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Cultural awakening fuels passion to revive Indigenous language

David Prestipino -

A stirring lecture theatre speech in his native language by a legendary Indigenous leader was the fuel that fired Clint Bracknell's quest to revive one of the world's oldest languages.

Mr Bracknell, a renowned Noongar music and composer who releases music under the name Maatakitj, returned to the University of Western Australia last year after graduating with a PhD in 2016, where he now investigates connections between song, language and landscapes and ways to improve Indigenous community access to cultural heritage collections.

Since that first day as a student at UWA when his passion for Noongar language was lit, Mr Bracknell has been central to reviving a language on its last legs, and regenerating interest in its rich and evolving culture, through his collaborations as a musician, composer and linguist across a series of Noongar-themed Perth Festivals.

As Mr Grandage prepares to take one last bow for his transformative tenure at Australia's longest-running cultural festival next week, he cited Mr Bracknell and wife Kylie (nee Farmer) as crucial conduits to the Festival's poetic celebration of Noongar culture through a series of beautiful programs from 2020-2024 themed Karla (fire), Bilya (river), Wardan (ocean), Djinda (2023) and 2024's culmination Ngaangk (sun, mother).

The husband-and-wife team, whose artistic creative company Boomerang and Speak is at the vanguard of evolving Noongar culture, first spotlighted it at Grandage's first festival in 2020, with a groundbreaking Noongar-language remake of Shakespeare's Macbeth called Hecate, a production that garnered renewed interest in the language and cemented the pair's affinity with Mr Grandage and his vision to deliver Festivals that celebrated Noongar Boodja.

After Hectate came their multi-sensory Festival experience Noongar Wonderland at Perry Lakes in 2022 and 2023's Song Circle performances, part of the Festival's Evernow event at Supreme Court Gardens, as well as co-translating works for Indigenous TV programs and even a Noongar dub of Bruce Lee's classic Fist of Fury.

This year Mr Bracknell returns to Perth Festival as Maatakitj, performing alongside one of his musical inspirations Angelique Kidjo, the famed, multi-Grammy Award winner who first opened his eyes to the power of singing in your native tongue through her 1998 rendition of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Child.

While that experience changed his philosophical and creative direction as Maatakijt the musician, Mr Bracknell cites the "greatest performance I've witnessed" as the spark to learn all he could about his native language and traditions, which now has him at the helm of preserving thousands of years of heritage and evolving Noongar culture.

That cultural awakening moment occurred in a lecture theatre, when the UWA student walked into his first class and was completely engrossed by the presence of revered Indigenous leader and academic Len Collard, who was holding a whiteboard pointer like a spear, while delivering a stirring speech in Noongar that captivated the theatre.

"This was before the days of powerpoints and all of that and he talking entirely in Noongar ... I had never heard anyone speak like that before, or for that length of time in the language," Mr Bracknell recalled.

"It made me want to learn everything I could about Noongar language, so I just started talking to as many people as I could."

Mr Bracknell began listening to Noongar-language learning tapes that had been developed by Noongar linguists and educators, who were also holding language workshops across WA as part of the revival of the language, with the budding student an avid participant.

Although Noongar has been spoken across Perth and the south-western corner of WA for 45,000 years, Mr Bracknell said the renewed interest made him believe the language was at a turning point, after years of toil to keep it alive.

While deeply engrossed in the renaissance of the once near-extinct Indigenous language, Mr Bracknell has also promoted the revival of Noongar culture through song and dance, after he ultimately released music from Noongar Wonderland in 2022 under Maatakitj, an alias Kylie bestowed on him that loosely translates to "long legs like a spear".

He cited performers Trevor Ryan, Kyle J Morrison, Rubeun Yorkshire, Ebony McGuire and Ian Wilkes, who sing with him on Noongar Wonderland, as key collaborators with both he and Kylie, with its songs and dances inspired by a common desire to create new art.

"The songs I created alongside these performers and a few other dancers that came in and out of that creative process, the idea was that we wanted to do something different ... because they felt like they had been dancing the same things their whole dance careers," he told NIT.

"So we thought what about those creatures and features of landscape that no one has sung about or danced about for years, let's reawaken that - so that was how the songs got created."

COVID-19 scuppered the plan to perform the tracks live on stage accompanied by the dancers at Perry Lakes (where much of the music was written) so instead, Mr Bracknell - who on the eve of Perth Festival 2022 was stuck in Queensland where Kylie was filming a Netflix series - tried to enhance the songs and maximise their impact, given the magic of live performance would be missing.

"Live performance is just so powerful, because everything can go wrong ... you never know how it's going to happen, there's that edge-of-your-seat anticipation, you can improvise, you can do a lot with live performance," he said.

"But pre-recorded is not as intense, so I thought 'we need to jazz this up a bit'."

Maatakitj began adding electronic beats and percussion to the set of songs, "but it still needed some special sauce".

Enter Paul Mac, a friend and academic colleague from their days working at Sydney University's Conservatorium of Music, who was brought in to "zhuzh things up", with subsequent Noongar Wonderland rehearsals taking place over Zoom.

It was the legendary Australian DJ who insisted Mr Bracknell use a different name to release the music under (once he realised it was Bracknell singing and not Elders) - and so Maatakitj the musician was born, and he has since released a self-titled album (available on streaming services) that encompass the songs of Noongar Wonderland and other originals and recently received a four-star review from influential UK music magazine Songlines.

The self-titled debut is a revolutionary release, casting a spotlight on the ecological value of bullsharks, stingrays, dolphins, bobtail lizards, dragonflies, and groundwater along the South Coast of WA through powerful, euphoric and raw music resembling the past and future that still capture Noongar song traditions, which Bracknell said can "include land-based songs, but also travelling songs, comedy songs, lullabies and everything else that a singing culture can encompass".

"The thing about music, it's that energy and vibration and participation, whether you're a listener or the person making the music, the more that's blurred the better," Mr Bracknell said.

"Like if you're listneing to music, and you're into it ... you're tapping your foot or doing something, there's an element of participation there, that means you're part of continuing that vibration ... that's the thing I love about it.

"Sometimes music gets a bit distance and abstract ... but then when it comes back to something grounded, that's where, for me anyway, you can just feel the power."

Mr Bracknell said the great thing about Noongar language and cultural practices was it has always been collaborative, and he is living evidence it is growing.

"It's always been a collective, it builds up momentum and gathers more people and it goes along," said Bracknell, whose theory is plain to see in the programs of Perth Festivals under Mr Grandage, with Noongar artistry represented more and more each year since 2020's Hectate.

"For me it just feels like things are getting more meaningful with every step that this collective takes.

"Because everyone is building up their connection to language, everyone is just getting stronger."

Apart from his wife, Mr Bracknell acknowledged the contribution of Festival collaborators including Trevor Ryan, Kyle J Morrison, Rubeun Yorkshire, Ebony McGuire, and Ian Wilkes, who now perform with him as Maatakitj, as well as Noongar leaders who have been vital links to his journey and development in language and culture, particularly Nan Roma Winmar.

"All these people have been so encouraging and supportive, from Nan Winmar to Professor Len Collard, Uncle Barry McGuire, Nan Annie Dab ... all these people have been so instrumental," he said.

"Seeing people you really respect be proud of what you're doing is just the greatest reward."

He said the Noongar-themed series of programs under Grandage at Perth Festival gave visiting artists a unique experience to engage with the culture in meaningful ways, "not just in meet and greets, but working together and creating things".

"All these people are at the top of what they do, right across the world, and for them to be able to come to Noongar country and engage with those people in different ways, I think is really enriching for those artists," he said.

"Getting to meet Noongar people, particularly senior people and engage in really meaningful ways meant a lot to them and was really impactful."

Maatakitj will support Angelique Kidjo at Perth Festival and on her ensuing Australian tour, while also performing alongside the African powerhouse at Perth Festival's crescendo, Under The Same Sun, a free event on March 3 at Supreme Court Gardens featuring Ms Kidjo, leading WA Aboriginal musicians including Gina Williams, Guy Ghouse and Stephen Pigram, and local and international greats such as Sampa The Great, Paul Kelly, Flewnt and Mama Kin, boosted by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

ABOUT MAATAKITJ'S SONGS

Yornan (bobtail lizards)

Bobtail lizards mate for life. When they come out of semi-hibernation as the weather warms up, the first thing they do is going running around looking for their lover. This is a love song based on the bobtail lizards.

Kworlak (bullshark)

Bull-sharks swim in from the ocean and up the river into fresh water as the weather gets warmer. No other sharks do this, and the bull-shark has always done it.

Baamba (stingray)

Stingrays hide on the ocean floor and cover themselves with sand. You can sometimes hear them beating the water as they swim.

Dwerdawanard (dolphin)

Dolphins swim in from the ocean and up the river in packs, like dogs playing. Noongar can communicate with them, singing out and hitting the water.

Woordawoort (dragonfly)

Dragonflies hover above the water, keeping their distance from each other. They dance, quickly moving away when they get too close.

Demangka (groundwater)

Groundwater is ancient and nourishes everything above it, an invisible kiss of life beneath our feet. It moves incredibly slowly and rises as lakes and wetlands.

Click here for more Perth Festival 2024 details.

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