People and Places
28/09/2020
A voice for those who have been silenced

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Carissa Nyalu’s music sounds like morning sun and afternoon rain. Like the clouds moving over Yorta Yorta Country or the sea lapping at the shores of Bunurong/Boon Wurrung land. Her deep connection to Country is reflected in her guitar-based lyrical explorations. They care for Country, speak to Country and sing to Country, just like her mob from Barmah along the Dungula (Murray River) has for thousands of years. 

Born in Benalla to a Yorta Yorta man and a mother of European descent, Carissa and her four brothers arrived in Balnarring when she was in grade 4. Carissa explains what disconnection can look like: “My grandmother Iris and her sister Gwen were part of the Stolen Generations. When they were teenagers, they were warned that authorities were coming to get them, and they fled to Melbourne and changed their identities to Indian because that was safer than saying they were Aboriginal. This affected their whole lives. They felt a real disconnect, and both died of massive heart attacks. We always said they died of broken hearts.”

So how does this former Dromana Secondary College eco-tourism and naturopathy student remain connected to Yorta Yorta Culture? Carissa continues: “We always knew that we were Yorta Yorta and are proud of it. We were brought up telling stories about our Culture and I pass this down to my daughter, Bonnie, who is five years old. When we are on Bunurong/Boon Wurrung Country I tell her how to say things in language. I let her know that Aboriginal people see themselves as being part of the land. We don’t own it and are not separate from it. We are guests here and have a responsibility to it. I have a deep connection to Yorta Yorta Country because of my ancestors’ bloodlines. That connection is vital for physical, social and spiritual well-being. It is in my music.”

Carissa’s father, John, taught her to play guitar, and the family continued to play music around the campfire down south. She began writing songs at 16 and played in local bands in her early 20s. Now 33 and with a multitude of Melbourne gigs, NAIDOC Week and Willum Warrain performances, community and festival appearances, and online gigs for the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, Isolaid Festival, Barpirdhila Foundation and Still Here RRR, she’s ready to launch a single. 

“I incorporate Yorta Yorta language into my songs and use my platform for truth-telling and giving a voice to my people before me whose voices were never heard. That’s also why I work for the Koorie Heritage Trust as a cultural awareness educator and at Bunjilwarra, which is a Koori youth alcohol and drug healing service in Hastings. My music is about resilience.” 

It is also about the importance of belonging. 

LIZ ROGERS 

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