Shellie Morris couldn’t always sing in 17 Aboriginal languages.
It was a journey the celebrated singer-songwriter, who was adopted as a baby, embarked on after connecting with her culture and family as an adult, and which has come to take pride of place in her music.
Now she likes to work with school children helping them turn language into songs about their lives and the world around them.
In October, she will spend two weeks working with primary school students in the Far North Queensland community of Yarrabah where she will perform in the Yarrabah Band Festival, being headlined by country music star Troy Cassar-Daley.
The children will also perform their work onstage.
“I sing in 17 Aboriginal languages from the Northern Territory, Western Australia, let alone the other languages I haven’t even added them on,” Morris says. “It was really difficult at first because I was adopted and English was the only language I had growing up.
“Sometimes it’s taken me between eight and 10 years to really phrase things properly.”
Morris was in her 20s when a chance encounter put her on track to reconnect with her cultural roots in the Northern Territory—a world away from Sydney where she was born and then raised by loving adoptive parents.
Morris, who was trained as an opera singer, was working for a rent-a-car firm in the Hunter Valley when a client said he had just met her—or her twin—at Kakadu National Park. The man had, in fact, met her younger sister who Morris didn’t even know existed.
It led Morris to discover her Indigenous family and the Territory then became home.
“Everything I know now from working from the deepest desert communities right up to the salt water people of East Arnhem Land and everything in between, is that things fall into place,” she says.
As Morris, who has performed alongside everyone from Yothu Yindi to Irish singer Sinead O’Connor and at venues from the Winter Olympics in Vancouver to the Sydney Opera House, learnt more of the traditional languages, she used them in her music.
Her album Ngambala Wiji Li-Wunungu — Together we are Strong — won awards at both the 2012 and 2013 National Indigenous Music Awards and also the 2012 Music Council of Australia’s Music in Communities Award. It was also nominated for an ARIA.
Morris says singing helped her pick up the traditional tongues.
“It was an amazing journey,” she says. “The only way I could do it, I found, was through song. I couldn’t do it by sitting down and learning behind the desk, but when the words went through song.
“Recently I was in Groote Eylandt and that’s the second hardest language in the world and there was one particular word, the longest word I’ve ever seen in my life, but when I sang it I was able to get it.
“I felt so much a part of everything through music . . . I felt like I belonged in these communities and I could help in some way in bringing joy through music and working with children and the women.”
Morris says it also adds to her knowledge. She’s been working with the children at Yarrabah for several years.
“We write songs about their land and their country,” she says. “We’ve written songs about their rodeo, we’ve written songs about the laid-back lifestyle, about the oysters they can get from the rocks there, we’ve talked about the rain forest and really great little children’s songs about the animals of Australia and around the area.”
The Yarrabah Band Festival will be held on October 28 at the Jilara Football Club at Yarrabah, 50 minutes from Cairns. The free event is in its fifth year and will include a day of live music, food stalls and art.