One of the great distinctives of the Indigenous community around the Goulburn and upper Murray rivers is song. Daniel Matthews, the independent missionary at Maloga, writes in his journal of the beauty of Yorta Yorta voices. In the fifth annual report, published in 1880, Daniel Matthews writes:
They all sing sweetly, and sometimes so softly. They know the words and music of many of Sankey’s hymns. They have a few favourite ones ; “I have a Saviour” is one of them.
One of the turning points in the development of songs in this community was the visit of The Fisk Jubilee Singers in August 1886. In an article in the Age in November 2008, historian Claire McLiskey quotes from the troupe leader.
Loudin’s impressions of Maloga were recorded in a letter he wrote to the Detroit Plaindealer some months after their visit. It was strange, he wrote, “to witness the effect the old slave songs born in the southern plantations of America made upon these people at the Antipodes. Many of them wept as they listened to the weird plaintive melodies.” After the singing was over, “they grasped us by the hand, many of them with the tears streaming from their eyes, thanking us again and again for what to them had been a great treat”. As a memento of their visit, Loudin left Matthews with two large photographs of the “Singers”, a dozen books containing the story of their travels and copies of their sheet music.
Some of these slave songs took deep root in the community, including Bura Fera, which is an adaption of “Pharaoh’s Army Was Drowned”. And the genre became is a living part of Yorta Yorta life. One man who was probably there to hear the singers was William Cooper. Song was one of his favourite memories of Malogoa – and of his mentor Daniel Matthews. He wrote wistfully to his daughter, Mrs Alma Norman, in July 1940, that:
Your father’s voice still rings in my ears: We never ever had singing like we did at Maloga.
Maybe it was never quite the same again. But it continued to be vital and beautiful.
Many of the old hymns from the old days seemed to persist. We know that singers from Cummeragunga performed the song “The Old Folks Back Home” at State commemorative celebrations in 1937. A song that was probably learnt from the Fisk Jubilee Singers back in 1886. Over a hundred years later, the same family circles were keeping the Maloga song book alive. At the funeral of Alick Jackomos in February 1999 (who was, on that day, pronounced an “Honorary Koorie” by Bruce McGuinness during the service at Northcote Town Hall), the mourners sang “The Old Rugged Cross”. Then the Cummeragunja choir sang “Shall We Gather at the River.”
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.
The Yorta Yorta community is notably musical. Performers include the opera singer Deborah Chetham, folk and pop singer, Lou Bennett, and Jimmy Little, who died in 2012.
Dr Heather Bowe shows that it’s not just ancient songs, but even Christian songs from the 1970s that have been threaded back into the indigenous language, as shown in her book Yorta Yorta (Bangerang) language of the Murray Goulburn. She sets out the verse:
This comes from a globally popular Christian song from the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. In English, it is sung as:
We are heirs
of the father
We are joint heirs
with the son
We are children
of the kingdom
We are family
We are one
Dr Bowe records that Mrs Geraldine Briggs still knew part of a hymn, which is sung to the same tune as ’There is a happy land, far far away, where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day.’ She could still give the first line as: “Galyan woka nganaburraya moya.”
There’s also a rendition of the Bible’s most famous Psalm, the 23rd. The English version begins as: “The Lord’s my Shepherd / I’ll not want / He makes me down to lie / In pastures green / He leadeth me / The quiet waters by.” In Yorta Yorta, it becomes simpler, pithier:
Ma min wamba min
Molwa ma gumbo
Molwa wirba ma
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