By Arne Sjostedt
Katie Noonan has a strong connection to and love for the culture of our First People. It started when she was a young girl, reading the English language poetry of political activist and the first published Aboriginal Australian poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
“I was immediately very moved and struck by the visceral nature of her writing,” Noonan says.
“Like most white kids in the 80s, I knew nothing about it. It wasn’t taught at school. I really didn’t understand indigenous culture much at all. I’d never met an Aboriginal person.”
It was an experience that started a deep fascination and great respect and reverence of their ancient culture.
Hand in hand with any awakening and appreciation of indigenous Australians comes an awareness of the pain and suffering they have endured. It is no secret and remains a scar on our historical consciousness. Even today, without proper constitutional recognition and despite the positive work done over many years by committed ambassadors, reconciliation at times seems as deep a problem to resolve as it ever has.
Working at the front line, championing both a symbolic and very real approach to connect with and heal from our historical mistakes, Noonan’s latest project The Glad Tomorrow is a poignant collection of songs taken from poems written by Oodgeroo.
Together with the Australian String Quartet, the album is a graceful artistic experience, powerful historical documentation of Oodgeroo’s work, and an important record of indigenous language.
Containing compositions commissioned specifically for this collaboration, with Oodgeroo’s poems sung by Noonan then spoken by Oodgeroo’s great grand-daughter Kaleenah Edwards in the Jandai language, this is the first time these poems have been translated into language and performed this way.
The driving force behind the project is to embody the essence of a Yolngu term Makaratta, which Noonan explains is to acknowledge the past and move together as one people. It captures the idea of two parties coming together after a struggle, and seeking to heal division and make things right.
“The poems all offer hope, and they offer love and they offer compassion. And that’s what is so wonderful. That’s why I call it The Glad Tomorrow.”
It is a line from the Oodgeroo poem Noonan chose to set herself for this project, A Song of Hope.
To our fathers’ fathers
The pain, the sorrow
To our children’s children
The glad tomorrow
For Noonan, these words sum up this concept of Makaratta and offer a fitting signpost on how to overcome and heal.
“I absolutely believe that in order to heal as a country we have to acknowledge our past. And acknowledge trauma and a very recent history,” Noonan says.
With much to learn from our indigenous Australians, for Noonan this project has been driven by a desire to share in the wisdom she has been able to experience throughout her life and her connection to First Nations culture.
“The First Nations people that I know have always been incredibly welcoming and warm and loving. It’s a welcoming thing, and it’s an honest space. They don’t want people to feel bad about things that white people did 250 years ago or however long ago it was. It’s about just acknowledging it because it is actual fact.”
“Acknowledging the truth and the history and then moving forward together, learning from each other. And we have so much to learn from our indigenous peoples in so many ways. Connection to country, conservation. All the kids that marched on the climate strike, that is essentially saying what indigenous dudes have been saying for decades.”
Audiences experiencing Noonan perform these songs together with the Australian String Quartet will also have the special gift of listening to Kaleenah Edwards reciting the poems in Jandai, which Noonan says is even more significant given this year is the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
This, together with Noonan and the string quartet showcasing compositions from Carl Vine, Elena Kats-Chernin, Richard Tognetti, Iain Grandage, David Hirschfelder as well as Queensland composers Thomas Green, Robert Davidson, Connor D’Netto, William Barton, it is hard not to feel that this concert series will become a landmark creative moment for many Australians hoping to lift the lid on the persistent and pervading problem of acceptance and need for progress in the reconciliation movement. As with many powerful experiences, it has been built on a simple idea that resonates beyond its component parts, toward a place deep within our cultural awareness.
“It is very simple,” Noonan says. “I’ve always loved Oodgeroo’s poetry and I kept on coming back to it and feeling that these words had things to teach me and therefore hopefully others.”
Katie Noonan and the Australian String Quartet play the Canberra Theatre Centre on Saturday 9 November. Details at canberratheatrecentre.com.au