YORTA YORTA AND HUNGARIAN ROMA: KINDRED SPIRITS A WORLD APART
The story of Australian Aboriginal opera star Deborah Cheetham could never be contained in one article. However, even a summary of her life so far makes for captivating reading or listening as we learned during her one-week visit to Hungary.
Born in 1964 to a family of Yorta Yorta in New South Wales, Deborah was taken from her family before she was even a month old. Having been told that she had been abandoned by her real family, a white Baptist family adopted her.
This, combined with a love for a certain Swedish supergroup, would be the inspiration for the title of her globally acclaimed play “White Baptist Abba Fan” which tells the story of her adapting to discovering her racial identity, her sexuality and reuniting with the family from which she was stolen.
She started to learn of her Aboriginal roots in her 20s and eventually found the family from whom she was taken after unwittingly meeting her cousin. They had both found out that they shared the same uncle, Jimmy Little, a very well known Australian Aboriginal musician.
When the British invaded Australia in the 18th century, they considered it to be a land without people. The Aboriginal people, who had lived there for 70,000 years, were considered to be subhuman, in the same classification as a plant or an animal.
Incredibly, it was not until a referendum was held in 1967 that this classification was removed. As Deborah said “I have officially been a human being for 45 years, I’m getting quite good at it.”
This history of hardship that her people and her ancestors suffered drove Deborah to write “Pecan Summer”, the first opera written by an Aboriginal Australian and with an Aboriginal cast.
It is based on a 1939 protest in New South Wales called the Cummeragunja walk-off where Aboriginal people left a Christian mission after years of ill-treatment and neglect. Deborah’s grandparents took part in the walk-off as they along with around 200 others crossed the Dhungala River intrepidly to find new homes and new lives.
A more recent element in the opera is that of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s official apology in 2008 to the “Stolen generations”. This refers to the government policy of taking Aboriginal children from their families and relocating them to a white family elsewhere.
Deborah was of course part of the “Stolen generations” herself.
Our first meeting with Deborah was on Tuesday 8th May at the Palace of Arts in Budapest for a private meeting with teacher Janos Balazs and three of his students from the Snetberger Music Talent Center, founded by the great Hungarian Romani guitarist Ferenc Snetberger.
This really struck a chord with Deborah who herself has been helping Aboriginal Australian musical talent with her Short Black Opera company.
She felt that prejudice and discrimination had been blocking the discovery of great musical and vocal talent among minorities.
The Soprano stated: “It has long been my belief that there are great Indigenous voices out there that go unheard due to the lack of opportunity.”
Deborah then stepped up with pianist and partner Toni Lalich to perform an Aria about an ancient Aboriginal myth.
The following evening saw the festival of Ederlezi celebrated in real Romani style in Teli Kertem in Budapest where a large crowd including guest of honor Deborah reveled to the music of Romani Rota.
“I didn’t understand the language, but I knew the message. The joy, the despair. It’s all there.” said Deborah of her first encounter with live Romani music.
Having spent four days in Hungary, including a visit to the countryside where she met a Romani community she had been truly touched by the problems, and motivated by the stories she had heard from Romani people.
It was after a screening at Central European University of our film “Uprooted” – which she described as exquisite – that Deborah finally had the chance to speak up with passion and profoundness about what she had felt since arriving in Hungary.
Clearly appalled by what she had seen and heard about how the Roma were being vilified in many quarters, she explained what she saw as notable similarities between her own heritage and that of the Roma living in Europe.
From school segregation to the negative stereotyping, from the persecution of the past to being targeted by far-right groups today, the parallels drawn were striking.
The renowned musician called on Romani people everywhere to take back the name “Gypsy” from those who use it to degrade. This, she assured the Romani students in the audience, would disarm the racists and the bigots. At least this was the effect it was having in Australia with the words “Aboriginal” or “Abo”.
Her epic speech was richly deserving of the rapturous applause which followed.
In an exclusive interview for the Romedia Foundation, Deborah outlined the similarities she saw between Aboriginal Australians and Hungarian Roma and expressed her belief that there will be a “strong link in the future.”
On her final night in Budapest, at a reception at the Australian Embassy, Deborah, again accompanied by the wonderful Toni Lalich, sang an astounding recital which brought a distinguished crowd to its feet in appreciation.
It was a fitting end to a week that we hope will have inspired Deborah as much as she inspired everyone she met in Hungary.