Words are important to Corey Theatre. So too is the preservation of Indigenous Australian languages. Theatre is on a mission to preserve them the best way he knows how. Through music. “That’s what Aboriginal people used to do,” he says. “Store our knowledge in songs.”
On July 2 Theatre hits the stage in Adelaide as part of Nexus Live’s program of multicultural gigs. In August he’ll release his debut album, Ngathuk Ngalina (We Two), with live performances across the country.
The album draws on his Koori and European lineage, with songs written in Gunditjmara, a language that hasn’t been spoken fluently for close to 100 years. Not bad for a 28-year-old who says music was always “just out of reach” when he was a kid.
Theatre was born in Daylesford, Victoria, and moved to Adelaide as a nipper. His mum is Belgian and his dad Gunditjmara. His uncles played guitar and his mother owned one, too. But he wasn’t allowed to touch it. “Maybe that’s why I wanted to play,” he says. “If something is given to you or pushed on you, you often reject it, but if it’s just there, just out of reach, you often want it more.”
A Christmas trip to Daylesford changed things. “I was 17 and my uncle [a builder] asked me to do some work on his house.” The reward was guitar lessons. “My first one was four or five hours,” he says. “I learnt a song called Candyman by Reverend Gary Davis, an old ragtime tune.” Theatre returned to Adelaide, gathered his pocket money and purchased a $100 guitar. The rest is roots, blues and ragtime history.
Studying at Adelaide University’s CASM (Centre of Aboriginal Studies in Music), shaped his path. There, he grew to love Indigenous languages and traditional Aboriginal music. “I don’t know if the same thing would have happened if I lived in Victoria, but being in Adelaide, there’s a lot of exposure to different Aboriginal cultures,” he says. “You’ve got people who come down from the APY Lands that still speak Pitjantjatjara, people from Port Augusta, and Ngarrindjeri just over the hills who still speak some of their language.” He pauses. “That’s not the case with Victoria, it’s a bit more of a sad story back home. There’s a lot less [traditional] language spoken.”
Learning Pitjantjatjara sparked a desire to learn about Gunditjmara, his own native tongue. “I thought, ‘I want to write it in my own language because that will be good for me and good for my community back home.”
Theatre spends most of his spare time in libraries and museums, hunched over old documents written by missionaries and anthropologists. “They’d talk to Aboriginal people, write down language and record it all,” he says. “I try to piece it together. You’ll sometimes have five or six different versions [of words] and you’ve got to compare them. When you have multiple spellings it’s good because you can work out what the word sounded like.” It’s all material used in his songwriting.
Ngathuk Ngalina was recorded in Melbourne and features Archie Roach, who, like Theatre and his father, is Gunditjmara. Roach was pleased to see traditional language preserved through song. “I think he was very happy to be involved,” says Theatre. “Marrying music and language is a good way of learning. They go hand-hand-hand.”
He next plans to tackle Gunai. “I’m thinking of going to Victoria in a year to do some further study and to pursue the Gunai language,” he says. “The next album might focus on that.” He also writes and performs songs in Kaurna and in 2013 won the first Australia’s Got Language Talent competition for the performance of his song Ngathuk Ngalina.
“Schools are starting to do language revival and music is a great way to learn a language,” he says. The revival of long lost words is no easy task, but the satisfaction is worth it. “I love learning languages. It’s one of my favourite things to do,” he says. “It’s tricky and takes a lot of time but it’s rewarding. It’s like they say, ‘if you can find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life’.”
Corey Theatre, Emily Wurrumara and Vinda Last perform at Nexus Live on July 2 at Nexus Arts. All three are actively involved in Aboriginal language preservation and revival.
Corey Theatre launches his new album in Adelaide on August 5, Melbourne on August 6 and Sydney on August 13.