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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following story contains references of deceased persons.
During the last few decades in my musical activities, I have had opportunities to work with many Indigenous Australian artists, and I have learned many wonderful things from them, but Gambirra Illume was the one who has affected me most deeply.
I first met her in 2014 when the Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra (SWMCO) was newly established and musicians came together to compose and practice for the multi-movement music show entitled 'Three Sides of Love and Death'.
The orchestra includes 14 musicians from different cultural backgrounds, including Croatian, Mongolian, Ghanan, Sudanese, Chinese, Uyghur, Mexican, Iranian and Vietnamese.
Gambirra Illume is the lone Aboriginal member of the group. She is a multi-faceted talent: musician, singer, composer, visual artist, and cultural educator. Gambirra Illume is an Indigenous woman of the Yolngu people from north-east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
The Yolngu people have a rich history and have many famous personalities who have worked hard to promote indigenous culture to the world, such as artist Djalu Gurruwiwi, Indigenous leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu, artist and women’s leader Gulumbu Yunupingu, musician Gurrumul Yunupingu, and the founding members of the music group Yothu Yindi.
Musician Richard Petkovic, founder of SWMCO, said to us that 'Three Sides of Love and Death' aimed to create a music that can touch the audience’s inner mind and make them not listen passively, but listen with a positive response from their spirit, so that when they leave the show they can feel that something inside of them has changed, has transformed, and that they have received a meaningful message.
Before attending the first meeting, each member of the group had contemplated this aim, and when we came there, we sat in a circle and began to create a sympathetic bond between us by taking turn to express each person’s thoughts about life, music and what we believe to be most sacred; and then each person improvised a few minutes of music. Those moments were very emotional.
Some people talked about their religious beliefs, while others spoke about their experiences inside communist concentration camps, their desires for freedom and their difficult plights as refugees. Gambirra Illume talked about the inseparable link between human, earth and cosmos.
Her message was: “Our spirituality is inseparably linked to the land, we all vibrate with the planet. We are one blood.”
Dr Quang Phu Ho attests that he once heard his heart beating against his chest. If the slightest sound betrayed him, he would have been discovered. He stepped lightly, making sure not to rustle any leaves as he navigated through the jungle, protected only by the night.
And then she invited everyone to breathe together in silence and listen to one’s breath, and she improvised a short melody using some sacred Yolngu words. And everyone took a turn to immerse themselves in that melody with their own voice or musical instrument, forming a musical moment with more and more layers of sounds, tone, colours, complexity and excitement.
And then, at a certain point, everyone felt that the musical journey was coming to an end with the voices and sounds getting softer, fading out, and becoming silent breathes as the beginning. This improvised piece was a natural moment of human 'sympathetic resonance' in music. Later, it was formed into the first movement of 'Three Sides of Love and Death'.
Gambirra Illume said that, under her Yolngu traditions, she regarded the elders as her own parents. She had to get the blessings from her mothers to be able to use the appropriate words from the tribal sacred language of Yolngu so that she could create a “manikay”, or song.
The main subject of the project is love and death, but there are many different meanings of love and death related to the earth and cosmos, ancestral beings and totems. Therefore, it was very difficult for her to choose words that are able to express love and death in the lyrics without treading on sacred things.
But, eventually, she managed to select appropriate words for the lyrics about love. She felt very blessed.
In our first concert at Parramatta's Riverside Theatre during the 2014 Sydney Sacred Music Festival, when all musicians were sitting motionlessly at their positions, Gambirra Illume, in Yolngu traditional costume, slowly walked to the front of the stage.
With a gentle but solemn manner, she began to breathe in silence, and she whispered the sacred words, and the musical sounds of many different peoples slowly joined in, blending together, creating a platform for the melody of 'Song of Love' sung by Gambirra Illume.
And from that moment, the audience began to receive a sacred message about human, earth and cosmos — a message that surpasses normal languages, a message that is able to join people of different races, different cultures, in love and peace.
After the 'Song of Love', other movements followed with colourful and meaningful mixtures of voices and sounds from many musical cultures to express the whole idea of 'Three Sides of Love and Death'.
The music evening ended with a long and loud standing ovation.
As a Vietnamese refugee who settled in Australia, I respectfully learnt and have been grateful to the spiritual values and beautiful meanings of the indigenous Australian cultures that have been promoted by wonderful indigenous artists, and Gambirra Illume is one of these people.
Hoang Ngoc-Tuan arrived in Australia as a political refugee from Vietnam in 1983. He has published and edited many literary works and established Tien Ve, the most prominent online centre for Vietnamese literature and arts.