This post, which arose from an interview in Sydney, Australia in 2019 with Indigenous singer-songwriter Jacinta Tobin (JT), was contributed by FEL Executive Committee member Eda Derhemi (ED). It is an edited version of a story that appeared in Ogmios Newsletter 66. (Unless otherwise indicated, photographs are from Jacinta Tobin’s website.)
JT: When people ask me ‘how can I be indigenous and so fair’ or ‘what part of me is Aboriginal’, I say: “It’s that part that never left; it’s the part of me that has a deep connection and responsibility to this country”
ED: I first met Jacinta during the 23rd annual conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) which took place in Sydney, Australia, in December 2019. As bush fires grew everyday around Sydney, the Pacific ocean reflected red and smoky skies. The conference dealt with causes of linguistic endangerment and language loss today, and as we met during conference sessions, we thought about consequences as much as causes, and the ecological disaster that was related to that loss. The conference organizers could not have found a better activist to open the conference: she began with a story told in song about how tragic and complex the consequences of language loss are. Her words and songs moved us and framed this international conference in a way that brought the Indigenous Australian voice in to view during the whole conference. Her Aboriginal spirit of the past, which for her lives also as vibrations in the air, has the face of all women, and of community, Earth, and resistance.
JT: Some of my songs like Blacktown Joe were given to me by Aunty Gladys Smith, one of my elders. The Kookaburra song was given to me in language by Aunty Joan Cooper and Aunty Betty Lock. Most of the songs I have written myself, influenced by spirit. Weerawee was written with Cindy Laws and Michelle Laws. Cindy also gave me the words for Ancestors Plea which was given to her by spirits. I’ve also done music with Aboriginal women from other groups, such as Nardi Simpson and Sheily Morris. Recently, my son and I wrote music for his school, Katoomba High School, which was given an award. Very proud! I don’t do clubs or pubs; I do community events, and my public is everyone from government departments to non-government, to family and friends’ gatherings, and other communities and councils. I also sing for women, Earth Day, and for schools and universities.
ED: The research of my colleague Pilar Martinez-Quiroga at the University of Illinois focuses on the triple rebellious nature of female writers from linguistic and cultural minorities in Spain. There is something about growing up a woman in a minority whose rights are not guaranteed that brings them to the front of social activism as feminists, minority leaders in the fight for language and cultural rights, and artists. I saw all these features rooted that first day in Jacinta’s words, songs, and language.
19th century representations of Benelong (courtesy Natural History Museum, London)
JT: My ancestor Maria first married Dicky, the son of Eora senior man Woollarawarre Bennelong. After Dicky she had a second choice and married a convict called Robert Lock at Parramatta on 26th January 1824. He was a convict, but he stayed with Maria and raised nine children (theirs was the first mixed marriage in the settlement). He had blond hair and blue eyes. He was a carpenter — very good with his hands. Maria was daughter of a karraji (indigenous healer) leader of the Richmond clan of the Dharug (or Darug) people, and passed away on 6th July 1878 at Blacktown. The son of Maria and Robert, called William Lock, married Sarah Ann Castles, who became Granny Lock; she was of the Gannemegal clan of the Dharug language group.
ED: At this point in her story I am concentrating hard, trying to keep up with all the information given in brief sentences that appear like formulas of a recited ritual with more background knowledge than I can handle. It all seems fascinating. The elaboration and cultural depth of the sentence with the convict and the non-judgmental (as a matter of fact, embracing) attitude Jacinta transmits, fascinate me. Granny Lock, I think, must be Jacinta’s grandma.
JT: Granny Lock was known to have walked from Eastern Creek to Parramatta to see the first steam train. She was also a language informant for R. H. Matthews (surveyor and self-taught anthropologist). Their daughter called Theresa, married Edward Joseph Moran who was born on a boat from England. Their daughter Kathleen (Flo) Moran married a Burke; they were my grandmother and grandfather. Their daughter Valerie married my dad Kevin Tobin, then there’s me. I have two children: one is Jasper Daruga, my Falling Star, and Killimai, my Bright Eyes… and they follow culture because their mother does… but they have a choice… if they choose to or not when they get old enough.
ED: Boy, was I wrong about Granny Lock (Sarah) of the first half of 1800s, being Jacinta’s grandma! Granny Kathleen (called also Flo) was instead her grandma. Jacinta’s description of Maria and the Blue-eyed Robert Lock, as much as that of Granny Lock who walked for days to see the first train, then of Theresa and Kathleen and Valerie, were told with the same historic certainty and expressive detail, as stories about the schools and activities where Jacinta preferred to sing today. I made three different family trees to understand the lineage of members until I got it right. In my defence, I must say that the whole interview was not only a very strongly knit narrative, but the countless characters described in it interacted with each other in a supratemporal dimension, all brought to the interlocutor with the same ease and expressivity as those who, according to me, “really” lived in the present. And the answer to why her perception is not that which I am used to, and is shaped with particular strength and timelessness, is clear in what she said next.
JT: I’m a descendant of two clans of the Sydney language group: the Gannemegal from Prospect and Buruberongal from the Richmond Greater Sydney area … I come from an unbroken women’s line to Gannemegal Prospect. This is a vibration and frequency that lives in my DNA. I live in the country where my ancestors on my mother’s side have always been born; that’s how I know I’m Indigenous. I have a blood line responsibility. We have something to offer the 21st century and maybe, being a fair-skinned person, you might listen to us.
ED: Jacinta’s language has features mine does not. It is coded. It has a depth that mine is missing. As I listen and read and reread her answers, I find myself wondering about the meaning more than usual and questioning my logic and worldview, which have become obstacles. As I do, I decide to send her questions about our first interview and then more questions about the answers to my previous questions. The more I read and reread her answers, the better I understand that what I considered some sort of mysticism or Magical Realism in her world view is in fact her sense of duty to the world and her ancestors, a conceptual structure that sees all of us in all continents and all times, humans as part of nature, of past and future, as related in an uninterrupted line. It is an ecology that we have forgotten and which we as humans are having a hard time to re-establish. I understand that I am not part of the “I” and “we” Jacinta mentioned above. I lack her natural and effortless sense of ecology that includes climate, language, culture, forests, behavior, change, philosophy, physics, and her children as well as her remote ancestors. Jacinta lives, speaks, and sings it. I try to reach it as knowledge outside of me, and make it part of my life. But there are so many social and cultural filters (most of which are beyond my awareness) that weaken this connection for me. Jacinta lives her life with a clear mission, which I should join for my own good. For Jacinta, language, song, and culture are indivisible, and are also a way to save the future of our planet. Her voice in the planet comes through her songs, which are also her language and Aboriginal knowledge.
JT: I wrote my music to tell a story. Our story is our song. I sing to let people know we are still here and also to hopefully touch base with ancestors, landscape, animals, and family in our Aboriginal way. Through the vibration and frequency of country in Dharug and English … Music has always been a way to map our country, it is our title deed you could say. Our music, our song, reflects our realities maybe through quantum physics and other theories that are coming to light. Hopefully, in the future we would be able to see music as a science and not just an art or just a song. The connection of language and song is our strength; it is the way of saying prayer and showing gratitude to being able to be part of this existence. The messages in the language and song in our country also help the natural environments that are our home vibrate and become healthier. This is not about song for song’s sake … if we could understand a little bit more. In my country, music is seen as a school subject, and not a way of life as it was in times past. My understanding is that more music in one’s life means a more compassionate society. My song and language are for a sustainable living, understanding that we’re not the only living creatures on this earth and that there is a way to work in harmony with all that is. We need to stop being arrogant as humans and realize we are part of nature and we have a responsibility to it.
ED: I interviewed Jacinta right after months of fires all around Australia, but I did not ask any questions about the fires. Nonetheless, in her ecological view Jacinta sees her country and the world as her personal responsibility – the same way she sees language, music, and her ancestors’ culture as closely related agents for a better future. Her clear ideas and strong opinions make me realize how correct and useful her insights are in these grim days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As she says, “we are all connected in this world”.
JT: The absence of language and song is so present in my country. I believe this is why we are burning. It’s time for us to actually learn and relearn old lessons, and to join with other Aboriginal nations who know the connection to their country through song. I am an optimist. I believe that we can bring the 21st century into a new way of living together. I pray that FEL will help people understand vibration and frequency which have been the Aboriginal science of this country for a millennium. That’s why language is important in this country. Some of us are relearning and we thank the universe that some of the Aboriginal people still preserve that knowing. FEL, through its network, should work more to lift up those people in Aboriginal communities who have this knowledge. They may speak five languages, but when you hear their broken English, they are judged as people with simple minds. Please lift them up! FEL should continue to stress that language is part of environmental knowledge, language is part of health issues, language is part of education, language is part of music and song — and that we are all connected in this world. Thousands of generations have sung for me in language, and now I need to sing for thousands to come.