Brett Lee’s music is gentle, intricate and highly melodic. Beautifully framed, yet somewhat, chords overlaid with gently weaving vocals that sing to you a story of both sadness and hope.
Otherwise known as ‘Pirritu’, Brett’s journey— like many Aboriginal musicians —has not been a simple one.
In fact, his name itself belies the story behind the music, as ‘Pirritu’ is Brett Lee’s Anglo name translated into the Ngiyampaa language of northern New South Wales.
It’s a language that Brett has recently embarked on the long journey of learning.
As a new father now residing in Melbourne, Brett is reflective in conversation when the subject of learning Ngiyampaa comes up.
Adopted as a new born baby by white parents, Brett always knew he was Aboriginal, and was proud of the fact as well.
He spent his early years in Bourke, north-west New South Wales, which as Brett points out, is actually on Ngiyampaa country, but did not know that as a child.
However, unlike many Aboriginal kids growing up in foster care or adoptive homes, Brett says that his parents tried their best to keep him in contact with his culture while growing up.
His father, he says, had a good relationship with local Aboriginal people through his involvement in football and boxing, and Brett remained staunchly proud of his Aboriginality all through school.
“My parents always told me the truth from an early age,” he explained. “I always knew I was adopted and always knew I was Aboriginal. They were always really open to me wanting to explore that and learn more and go and discover, and meet my family.”
When he was 14 years old, Brett’s parents facilitated a meeting with his biological family, which he describes as an ‘amazing experience’ and he has remained in close contact ever since. He came to learn that his biological mother was Ngiyampaa.
Despite the relatively positive circumstances of his upbringing, Brett says there was always a few elements missing.
While he may have had close connection with both adoptive and biological families, he did not have a deep connection with his Ngiyampaa language or culture.
For Brett, this created a large gap in his identity as an Aboriginal man.
All that was to change by a chance encounter on Facebook.
While searching for information on Ngiyampaa language and culture, Brett stumbled across a Facebook page run by Aunty Lesley Woods.
“When you’re living off Country it’s kind of hard to discover stuff so I’d just get on the internet and Google stuff. And I came across the Ngiyampaa language project on Facebook and I was just so excited to read the words.”
Aunty Lesley was looking for participants in a brand new Ngiyampaa language project, and it was an opportunity Brett pounced on.
“I reached out as soon as I saw it and asked Aunty Lesley heaps of questions and wanted to get involved. It seemed like perfect timing, because I found out about it right at the start of the project. I feel pretty lucky.”
Aunty Lesley is also Ngiyampaa, and also has a personal history of removal from Country, something that both she and Brett have in common.
She is currently studying a PhD in linguistics, in order to help bring back the Ngiyampaa language into common use, in order to help make the language materials more accessible to future generations of the Ngiyampaa community.
It is a project that has been decades in the making.
In 1980, non-Indigenous linguist Tamsin Donaldson complied a dictionary and grammar of Ngiyampaa language.
While comprehensive, the document is very difficult to understand. As Aunty Lesley says, you need a degree in linguistics to read it.
Instead, Aunty Lesley has set about ‘translating’ the grammar into a plain language book for common use. As she says, “to write a plain English version of very technical grammar.”
That way, any Ngiyampaa person would be able to re-learn their language.
As Aunty Lesley explains that many of the old anthropological and linguist language books are quite simply, too difficult to read.
Yet language is a vital part of Aboriginality, as she explains.
“Language is everything. It connects us back to who we are, it’s tied into the country. When you start looking at the language and seeing words to describe the country, it’s a window into the way people thought and their belief systems. So in that sense, it ties us right back onto who we are and where we’ve come from.”
“It’s much more than just to say ‘it’s our identity’, it’s much more than that.”
She is determined to find ways to make the language accessible to anyone who wants to learn, and remains passionate about the project.
“I’m really excited to see how people respond when they start coming across things in the language and the way that it talks about land and culture and belief systems and the spiritual world. Like it did for me, It will blow their minds.”
The Facebook group, she says, was a way to try and find people like Brett who could provide feedback on the process and begin to learn the language through the methods she is establishing.
For Brett, this presented as a huge opportunity, one that was inspired by the birth of his daughter.
“Ever since my daughter was born I’ve had this strong urge to learn as much as I can about my background, my culture and my language.”
Becoming more than just an interest in his own background, Brett says that now it is a responsibility and an obligation to not only learn his language, but to pass it down to his daughter.
“This language project is an opportunity to gain knowledge for myself, but more importantly to pass on as much knowledge as I can to my daughter,” he said.
“She’s one-year-old now and the project will go for four or five years, and I’m hoping that over that journey I can learn as much as I can and she’s going to learn it with me. It will make it easier for her to be strong in her identity.”
And it is something that he is also doing through music, with one song in particular using the Ngiyampaa word for ‘home’.
“I’ve been trying to learn a word or two and use it in a song and that for me, embeds the knowledge of that word.
“I’ve got a song called Ngurrampaa which is translated to ‘camp world’ in English, but is a word that was used to describe our Country and our land that we lived on.”
And this is something that Brett remains committed to.
Video: Pirritu (Brett Lee) live at the Merri Clan, Melbourne.
“I feel incredibly privileged as an Aboriginal person that our language has been documented in that nature. Because there are a lot of languages that haven’t got the detailed record or documentation of the language. I feel a responsibility as a Ngiyampaa person that I should go and learn as much of that as I can.”
Brett Lee (Pirritu) plays regularly at the Merri Clan in Preston, Melbourne at the Blackfella Whitefella Acoustic Sessions.
Ali MC (Alister McKeich) is a writer, photographer and legal professional who holds a Masters in Human Rights Law. His work documents global human rights issues, and he has had the privilege of working with a number of Aboriginal communities here and internationally. Follow @alimcphotos