Tilly Tjala Thomas: 'We Need To Get As Much Indigenous Language Into The Community As Possible'

8 July 2022 | 10:43 am | Tilly Tjala Thomas

"The loss of language also means a loss of identity."

(Pic by Sia Duff)

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Ngai Yurlku Nhiina is my second song in Nukunu language. The title translates to ‘I love you’. I wanted to write another song in my language because I think we need to get as much Indigenous language and culture out into the community as possible - into schools too. I spent some time in New Zealand when I was younger and at my school, Maori culture and language were incorporated into the learning in a big way. Back in Australia, it wasn’t happening - not to the same degree. 

I wanted to write a song in language to represent my family’s experiences and the experiences of many Aboriginal people. The loss of language and culture can have a big impact. Being placed in missions and not being encouraged to speak your own language. Specifically not being able to say ‘I love you’ in language where and when it matters most. To me, the loss of language also means a loss of identity.

I wanted to tell a story about Aboriginal ancestors and how loss of language may have impacted them. As I sat at the piano I thought about my female ancestors just wanting to say those words, ‘I love you’, in different scenarios. Those words aren’t always easy to say. I imagined how not being able to say them in their own language might have felt. The story features a mother wanting to tell her daughter that she’d be okay on her first day of school, a grandmother falling in love and a young woman saying her last goodbye to her grandmother. I heard the chorus as a repetitive thing - Ngai Yurlku Nhiina on a loop. I wanted those lyrics to be a focus, to reinforce the power of that statement. I wanted to convey how it might feel when our deep feelings for another human have to be said in a language that isn’t our own, replaced with some other words from another culture. 

I love making music because I feel like it is me and it's what I can offer to the world. It not only allows me to share my stories, language and culture. It allows me to express myself in a creative way and communicate my true feelings. I love writing, recording and performing on stage - giving part of myself and my story to people and letting them hear things from a different perspective - a young Indigenous woman’s perspective. I like to communicate my feelings about different issues that are important to me through my music - political issues, social justice, climate change, refugees, women’s rights and more. I have found my passion and I am grateful to be able to do what I love at a young age. I hope to inspire others to follow their passion. 

Music is a language all of its own but to have the opportunity to share my language within that is very special. Nukunu is such a small language group and I want to revive culture through my music. It is good to see culture being restored and revived in various ways through community. While I wrote the song, I imagined future generations listening to it and, in that way, keeping Nukunu language alive. To know my music is out there in the community and my language is being shared is amazing!