Malcolm Williamson Master of the Queen's Music
How old is space? Where is time? How young is democracy? Who better than the Australian Aboriginal people know? Before Abraham was, Australians in their tribal cities understood. Their happy liaison with Mother Earth enabled them to know what was to be known, to accept what was and is mystery.
After the unbroken nomadic democracies of near enough 100,000 years lived in the reflection of their eternity, the Dreaming, there came, a mere two centuries ago, a crude and cruel eruption for which ignorance alone can be blamed. The infant civilization of Europe bore south to lasso what was imagined to be a vast and vacant continent. Innocence was lost. Coffin ships came bearing gifts of alcohol, lying and disease hitherto undreamed of in the Dreaming.
The Aborigines gazed on the white interlopers in wonder; the Europeans responded with aggression traditional to their survival culture.
Mystifyingly, two centuries later, white supremacy and near eradication of the world's oldest extant culture are celebrated. A wiser age, still awaited, might have attempted a pluralistic culture and ethnicity. One such culture could have tilted the world on its axis. It is the eleventh hour and, as with Faust, salvation is just possible.
Contemporary Australia is a thrilling hotchpotch of excellence and mediocrity — at once wiser and less wise than any other nation in our world. The burden of needful redemption rests on a pathetically few shoulders. For all its tiny population pitted against diversity in vastness Australia has thrown up more than its share of philosopher-rulers. Too often unheeded because of their improbability and threatened with scything, reluctant politicians and inconvenient artists have stood tall. One such is Kath Walker, born 1920, an Aboriginal poet, survivor of blood sacrifice and prophet of wise hope, master of outrageous hyperbole and intuitive Socratic disciple.
In 1987, I was offered several commissions to write works for the Australian Bicentenary of 1988 designed to celebrate the white man's incursion into the Australian Continent. I had decided to reject one such offer since it came from Queensland because of its unappealing history of injustice to the Aboriginal people. I met a representative of the commissioning body in Sydney. I had prepared my lordly, disdainful rejection of the offer. 1988 seemed to me a year when sorrow for man's inhumanity to man would have been more suitable than celebration of white conquest. Leaving me no chance to accept or reject the offer, I was asked ‘Had you thought about setting Kath Walker to music?’ I knew and admired her poems and, without allowing more than a second for astonishment, I shook his hand and said, ‘Done!’ He explained that the great lady had never allowed her poems to be set to music and that, therefore, two trials had to be undergone to gain her permission — the first, by telephone; the second, face to face.
The long-distance telephone call, deeply serious but laced with laughter, was the first trial. What did I think of Margaret Thatcher, of Ronald Reagan, of the Premier of Queensland? Almost as directly, probing questions about Love, Sexuality, Justice, Retribution, Forgiveness. The first trial led to an invitation to visit.
I flew to Brisbane and then, with two musical colleagues, took the ferry over what might be thought of as Kath Walker's ocean to Stradbroke Island. We drove the dusty roads through the lush and lusty tropical vegetation to a cluster of tents and caravans among the trees. It was nationally known that Kath's home had been vandalized and, since the Queensland police had declined to investigate the matter and no compensation was forthcoming, the Walker family preferred to live on common land in the traditional ‘sitting-down place’ of the Noonuccal tribe in circumstances precluding a recurrence of the injustice.
A small, dainty woman, elegant in a cerise dress and hat which would command admiration in any fashionable street in the world, came to greet us. Embraces seemed entirely natural. Although photographs had made the face familiar, nothing prepared us for the beautiful aquamarine eyes that bespeak innocence, intelligence and wisdom. Kath led us to the veranda and offered us cucumber sandwiches, tropical fruit and tea. In a clearing nearby was a fire of wood and stones being heated for their evening barbecue.
Although time seemed to have stopped, none was wasted in preliminaries. We realized that we had the total acceptance of a loving, candid and indomitable woman. Like Jonathan Jo, she has a wheelbarrow full of surprises. Her strikingly beautiful hands, marvellously manicured and beringed are never without a cigarette. As she waved one towards the distant roadway she shouted, ‘I'll stop smoking when people stop driving cars.’ Through the sunlit hours when we were together we submitted to the paradoxical delights of the mercurial personality of a poet who would recite poems, mostly not her own but which she admired, interposed with amusing bawdy anecdotes, mercilessly accurate denunciations of those who deserved them and unstinted selfless praise of such colleagues as the historian Manning Clark and the great poet Judith Wright.
Essentially every poem, like every spontaneous remark whether literal or metaphorical, is pumiced to shining meaning. The gear-box has yet to be developed which can change gear as Kath's mind does and only indicative fragments can be reproduced here. While she was recounting the story of her trip as a delegate to the People's Republic of China I was removing the teacups. Kath looked over her shoulder to the kitchen and said, ‘Your Mother brought you up well, Malcolm’, and continued to talk about China. Having studied all her printed poems, so diverse and rich, I had arrived with the list in sequence of the poems I wanted to set for what was to become the hour-long choral symphony The Dawn is at Hand. In a rapid switch from reciting a poem by the West Australian Aboriginal poet Jack Davis whom she greatly admires, Kath look my list and, giving sound reasons, reassembled it adding some poems, taking others away. It is hard to know how, before any music was written, she had so astutely envisaged the structure which stands so satisfactorily as the final text.
Thus the second trial was passed. Reluctantly, as a bottle of port was produced and the beef was set for barbecue, we left, laden with passion fruit.
As I went to work on my music, my excitement about the poetry was intensified by the aura of the poet, but simultaneously burdened by the responsibility of looking greatness in the face.
My next meeting with Kath was at as memorable a theatrical evening as I have ever experienced — an Aboriginal manifestation in Sydney written, directed, lit and choreographed by her brilliant son, Vivian. Kath was in the cast as singer, dancer and reciter. She was, at the time, 67 years old but in every department showed the effortless grace of a teenager.
At the first performance of The Dawn is at Hand to a crowded house in Brisbane Concert Hall with the full panoply of soloists, chorus and orchestra Kath and I unwittingly made history. Never before had an Aboriginal poet and a Caucasian composer collaborated in so vast a work. We stood together holding hands in the royal box to acknowledge deafening applause which seemed to last almost the length of the work and for scheduling reasons was eventually curtailed by the national radio. It was shortly after this that the overtly racist government of Queensland, which had for so long been a scarcely concealed scandal, fell.
Kath Walker, poet, essayist, painter, actress and dancer regards herself principally as an educator and, to date, in her Stradbroke Island school well over 30,000 children have passed through her hands. She is, so far, the recipient of honorary doctorates in three Australian states. She has been awarded the M.B.E. for her services to literature and the list of international honours from five continents would occupy pages. A pacifist in life, she is a fighter with the pen. While she and her poems have been chosen to represent Australian literature in North America, Eastern and Western Europe, the Republics of Africa and Asia including China, while every Australian schoolchild knows We are Going and Song of Hope she has suffered enough personal humiliations in her native Queensland to quench a lesser spirit. However, as we may read in her poem Let us not be bitter, it is characteristic of Kath to have compassion for her detractors; but woe betide anybody imprudent enough to open battle with that sharp intellect and flashing tongue, as I know to my personal cost. Although we neither of us knew it, we were both in Moscow at the time of Glasnost:
Kath: ‘Why didn't you come to hear me read?’
Me: ‘I was at the Soviet Composers' Union.'
Kath: ‘Well, that was your bad luck, wasn't it?’
There is every reason to believe that posterity will place Kath Walker as one of the leading poets of our time. Her poetry speaks for itself but, leaving aside the extraordinary gift, the historical and cultural confluences were unforeseeable and unrepeatable. A small girl of some Scottish, some Spanish and much Aboriginal blood had, on the one hand, rudimentary European education imposed on her, while converging with the meditative study of Biami, the indefinable god of creation. The young culture of Europe and the world's oldest culture were absorbed side by side thus forging a unique poetic voice. To date, some 350 Aboriginal root languages have been codified. An Aboriginal poet, Kevin Gilbert, has collected much poetry in these tribal languages like Kath's own Noonuccal, but she has elected to speak her message in English.
Theses on her work abound. What is more significant is that had history been different, had Caucasians occupied Australia for 100,000 years and had Aboriginal aggressors arrived two centuries ago, Kath Walker would have been the champion of the persecuted white people. I can claim no originality for this thought. It has been voiced by American Indians, by Inuits, by persecuted Africans and, indeed, by victims of injustice the world over who refuse to abandon hope and dignity.
On 3 November 1920, Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska was born on North Stradbroke, an island in Moreton Bay about 30 kilometres east of Brisbane, and the home of the Noonuccal tribe.
There were seven children in the Ruska family, and all spent some time at the Dunwich Primary School. At the age of 13, and as an Aborigine with no future in the State Education System, Kath went into domestic service in Brisbane. She was rescued from that fate by the Second World War when she served in the Australian Women's Army Service.
Kath married Bruce Walker, a waterside worker in Brisbane, and had two sons, Denis and Vivian. She joined the Communist Party because it was the only political organization that eschewed the White Australia Policy, but left it because the Party wanted to write her speeches!
The sixties — the years of freedom rides, the struggle for the right to vote and the Gurindji strike at Wave Hill — saw Kath Walker become a prominent and persuasive figure as she wrote and spoke for Aboriginal Rights, perhaps following the path of her father who had been active in the struggle for award wages for Aborigines as early as 1935.
In 1964 her first volume of verse and the first by an Australian Aborigine, We Are Going, was published (with the encouragement of Judith Wright and the aid of a Commonwealth Literary Fund) by The Jacaranda Press, Australia. Her second volume, The Dawn Is at Hand, followed in 1966. The honest and outspoken poems gained immediate acceptance and they were to be the forerunners of a considerable output which includes short stories, speeches, paintings, drama and film.
The Civil Rights struggle of the 60s and 70s saw Kath active on many local, State and, later, National Committees. She was Queensland State Secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Secretary of the Queensland State Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and a member of the Queensland Aboriginal Advancement League.
During this time of heightened activity associated with pressure to amend section 51 and repeal section 127 of the Australian Constitution, Kath Walker was part of the delegation which presented the case for reform to Prime Minister Menzies. This lobbying led to one of the most important Constitutional reforms since Federation when, on 27 May 1967, 90% of the Australian Electorate supported the proposed amendments.
Later she served on the Aboriginal Arts Board, the Aboriginal Housing Committee and was chairperson of the National Tribal Council and the Stradbroke Land Council. Since 1972 she has been Managing Director of the Noonuccal-Nughie Education Cultural Centre, as well as being a remedial teacher at Dunwich School. She has lectured at universities and colleges throughout Australia on subjects ranging from uranium mining to conservation and the environment to Aboriginal culture.
In 1969 Kath Walker was the Australian delegate to the World Council of Churches Consultation on Racism in London, bringing the plight of her people to overseas attention for the first time.
This was the beginning of many a foray into the world outside Australia. In 1972 she was guest lecturer at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji; in 1974 the official Australian envoy at the International Writers' Conference in Malaysia; in 1975 the guest of the PNG Government at the PNG Festival of Arts; and in 1976 delegate and Senior Advisor to the Second World Black Festival of the Arts held in Lagos, Nigeria (surviving a plane hijack on her way home).
In 1978–9 she won a Fulbright Scholarship and Myer Travel Grant to the United States of America and was Poet-in-Residence at Bloomsburg State College, Pennsylvania.
In these same years, almost as if it were a necessary antidote to travel, she established Moongalba, or ‘sitting-down-place’, a five-hectare piece of coastal bushland on North Stradbroke Island where archaeological evidence shows that her ancestors had been in occupation for over 20,000 years. There in her caravan she welcomed visitors of all ages and races.
For many Aboriginal and Islander children from the cities, this was their first experience of the natural way of life of their ancestors. For people of other races it was a rare insight into another culture. To date, over 28,000 children and adults have learned about Aboriginal food-gathering practices, participated in a revival of arts and crafts, and listened to Aboriginal story tellers, and by so doing have come to understand, and more particularly respect, the often fragile but sustaining interrelationships of Australian nature.
Kath was the subject of Frank Heiman's film Shadow Sister (1977) for which she received an International Acting Award and membership of the Black Hall of Fame. In 1970 the first edition of her anthology My People (Jacaranda Press, Australia) was published, and she wrote of her childhood in Stradbroke Dreamtime (1972. Angus and Robertson, Australia). As well as being a writer she is also an artist in her own right. She has illustrated her own book (Father Sky and Mother Earth, Jacaranda Press, Australia, 1981), and in 1986 a volume of her paintings (Quandamooka: The Art of Kath Walker) was edited by Ulli Beier and published by the Aboriginal Arts Council with Robert Brown and Associates.
The eighties also saw further travel. In 1985 she was a member of the Australia/China Council party which toured China, and poems written on this tour (Kath Walker in China) became the first collection written by an Aborigine to be co-published by Australian and Chinese publishing houses and presented in Chinese and English.
In 1986, at the invitation of Secretary-General Gorbachev, she was a delegate to the International Forum for a Nuclear Free World for the Survival of Humanity held in Moscow. On her way home from Russia she lectured in New Delhi on ‘Aboriginal Grass Roots Culture’. And somehow in the same year she managed to be both actor and script consultant for Bruce Beresford's film The Fringe Dwellers.
The eighties also saw Kath's close involvement with the Land Rights Movement, which culminated in despair when the Federal Labor Government refused to honour its promise to enact National Land Rights Legislation.
So Kath Walker became Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal, custodian of the land Minjerribah. Many of her awards she retained — the Jessie Litchfield Award, the Mary Gilmore Medal, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers' Award. But in 1987, as a Bicentennial protest, she returned the insignia of the MBE (awarded back in 1970) to the Crown via the Governor of Queensland. Notwithstanding this action, Oodgeroo and her son Kabul (Vivian) were scriptwriters and producers for the Dreamtime story, The Rainbow Serpent, which was a major feature of the Australian Pavilion at World Expo 88. The text of The Rainbow Serpent was subsequently published by the Australian Government Publishing Service.
1988 also was the year of the award of an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Macquarie University.
In 1989 Griffith University awarded her the degree of Doctor of the University, and 1989 saw the world premiere of The Dawn Is at Hand, a musical setting of a selection of Oodgeroo's poetry by Malcolm Williamson, an Australian himself and Master of the Queen's Music. This symphonic chorale was performed in Brisbane by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, soloists and the Queensland State and Municipal Choir.
This volume is her first book in English to be published outside Australia.