandalism.
Deborah: It was cultural vandalism, and also it was an act of violence against nature, probably one of the earliest ones on the lands of the Eastern Kulin nation. Violence against people had already begun. It was already being enacted against the one was wrong and the way we're wrong and the other members of the of the world. It began important actually with Gunditjmara people, but by the time it had come to the eastern call the nations the population was so diminished at that time. It was already one of the great genocides that the world has ever witnessed in terms of the percentage of lives lost, but the blowing up of the Yarra and Yarra meaning waterfall, the blowing up of that, that waterfall, that filtration system was a great act of violence against the environment. And I think it set a course for what colonisation would, would ultimately come to mean for almost two centuries. And I think it all began with the blowing up of that of that waterfall to make, you know, a larger space. What a pathetic excuse for environmental vandalism.
Daniel: Incredibly violent act of colonialism.
Deborah: Imagine what that would have sounded like Daniel,
Daniel: I can't
Deborah: To the eastern Kulin nations.Yeah, I wrote a work about eight years ago now for the Federation bells, which are in the park above, Birrarung Ma. And it was all about that moment of collision, of environmental vandalism of blowing up that waterfall and turning the entire Birrarung into this brown sort of mess.The water muddied beyond recognition, not able to sustain the kind of life it always had.It was a calamitous time. And I wanted to capture that with the, with the bells that are in that park. And I think even now with this new work, The River Sings, I, I can't ignore what is no longer there. Sounds an odd thing to say. But for me the absence of that filtration of water via the means of the waterfall or the Yarra, the absence of that sound, it leaves a gaping hole in my own spirituality when I walk on that country. I grieve for that. I grieve for the loss of that, and you'll hear in this new composition, The Rivers Sing, you'll hear a longing. But you'll also hear a resilience and a rising. If I can use the word rising as it is the name of the festival, but you will hear this ascendant power that comes from the music because those rivers continue to sing an altered song, the people who've lived here all along, continue to hear that song and connect to it in their own way. And as a visitor to these lands, as a Yorta Yorta woman walking on Boonwurrung, and Woiwurrung countryIt is my duty of care to set enough aside, set aside enough time, energy space in my own life, to be able to hear what song is being sung by the rivers, what have the ancestors poured into these rivers.What of their knowledge is still carried what of their memory is still carried by these rivers. And that's what I've tried to do in these last 18 months, spend my time in the places that are so very altered now but still have the strength of these ancient rivers thrown flowing through them.
Daniel: I do remember a story, I'm not sure if it was a Wooiwurrung or a Boonwurrung language specialist told me that the word for hair, Yarra, is the same as the river. And the idea was that the river when it was seen flow, and perhaps they were talking about the waterfall itself, it resembled, you know, human hair, like the cascade of human hair. And I just want to go back to that idea of personhood, I know that in Aotearoa in New Zealand, they have, basically rivers have the status of people. You can't harm them, you can't destroy them. You can't pollute them. I mean, it's happening. We know that it's happening. But the spirit, the spirit of the law, in Maori culture is that the river has personhood, the river is sacred. And we've moved so yeah, it seems like that's a way of thinking that just doesn't exist in this country.
Deborah: Well, it still exists within our First Nations cultures. But unfortunately, in the culture of ruthless and aggressive colonisation that the British enacted around the world, personhood was no guarantee, and so, so little was thought of human life that even if these rivers had the status of a person, I don't think the hybrid and muddied version of that early brutality of the British mentality, I don't think that that would, that would protect anything or anyone. Well, it certainly hasn't.
What we need to do, what we must do, what we must strive towards. And my method for striving is music and the arts more generally, what we need to strive towards is an understanding of our humanity, that is based on a kind of reciprocal relationship with not only each other, but with the very environment that we live in the country that we belong to. And in peeling back those layers of colonised existence, little by little, we're finding that there are generations, more generations living now who are willing to accept and understand the brutality of our shared history, the beginnings of our shared history, that continued brutality, there are more generations living now who understand, then the generations who don't understand that it is absolutely fundamental to our survival, as a nation, to embrace and understand what First Nations people knew all along, about how to live here, how to be, ways of knowing and being and of course, this knowledge of knowing and being was conveyed by means of the arts and in particular music. So it's entirely appropriate that a projects of this scope its enormous scale this project, that the river sings project should be a reconnecting of our way of knowing and interpreting the landscape through music because this is the way that all knowledge has been born from generation to generation, longer here than anywhere else in the world, but certainly at one point or another, everywhere else in the world. And where the culture of the British who colonised this country, disconnected from the arts as a fundamental way of knowing a long time ago, and relegated the arts to, to entertainment or specialist study. We, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know, we as people living on the Boonwurrung country, or the Woiwurrung country here in Melbourne know that music is a way of knowing and being and giving meaning to everything.
Daniel: And I understand that over the course of you know, there are many daily iterations iteration there are many daily iterations of this work. So you know, I've heard it described as like the ebbing tide.I've heard it described a bit like the ebbing tide so it moves and, and changes throughout those daily iterations.
Deborah: As a member of the Yorta Yorta Nations, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to sing the songs that my great, great-great grandmother sang. And as we uncover them in time, I will sing those songs. But at the same time, I'm singing my own song, my own understanding of the inheritance of my identity as a Yorta Yorta woman, inheritance of my identity, as the granddaughter of a Yuin man, and my identity as someone who lives on the lands of the Eastern Kulin nations. And so we've chosen a beautiful part of the day in which to perform most of the works and, and I'm talking of course, about sunset, that notion of the completion of a day, but also the beginning of something entirely new, and that is restoration. You could interact with it in all seven locations and come to all 30 iterations of the composition and no two will be exactly the same because you are not the same. And the day is not the same. And of course, in this kind of composition, we’re able to respond to that evolving reality that is our day-to-day existence on the lands of the Eastern Kulin nations.
Daniel: You must have learned things about the rivers that you didn't know before, even though you live alongside the Birrarung and the Maribyrnong, you’ve lived in Melbourne for some years. But there must have been things that you learned in this process about them.
Deborah: I did Daniel, I learned a lot about each of the rivers, some of which I've endeavoured to represent musically, but mostly, it was what I learned about myself, and my relationship to the river and my need for the river.My visits to the river became like a kind of a ritual.
And I think that that's what people will have the opportunity to create for themselves, you see, this is not a passive arrangement, you will come to the river, or you will encounter the song or the river sings project, in your day to day life. And you will need to find a place for that in your understanding, perhaps you will have come to the river to hear the composition one of the 30 compositions, or perhaps as I say, you'll encountered as you're going about your daily life, but it will be your choice to interact, it will be a reciprocal arrangement, if you like what you bring to it will be your own story, your own experience.But, you can actually make this a ritual for yourself, I think we'll be in each place for a couple of days for over the three month period, and all of the locations, I think you'll have a chance to over three or four days, I think it's three days to come and, and to experience each of the compositions and allow it to take your imagination where it needs to go. Allow it to speak to you in the way it needs to speak to you.
This is a bringing together experience in a very positive way in a meaningful and empowering way. And I hope that people will leave each iteration, each song with a great sense of anticipation for the next and I hope that they'll follow the journey of the river sings project along the course of both rivers and I hope to see everyone at that great confluence of the two rivers as nature and the built environment, speak to one another and find a common language that is for our benefit and for our future as a society here on the lands of the Eastern Kulin nation.
Mahmood: The Rising podcast is created by Litmus Media on the land of the Boon Wurrung and the Wurundjeri people. It’s produced by me, Mahmood Fazal. The associate producer is Daniel Stewart and the editor is Eugene Yang. You can listen at Litmus.Media or wherever you get your podcasts.