Ngambala Wiji Li-Wunungu (Together We Are Strong). The Song Peoples Sessions

Shellie Morris and the Borroloola Songwomen
Contemporary, Indigenous Australian, World
2 CDs, box set with large booklet. Barkley Regional Arts Or ABC Music Shellie’s website:
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2014

Last year I wrote a rapturous review of the Winanjjara double CD by Warren H Williams and the Warramungu Songmen. Ngambala Wiji Li-Wunungu (Together We Are Strong) by Shellie Morris and the Borroloola Songwomen is the second release of the culturally significant project knows as The Song Peoples Sessions.

The project facilitates collaborations between traditional and contemporary Australian indigenous musicians and aims to maintain indigenous languages and traditional song cycles. Winanjjara was with the Songmen of the central desert. Ngambala Wiji Li-Wunungu is with the Songwomen of Northern Territory coastal region centred in Borroloola.

Yanuwa Song Women

Yanuwa Song Women

Shellie Morris’s life story is fascinating. Her maternal grandmother, Hilda Muir, one of the Stolen Generations, was taken at the age of 8 from her family in the gulf country. Shellie was adopted at birth and grew up with a loving and supportive non-indigenous family in the south-western suburbs of Sydney. Even though she had an idyllic childhood she became a troubled teenager with a need to find her roots. She was also developing a strong interest in music and singing including taking lessons in operatic technique but, while being aware of her Aboriginal parentage had no knowledge of Indigenous language or culture.  

In the 1990’s she felt drawn to the Northern Territory and moved to Darwin. After some amazing twists and turns in her story she found her sister who was working in Kakadu National Park and in her 30’s eventually reconnected with her birth family.

Language forms a central theme of her story. On hearing the indigenous languages of the Northern Territory she knew she was ‘home’. She then spent more than 12 years working in as many as 60 Aboriginal communities and learning 14 languages and dialects in order to encourage song-writing with children and elders.

So, Shellie was the perfect choice for a Song People’s project. In 2011 and 2012 she returned to Borroloola where she learned the Yanyuwa language with the help of 30 grandmothers, aunties, sisters and daughters. She enthusiastically encouraged her elders to be a part of project which took them all on a unique musical journey resulting in this double CD.

On one CD we hear 58 traditional songs accompanied only by clapsticks and at times a didjeridoo, which the locals call ‘bamboo’, played by a nephew Gadrian Hoosan from the Sandridge Band. The substantial CD booklet includes translations and narrative explanations. The women shared their stories of first hearing the ancient songs and remembered fondly their elders since passed away, who had patiently taught them the songs over many years in the same way that they now share these songs with the younger generations.

The other CD is of contemporary songs written by Morris in collaboration with the Songwomen and combining their traditional song cycles into the final production. In an interview with Andrew Ford on the Radio National Music Show, when asked about blending the traditional sounds of the Songwomen with her contemporary song-writing, Shellie answered ‘I wanted to be very respectful with the music that surrounded those traditional songs because we’re mixing traditional and contemporary and I wanted to hold them incredibly precious in my hands. I was going for a very cinematic and epic feel for the album because it lends itself to that sense of grandeur’. With the support of executive producer Patrick McCloskey, excellent and sensitive production by Tim Cole and additional vocals by the Gondwana National Indigenous Children’s Choir, this aim has been realised beautifully. The use of keyboards instead of strumming guitars and Cole’s subtle string arrangements along with live clapsticks, sequenced percussion and natural sounds of the sea, give the soundscape a mythic quality that spans the sense of time and imagination required of such an ambitious recording. 

Shellie now sings with the Black Arm Band and continues her extensive work singing and recording with communities in Aboriginal languages supported by the Fred Hollows and The Jimmy Little Foundations. Ngambala Wiji Li-Wunungu is a stunning companion double CD to Winanjjara. It is both culturally important and thrilling to listen to.

LISTEN: Shellie’s conversation on ABC Radio with Richard Fidler:

Shellie Morris & the Borroloola Songwomen with the Gondwana National Indigenous Children’s Choir performing Waliwaliyangu li-Anthawirriyarra a-Kurija – Saltwater People Song, at the 2011 Deadly Awards in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House:

VIEW: A collection of Youtube videos. (Check out her duet with Ross Wilson on Rockwiz and wonder why she isn’t a household name… great singer!)

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