Dirtsong reinvigorates music and words of Australia's Aboriginal cultures

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      Deline Briscoe is not looking forward to the cold of a Canadian winter. “I’m a tropical person,” the singer says with a laugh, interviewed by phone from summery Brisbane, on Australia’s steamy east coast. But there are some things that she’s keen to experience when the Black Arm Band’s dirtsong comes to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival next week. The pleasure of performing on a new continent a world away from her home. The solidarity that will come from meeting First Nations activists, who share many of the same concerns as her own Aboriginal people. And gazing at the unfamiliar highway signs—especially those in Coast Salish, a relatively new development here in unceded Musqueam and Lil’wat territory.

      “When I go to a place and I see that, I feel more welcomed by the indigenous people, because it looks like they have a place,” she explains. “It makes me feel that they’re acknowledged. It acknowledges that these places already have a name, and already have a significance to the local people—but we don’t have a lot of that in Australia yet.”

      Signs in some of Australia’s several hundred Aboriginal dialects are beginning to be installed around Adelaide, traditionally a centre of indigenous pride, she allows. That’s one indication that Canada and her native land are on parallel paths, although those paths are simultaneously hopeful and painful: progress is slowly being made toward a more equitable sharing of land and resources, but those victories have come only after generations of disenfranchisement.

      Dirtsong, Briscoe adds, has grown out of an ugly experience shared by indigenous people on both continents: the attempted eradication of their culture through residential schools. The Black Arm Band troupe itself was formed when a former Australian prime minister attempted to belittle Aboriginal claims, saying it was time to give up what he termed a “black-armband view of our past”. A formal apology for the residential-school system was eventually made, but the struggle for Aboriginal rights continues.

      “People are more aware of that history now, because of that apology,” says Briscoe. “But I don’t see that there’s been a great deal of effort from the government to have people make amends and move forward. I mean, my mum was a part of that, so that’s only one generation ago, and they’re not putting systems in place to have more easily accessible help for people like her. Fortunately, she found her family, but a lot of other [residential-school] students went through life kind of separated from culture and family.”

      Shellie Morris in dirtsong.
      Rhys Graham

      Through indelible images, powerful singing, and luminous music from both western instruments and didgeridoo, dirtsong addresses that chasm. The multimedia concert celebrates Aboriginal strength and diversity by reinvigorating a dozen different languages, some of which were on the brink of being extinguished forever. And in the process, Briscoe adds, it strengthens an Aboriginal world-view that had been similarly endangered.

      “Our languages are so intertwined with our environment,” she says. “I guess you probably have that over there as well, with indigenous languages. There is no separating them. The songs, the stories, the environment, the people: language connects them all, and when you lose something like that, you lose a huge part of the culture.”

      Briscoe had enjoyed a fruitful career singing in English before joining the Black Arm Band, but writing songs in her native Yalanji dialect is what’s truly brought her back to her Aboriginal self.

      “The minute that you start writing in an indigenous language, the subject matter is completely different,” she explains. “Even if you’re writing a love song, the way you explain it is very different.…In my language, for instance, we use one word for love but it also means spirit, and it also means heart, depending on how you say it. Spirit and love and heart and heartbeat and home and your homeland… They’re all one word, and as simple as that sounds, it’s quite complex as well!”