The lyrics to Bura Fera

Bura Fera, sometimes called Ngarra Burra Ferra, is a traditional Yorta Yorta song, the language spoken by the Indigenous peoples of the Goulburn Valley and Murray Valleys centred around modern-day Echuca. The history of Bura Fera suggests a story that stretches across several continents and thousands of years.

Womriga Moses yinin walla
Walla yupna yeipuch
Nara Bura Fera yumena yalla

Nara Bura Fera
Yumena yalla yalla
Nara Bura Fera
Yumena yalla yalla
Nara Bura Fera Yumena
Bura Fera Yumena
Bura Fera Yumena
Yalla yalla

Nyundo peco Jesu
Bora bocono yumena
Nara Bura Fera
Yumena yalla


The yorta yorta lyrics are based on an ancient song within the Jewish tradition, known as the “Song of the Sea” from circa 1446BC. Sometimes called “Miriam’s Song”, the song was composed and sung by Miriam, the older sister of the prophet Moses. It may be found in Exodus 15, especially verse 4, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea.”

Lyrics provided by Geraldine Briggs and translated with the help of Dr Heather Bowe

Lyrics provided by Geraldine Briggs and translated with the help of Dr Heather Bowe

The song was originally bought to Aboriginal ears by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The tour of this world-famous ensemble in 1886 bought negro spirituals to Australian audiences, probably for the first time. Led by Frederick Loudin, the group enjoyed widespread success.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers saw a particularly enthusiastic reaction to their gospel music when they visited the Maloga Aboriginal Mission in August of that Year. In fact, the director of the choir wrote a letter about the welcome they got – which was frosty at first. But became very warm once the men and women from Nashville began singing.

The director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers remembers meeting the Indigenous community at Maloga.

The director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers remembers meeting the Indigenous community at Maloga.

While many spirituals were sung that day, no doubt including “Swing Low” and “Steal Away”, the one song that made a lasting impression was “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army”. For it is the one song from the repertoire of the Jubilee singers that was translated into the language of those Indigenous people, which is, of course, “Bura Fera.”

It might be said that the Fisk Jubilee Singers entrusted this song to the Aborigines. For while the American ensemble has sung for decades – and still sing today – it seems neither they, or any choir performs this song today. No one, except for the Aboriginal communities that have their roots in Maloga.

It’s a tradition held by some, particularly in the Briggs family, that it was Theresa Clements who worked with Thomas James to compose the Yorta Yorta version of “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army”. Certainly, Mr James, a Ceylonese Tamil who’d become the resident educator at Maloga, was a polyglot and was more than capable of assisting in translation.

Whoever created the final version of Bura Fera, or Ngarra Burra Ferra as it’s sometimes called, it soon became owned by the Bangerang people, or, in fact anyone who identified with Yorta Yorta people. For people like Pastor Denis Atkinson, whose memories of Cummeragunja stretches back to the 1940s, Bura Fera was a song that the community always sang – and he would say the song belongs to the Cummeragunja choir.

But it was never a song that Bangerang people kept to themselves. It was a song to sing out to all Australians, as a statement. Professor Bain Attwood 1 found that, as William Cooper and others negotiated with officials as to how best commemorate the founding of Melbourne, the Aboriginal leadership was able to include a performance of their Biblical song of defiance and hope.

In the concert held to mark Melbourne’s foundation in May 1937, the grand finale was the aboriginal choir’s singing of a ‘Burra Phara’, an African American spiritual, translated into the Yorta Yorta language, which expressed their identification with the Jews as the dispossessed of the Book of Exodus…

Turn Back Pharaoh's Army was an important part of the repertoire performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, as is seen in the collection of their songs published in 1880. File retrieved from

Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army was an important part of the repertoire performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, as is seen in the collection of their songs published in 1880. File retrieved from

The original lyrics to “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army” can be found in the book about the Fisk Jubilee Singers by J B T Marsh. The lyrics the troupe used, and later published by Fisk were, probably, first set down by the Hutchinson Family Singers. This white family were well-known Abolitionists, who had supported the great Frederick Douglass in his campaign for emancipation. Interestingly, they adopted many of these slave songs, but arranged them using a closed part harmony style from Austrian choristers who had visited the United States, such as the Tyrolese Minstrels.

The first publication of “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army” came thanks to the work of William A Pond in 1870. It was one of a collection of pieces collected and arranged by Abby Hutchinson Patton.

The Hutchison Family Singer's version of "Turn Back Pharaoh's Army" may have contained only three verses, only one of which may be recognised in the current version of "Bura Fera" See

The Hutchison Family Singer’s version of “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army” may have contained only three verses, only one of which may be recognised in the current version of “Bura Fera” See

"Turn Back Pharaoh's Army" was first popularised by the Hutchinson Family Singers. This edition found at

“Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army” was first popularised by the Hutchinson Family Singers. This edition found at


  1. Bain Attwood, ‘Treating the past: narratives of possession and dispossession in a settler community’, paper for Storied Communities: Narratives of Contact and Arrival in Constituting Political Community


23 Responses to “The lyrics to Bura Fera”

  1. Lanai Elbourne December 17, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    I would like to seek permission from the Goulbourn and Murray Valley people to have my indigenous students at Lambton High School in Newcastle, NSW.

  2. Margaret Healy February 14, 2014 at 2:23 am #

    Thank you for sharing the history of this lovely song. We heard it sung yesterday at the Sorry Day Anniversary breakfast in Shepparton. A little Yorta Yorta girl, Lillie Walker, sang it. She has a wonderful voice that gives us every expectation to hear more of her in the years to come.


  3. Steve Clarke April 28, 2014 at 6:21 am #

    Thanks so much for the information. I’m the director of a non-religious gospel choir, the Honeybees, and we would love to sing this song. Can you help put me in touch with an elder from the Yorta community for permission and assistance with pronunciation? I would also love to know the best way to credit the song if we are permitted to perform it. If so, I would also like to extend an invitation to a Yorta representative to join us to sing the song at one of our rehearsals in Kings Cross, Sydney on a Tuesday evening.
    Cheers, Steve

  4. Jacki July 4, 2014 at 8:47 am #

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  5. Abe Schwarz July 15, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

    Enjoyable read of responses!
    Twice recently I have presented research at Jewish conferences on the amazing links in Ngarra Burra Ferra to the Book of Exodus, and our Passover Haggadah, eliciting an interesting range of responses…Could a young William Cooper (about 25, at Malaga Mission) have been influenced by the Fiske Singers with this song…to take a stance 50+ years later…on behalf of Jews after hearing of Krystallnacht in 1938?
    I am in contact with Briggs family elders who are able to be approached to request permissions in relation to use of this song…please feel free to contact me on

  6. Peggy Anderson August 5, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    My sister and I learned the song Ngarra Burra Ferra at Moama Primary School in early 1950 where we learnt from the kids from Cumeragunja who were our school friends. I had forgotten the song until I heard it again on the soundtrack of the Sapphires I still knew the words from 60 years ago.

  7. idm patch September 24, 2014 at 8:15 pm #

    Useful info. Fortunate me I found your web site accidentally, and I am stunned why this accident didn’t happened in advance!
    I bookmarked it.

  8. Narida June 25, 2015 at 2:16 am #

    Links to Yorta Yorta Elders and descendants of Theresa Clements are able to be contacted through me


  9. jill December 22, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Our chorus group in Alsace France love to sing native songs. I love Bura Fera and would like to acquire the score to sing in harmony. Who could I apply to ?

    • andrews January 12, 2016 at 10:22 pm #

      Hi Jill – delighted to hear that this song is receiving a global audience. In terms of courtesy, I think it’s best if you contact the family of Therese Clements who was certainly a custodian of the song. The elder taking leadership there is Narida Vella, who has published her contact details here in the comments section:

  10. Pam July 4, 2016 at 3:10 am #

    This is fascinating information! Thank you so much for gathering all the pieces connected with this inspiring song! It’s Reconciliation Week in Australia, and I’m learning this by heart.

  11. Alex Rodriguez July 9, 2016 at 9:17 pm #

    I want to thank you for the wonderful explanation behind this inspiring song. I recently heard it while watching the movie The Saffires and right away I had this overwhelming connection to those beautiful words. I’ve heard it over and over learning word for word and can’t help feeling a peacefulness to it. Being a christian from New York and of caribbean descent(Puerto Rico)it’s such a powerful message and to find it in the Book of Exodus is just amazing.
    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! hallelujah!!

  12. Emily November 6, 2016 at 9:49 am #

    What I would like to know is what does it mean in English because im a teenager and I want to learn about my culture and how to speak my language. Plus my friends want to know what it means but I dont know what it means if anyone knows please reply the English lyrics so I know and so my friends know.

    • MB January 18, 2017 at 1:08 am #

      The translated lyrics are right here on the page in one of the photographs!

  13. Narida February 6, 2017 at 5:01 am #

    Hello all. Through this beautiful webpage a lot of respect has been paid to my people which is greatly appreciated. Numerous emails have been received requesting permission to perform the hymn Burra Ferra. As a Yorta Yorta woman and great granddaughter of Theresa Clements I am able to respond to requests with permission from my mother Mrs Frances Mathyssen grand daughter of Nanny Theresa. Please note I am not an Elder but through permission given to me by my mother I am able to respond to requests. Requests that out of the usual are always fed back to my mother for her approval.

    I thank the authors of the “we walk with you” page and appreciate the respect paid to Nanny Theresa and the Yorta Yorta people.

    Warm regards

    • MB February 6, 2017 at 5:25 am #

      Narida – we’re honoured to help.

    • Jac June 5, 2017 at 4:26 am #

      Hello Narida, We would love to sing this at our NAIDOC assembly. Are we allowed to do so?
      Thank you

  14. Nancy March 23, 2017 at 2:28 am #

    Could I please seek permission to sing this song for PacFest by the Punchbowl Boys High School.
    Thank you also for the information. It was vert helpful to get an understanding for what our boys will stand for on the day of this festival. The Pacfest – Believe in who you are

    • MB April 3, 2017 at 5:22 am #

      Hi there – it would be fantastic to hear how the lads sing it! Make sure you post a link of a video please! I think there’s a good argument for this song to be sung in a war like fashion, it’s a song of defiance, of trusting the almighty for justice!

      As mentioned elsewhere, if you’re looking for cultural permissions, it doesn’t really lie with us. I would contact Yorta Yorta Elders and descendants of Theresa Clements – they’re able to be contacted through

  15. Frank Hales May 10, 2017 at 11:04 pm #

    I world love to be able to use “Narida Burra Ferra” at our annual NAIDOC celebration assembly. Given that the theme for 2017 is “Our language” I feel this song would have significant meaning to our students. If anyone has the music to this song and who I need to contact to get permission I would appreciate your assistance

    • Jac June 5, 2017 at 4:24 am #

      Frank, we would like to use this song as well for our NAIDOC assembly. Did you get any response regarding permission to sing?

  16. Viv Lee-Hynes July 5, 2017 at 12:37 pm #

    I belong to a ‘Natural Voice’ singing group in the UK who sing songs from many different countries and cultures, for our own enjoyment and wellbeing. We would love to have permission to to sing Bura Fera and to have access to the lyrics and 4 part harmaony


  1. We always knew we were SPECIAL… | Melbourne Indigenous Church - May 16, 2016

    [...] We felt a connection in the Lord and in some ways of a shared history as we remembered the Fisk Jubilee Singers who were a choir of emancipated slaves visiting here in Victoria in 1886. Bura Fera is a song now made famous in the movie the Sapphires. It was a song which they shared with the people of Maloga that was translated into Yorta Yorta!. Our little church was able to sing that song for these lovely visitors who appreciated the connection of the songs of Faith and Freedom that drive us forward in HOPE… Bura Fera history [...]

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