In 2017 I composed Yoora Tattoo, the second movement of my three part Kooranginy Spinning Suite. In this movement I set a fife tattoo drumbeat against an Aboriginal “Wara Wara” motif. “Wara Wara” means “go away” in the Dharug language of the Aboriginal country renamed Sydney (after an English Lord who never came to Australia) by English colonisers. Yoora is the Noongar word for clapsticks, and tattoo is from taptoo, a word the English adopted from their military camps in Holland, that came to mean the drum signal played to order the soldiers to turn off the beer taps and go back to barracks at night. We know that this tattoo fife and drum signal was played every night at 8.00 pm in the 1788 British military camp at Sydney Cove, because the early Sydney colonial newspapers reported this. This military signal was probably the first English music heard by Australian Indigenous people. The ABC rerecorded, published and distributed my Yoora Tattoo music in 2022, on the Ngarra Burria CD.
The current ABC series The Aboriginal Wars, brilliantly presented by Rachel Perkins, belatedly examines the extended conflicts that followed the 1788 British invasion. This major war history was excluded from colonial Australian history books and education curricula, under the White Australia mass indoctrination policy, for over two centuries. Australians of all origins were subjected to massive colonial subordination that deliberately erased all but imported English culture and language from our daily activities and consciousness. This policy included overwhelming promotion of imported music, and misrepresentation of Aboriginal cultures and peoples. Breaking the hold of the mass amnesia that this systemic colonialist indoctrination induced, and enforced, has not been easy or pleasant. Examining paradoxical cultural contradictions through music, is one way to approach this task.
When I began writing my Postgraduate thesis on Australian composition in 2020, I chose Yoora Tattoo as my title. Why? Because setting an Indigenous word right next to its nearest English equivalent, with the Indigenous word first, rightly asserts prior Indigenous presence, and displays a legitimate cultural difference. It also incites my readers and hearers to explore what is unsaid, unwritten, and unsung, in the cultural void between the two words. For instance, that yoora are a woman’s instrument, whereas the tattoo drum is a man’s instrument. And that yoora beat time to peaceful dances and songs, whereas the tattoo drum is an instrument of war.
Nearly three years beyond the declaration of the Covid pandemic on 13 March 2020, my Yoora Tattoo thesis is nearing completion. Following that simple two way track enabled me to explore, through composition, where we are as Australians, from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives. As Uncle Greg Simms taught me many years ago, music always sounds better when it’s played on both black and white keys.