Composing Kaouwi Two Children Cooee for “Songs from the Heart”

I originally composed Kaouwi Two Children Cooee as a simple children’s song. The transliterated word Cooee comes from the Dharug Aboriginal language, the First Contact Australian Aboriginal language of the place the English renamed Sydney, the Country of the Dharug-speaking Gadigal clan of the Eora Nation. Soon after the English landed in 1788, many words of this language were written down by Lt. William Dawes, as taught to him by a native woman, Patyegarang. In his notebooks, Lt. Dawes recorded the word Cooee as Kaouwi, and he also recorded Patyegarang’s spoken words “Ngabi bena ngala maru! Dyela tienmille ngyela!” meaning “Come here! Come near! Come and play with me!” Dharug composer Dr. Christopher Sainsbury, my Dharug composition Supervisor at the Australian National School of Music, gave me permission to use these words as the lyrics of Kaouwi Two Children Cooee, after I sought his advice.

The first sketches of Kaouwi Two Children Cooee were a series of imitative triadic echoes. I developed this idea in workshops with The Song Company. The music was also influenced by an image of an Australian Aboriginal boy holding hands with an English boy, that British Governors used to persuade Aboriginal people to surrender. No one surrendered, but I express the hope of future agreements and enduring friendships, in this music.

Sung, loosely structured improvisations on the words Kaouwi and Cooee, and intermediary sounds, shape the song in performance. The idea of calling across the vast distances of Australian Country, across the mountainous crevasses and deserts that separate our communities, and across ideological and cultural gaps, to gather people together, underpins this song. In Songs from the Heart, Dharawal mezzo soprano Sonya Holowell and Biripi tenor Elias Wilson led the Kaouwi call, using Patyegarang’s First Contact Dharug language words. The tentative, distant Cooee responses of the non-Indigenous singers overlap with the leading Kaouwi calls, eventually forming a disciplined, interlaced polyphonic vocal matrix as the singers’ paths meet, cross and recross in a walking together dialogue.

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