Revitalising language through song, Dr Lou Bennett has been awarded one of three scholarships to support her research as part of the 2020 Westpac Research Fellowships.

From the University of Melbourne, Dr Bennett’s research focuses on creative ways to recover Indigenous languages by partnering with Yuin communities on the NSW south coast to explore song composition, notation and arrangements in culturally appropriate practices.

A Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung musician and researcher, Dr Bennett grew up in Echuca Victoria and moved to Melbourne in her late teens. She began her studies at Deakin University before studying her Masters and PhD at RMIT University.

She also pursued a career as a musician as part of musical trio, Tiddas.

Dr Bennett’s relationship with language began in her early life.

“In Echuca High School, there weren’t many of us little Koorie kids … I remember one of our electives was learning a language. We had the choice of three, French, Italian and Japanese. It used to really bother me that I couldn’t learn my own language in a school setting,” Dr Bennett said.

“Why aren’t we learning Yorta Yorta on Yorta Yorta Country? That always has stuck with me. I’ve always wanted to speak my language.”

In the early 1990s, Dr Bennett was gifted a cassette of her great-great grandmother singing in language.

“For years I was told that our language died. This was drummed into us growing up, not from our families but from society. And I gave up in a lot of ways … until I heard this tape,” she said.

“And it hit me. Our culture is not dead, our language, our rituals, our ceremonies, our connection to Country. It was a profound moment.”

With her research focusing on language, Dr Bennett has a keen interest in the power of song and singing.

“Something wonderful happens to our spirit and body … when we sing. Even when we don’t think we have a good voice, it makes us feel alive. It brings us to a present moment and not much else, I think, can,” she said.

Dr Lou Bennett AM. Photo by Dr Romaine Moreton.

Through her research, Dr Bennett has investigated linguistic records, including those of collector R.H. Matthews.

“I was completely disconnected from what was on the page, and it made me so depressed. I thought, I don’t know my own culture, this whitefella knows my language better than I do,” said Dr Bennett.

“But the more I engaged, the more my confidence grew around who I was as a person and I realised that these old fellas had no idea what was going on. They may have gotten down some words, but they missed what is fundamentally born into Aboriginal people. And that is our knowledge.”

“I always said the best job I ever had was Tiddas, but this is something so profound. I wake up every day and I look forward to working.”

Dr Bennett, Associate Professor Alice Motion and Dr Yu Heng Lau are the 2020 Westpac Research Fellows. The Fellowship program was created by the Westpac Scholars Trust in collaboration with the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne.

Each fellow receives $500,000 over the next three years to cover their salary and research costs, as well as leadership development opportunities.

“This Fellowship program is designed to support outstanding early-career researchers across a diverse range of fields who share a common goal, to help Australia prosper and grow,” said Susan Bannigan, CEO of Westpac Scholars Trust.

“Alice, Yu Heng and Lou are all working on such different, yet extraordinary research projects that we believe will have a lasting impact in years to come.”

By Rachael Knowles