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Swan Song – Maroochy Barambah’s bumper year

This story originally appeared in Deadly Vibe Magazine Issue #7 August, 1997

We have just opened The Vault – all the back stories from old editions – dating back to the 1990s. To know where we are going, it's important to understand where we have been. And that story you can follow in the Deadly Vibe Vault!

“If you come from your roots, you don’t have to impress people. We as a nation are coming to the point where we feel more comfortable with ourselves and with our culture.”

Reading through Maroochy Barambah’s list of achievements is awe-inspiring. She has performed on the stage of the Sydney Opera House and sung the national anthem at the Australian Football League Grand Final. She’s starred in films and on television. The spectrum of musical forms she has worked across – from traditional and contemporary Aboriginal styles through to Jazz, dance and opera – is almost as wide as her vocal range.

You might expect someone who has worked in so many fields and with such success to have an inflated sense of her own self-importance. But, whilst Maroochy Barambah’s presence is strong and quite mesmerising, the strongest impression you take away from meeting her is that she is actually very shy.

One thing is for sure, Maroochy Barambah has a strong sense of who she is, her heritage and her role. She comes from a songline, so she never doubted that she would end up singing. But Aboriginal music was not always as accepted as it is today. “If you come from you roots, you don’t have to impress people. We as a nation are coming to a point where we feel more comfortable with ourselves and with our culture.”

Maroochy was born on the Cherbourg Aboriginal Mission in Queensland. At the age of 13, she was fostered out to a family in Melbourne. Inevitably, given the strength of the connection she feels with the land of her birth, she has returned there. But being Maroochy Barambah, just being there is not enough. So she has founded the Barambah Beltout Festival, an annual event that takes place in Cherbourg (you can read a review of this year’s festival in the June edition of Deadly Vibe).

The ultimate aim of the Barambah Beltout Festival is to enhance the lives of the young people of the region. It’s a topic on which Maroochy, usually a woman of few words, had plenty to say. “I like to tell young people to go for it. Believe in yourself, whatever you want, you can do it. Of course it helps to have a supportive family. And I do believe that some parents have let the youth down. But ultimately, young people have to get back to their own country and get in touch with their dreaming and their bloodlines. Once you’ve done that, it makes you strong. And you can do whatever you want.”

It looks like it’s going to be a busy year for Maroochy Barambah. In September she’s going to be starring in Black River, the ground-breaking opera that is being revived as part of The Festival of the Dreaming. But before them, she will be releasing and promoting her first full length CD, Once Upon a Dreamtime. In the tradition of her earlier releases (EPs Mongungi and Aborigine), Once Upon a Dreamtime aims to revive the heritage of the Turrbal and Gubbi Gubbi cultures of Southern Queensland.

The story of how Maroochy came to record the stories of the Gubbi Gubbi people stretches back to her time living in Melbourne in the 1970’s. Whilst she was there, she had been visited on many occasions by Uncle Zac Martin, an actor of Gubbi Gubbi decent. He told her he wanted her to record the stories and legends of his people. Every time he came to see her, he would ask,’ Where is me recording?’

Maroochy later came across these stories again in a book by a non-indigenous writer, Alf Wood, Along the Sunshine Coast which records the history and beliefs of the Gubbi Gubbi people. She met up with Alf and was inspired to write the poetry, stories and songs which now make up Once Upon a Dreamtime.

The album includes a number of tracks which are a tribute to Murukutjin, a Turrbal and Gubbi Gubbi word meaning ‘the red nose one’ or the Black Swan, Maroochy’s image. One such track, “Legend of Maroochy/Murukutjin”, is a live recording of Maroochy at Melbourne Concert Hall made during the national tour with Sweet Honey in the Rock. Another theme that is reflected in Maroochy’s songs is her concern for indigenous youth.

Once Upon a Dreamtime includes a song entitled “Spirit of the Land/Yellow Sun” (another track recorded when she was touring with Sweet Honey in the Rock). The chorus goes, “Yellow sun, black and red, sign of hope for the road ahead” It’s a strong message to the younger generation of Indigenous Australians to search inside themselves for their identity rather than turning to drugs and alcohol for escapism.

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