Voice of her people comes to Clonakilty festival

Voice of her people comes to Clonakilty festival

Emily Wurramara grew up on an island of a couple of thousand people, off the northern coast of Australia. People fished and camped.

There were family gatherings and beach parties that went on into the night. When she was six years old, her family moved to Brisbane, on the mainland.

City life was an assault on the senses. There were so many people and cars and the buildings were so tall.

She felt claustrophobic in its shopping malls. She found refuge in music.

“I found songwriting — writing my feelings down and turning them into songs and poetry — helped me escape. It really helped me tell my own stories. It gave me a space to reflect.

"I went on and picked up the violin, which was my first instrument, which is really weird,” she says.

I started out in classical music. Then, I went on to learn the saxophone, piano, guitar, ukulele, and I’m just learning to play the drums. I like to expand my musical repertoire.

Wurramara — who will be in Ireland for the first time to perform at next week’s Clonakilty International Guitar Festival — caused a stir with her debut EP, Black Smoke, in 2016.

It features songs in both English and her traditional language, Anindilyakwa. Wurramara has built on the success with an album, Milyakburra.

The album features the song ‘Hey Love’, about the racial abuse of her mother at boarding school. Its lyrics are powerful:

“She was in the toilets one afternoon/These girls walked in, older by a few years/They told her things that weren’t true/Because of her mother they hated her, too/They pushed her around and spat on her face.”

Wurramara says things haven’t improved much:

“I’m not speaking for the collective of indigenous Australians. From my personal experiences, racism is well and truly still alive, wherever you go. I recently went to Darwin for my auntie’s wedding. I went with my other auntie, who is a professor.

She’s got her head screwed on right. She’s an amazing, talented woman. We were out at the hen night, sitting outside having a cigarette. These men came up and started calling us derogatory names.

"One of them was ‘Abo’. It’s short for ‘aborigine’. It’s very rude.

“We experience it almost every day. You can’t go into a shop without people looking at you, thinking you’re going to steal something.

"You can’t go to a club without people looking at you and telling you that you’re doing something wrong, basing you on these stereotypes of an Aboriginal person.

"Sometimes, I come across people who think we live on the dole, we ride kangaroos, we have big noses, we’re very black. It’s full-on. It’s really offensive.”

Wurramara still flits between two worlds: her busy, burgeoning professional career as a singer-songwriter in the western world, and trips back to Groote island, where she learnt so much from her grandparents and their generation.

She has brought some of those life lessons with her into city life.

“Wherever my grandmother went, she used to always smile at people,” says Wurramara.

“She had this energy about her that was very welcoming. She was very present. When I was younger, I used to always smile at everyone on the island, too. I was very happy. I still am, but when I came to the city, I noticed that people didn’t smile at people while they were walking past each other on the street.

"I started to do that and people started smiling back. It made me think of home.”

Emily Wurramara will perform at the Clonakilty International Guitar Festival, 9pm, Tuesday, September 17, De Barra’s Folk Club, Clonakilty, Co Cork.

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