Shellie Morris has been called a ‘chanteuse of rare seriousness and grace’. This unique artist has traversed the most glamorous world stages to the humblest campfire concerts in Australia’s remotest communities. Shellie’s new release Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu (Together We are Strong) is the first album by an Indigenous contemporary female singer/songwriter sung entirely in Indigenous languages of the Gulf Country. Working with family members from her grandmother’s country in Borroloola, this collaborative work is something special.
Morris’s story is the stuff mythic stories are made of. Opera-trained Morris was adopted as a baby and bought up in a loving white family with no knowledge of her Indigenous family or country. Shellie was working in a rental car company when a bloke turns up and says ‘gees you got here fast’. Of course Shellie didn’t recognise the gentleman who seemed to know her, so he laughed that she must have a twin sister in Kakadu. Turns out she did. And so began Shellie’s journey home to country, to family and to her self.
‘It’s been a gentle journey,’ she says, ‘and you know that from working in the 70 remote communities where I’ve been, the gentleness and the patience – allowing you to slip up with saying a word wrong or to be in that learning phase, it was very patient, and they said, we understand there will be a lot of learning.’
Ironically, this simple case of mistaken identity led Shellie to find her deeper identity.
‘There was a great peace and a great sense of self for the first time in my life and the anxiousness that I carried from wanting and trying to fit in fell away.’
Fast forward to the Yanyuwa stories, a long-term project recognising the importance of language preservation, of story and of community. Sadly there are fewer than 10 fluent speakers of Yanyuwa language in the world.
‘It took a lot of hard work to pronounce words properly,’ says Shellie, ‘but by the time I got to Borroloola, I was ready but very nervous. I thought there would be one or two songs sung in language. But they said the whole album is in language.’
For Yanyuwa women says Morris, ‘there is a very strong culture of women speaking language. The women have been very strong, and it is crossing that generational line, the young people are still dancing their dances. So when we made this album we bought the young children into the studio and wrote a song. It was wonderful, they have a whole dance now, where all the young people from the different clan groups came together, it’s phenomenal. The young people are knowing more of their language than they ever have before.’
‘Track one is called li-Anthawirriyarra – Saltwater song. It is the story of Borroloola, it has many islands and they used to travel from island to island, we know the sea and the sea knows me, and it is about the relationship with the ocean.
‘The traditional songs were recorded acappella, sometimes slapsticks and boomerang and occasionally with didge, and they were recorded and translated into English for the album as well. I would read the translations when I wrote something in English and translate into Yanyuwa and talk with the women as I would have to check with them.’
In recording terms the production process was unconventional.
‘We went in with one keyboard, the only one in the community. There is a lot of space in the recording studio. We wanted it to be cinematic, with lots of space. We were going to mix the contemporary and the ancient so we all went in and re-wrote and played it so the grandmothers could hear it. They were overwhelmed, they burst into tears, and the whole community loved it. It was incredibly overwhelming.’
The recording process wasn’t just emotionally intense, it was also a lot of fun. Shellie says, ‘There were so many times we couldn’t breathe or couldn’t record because we were laughing so much!’
‘The grandmothers weren’t used to a recording studio (that we’d built in an old morgue), so we got women to sing by themselves and they haven’t sung by themselves before and that voice would come out and some would have cold and flu, and it would sound strange to them and then the laughter!’
At the live performance in Darwin, comedian and actor Magda Subanski phoned Shellie to tell her that it was the best show she’d ever seen – emotional, hysterically funny and very very real.’
‘Just getting on stage was funny,’ says Morris. ‘I’m back stage with all these grandmothers, one of them goes out, and the audience cheered so hard she got the slapsticks and said, come on we gotta get this show started now. We finally get on stage and one of the grandmothers says ‘should we start now?’ I say yes, now is good. Another one says ‘so now’. Now would be good. ‘Now?’ The audience were hysterical. It was a chaotic show, the audience loved it.’
‘These are very powerful women and it comes across. Nothing phases them, especially if there’s a cup of tea back stage. They are my heroes!’
Shellie Morris will be performing Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu, The Song Peoples Sessions with the Borroloola Songwomen at the Boomerang Festival of Indigenous Music and Arts 4-6 October.