I'm reading
Singing the sun up
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Singing the sun up
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Singing the sun up
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
23 July 2021

Singing the sun up

Indigenous performer, songwriter and composer Jess Hitchcock shares some of her musical journey to date.

Written by Jess Hitchcock

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

The first instrument I learned to play was the piano. I was four. All of the kids in my family began our musical training with the piano. Mum was committed to us having a well-rounded education, and music was a big part of that. This particular piano had travelled all the way from Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea — where it had belonged to my mother’s father — to our home in Sydney. It was a story in itself.

My musical journey was as much my mother’s journey as it was mine. She never had any formal musical training, but she has a great voice and a natural affinity for music. Mum’s family comes from Papua New Guinea and from Saibai Island in the Torres Straits, and she grew up around her musician uncles, learning songs in language. In that region, music is an essential way of communicating. It’s intertwined with dance, ritual, storytelling, sharing information and keeping language alive. There are songs of celebration and songs of mourning. Some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard were sung at traditional funerals. There are creation songs, and then there are sweet children’s songs about being poor and sick of eating rice. My mum plays the ukulele now and she still teaches us songs today. She’s imparting the wisdom and stories so they don’t get lost.

For the past ten years, I’ve been working with Short Black Opera (Australia’s first Indigenous opera company). What strikes me about opera is how powerful it is as a storytelling medium. It’s different from musical theatre in that every note is sung, from start to finish, which gives it an incredible emotional power. As soon as something is turned into song, the emotion of that moment is amplified ten-fold. Opera has the ability to create really dramatic scenes and a largeness around a story, while also making it fun and light-hearted. We’re about to release a show written by Deborah Cheetham, called Parrwang Lifts the Sky. It’s a Wadawurrung story about Parrwang the magpie. At the start humans are living in darkness, and Parrwang goes to the council of the birds and asks them if they can lift the blanket of darkness so humans can live in light. It’s the story of the first sunrise, and of why you hear magpies calling as the sun comes up.

I realised last year how much of the magic of music transpires in the space of live performance. During lockdown I experimented with online performances for a while, but it was crushing to be alone in my room singing my heart out to a blank computer screen. It dawned on me how much I rely on gigs for emotional stability. As a performer, there’s something that happens when a group of people come together in a room and hear your songs. When you’re first starting out, the feeling of people applauding you is like nothing else. It’s what spurs you on. Then it becomes not about the applause but about the emotional feedback you receive; the knowledge that your songs have touched people. It’s an incredible exchange of energy and trust, and it comes back to story.

I played a gig earlier this year where I sang a song about going through a breakup and having to start again. Most of the audience members were a few decades older than me, and I didn’t imagine they’d be able to relate much at all. But at the end of the performance, people told me how much they’d resonated with the song — how it expressed the reality of their retirement journey or something else. One man had tears in his eyes as he told me that the song was the story of his life. It was beautiful that a song I wrote about something unique to me had touched all of these different people.

That’s the power of music and the power of storytelling: it has this ability to reach in and move people in a way that nothing else can. I draw on that energy to keep writing and making songs. For me, that resonance is really the essence of being an artist and a musician. Our role is to gather strangers together, inspire connection, keep culture alive and imbue life with light and colour and story. In other words, to lift the blanket of darkness.

 

Jess Hitchcock

Jess Hitchcock is an Indigenous performer, composer and singer-songwriter with family origins from Saibai in the Torres Straits and Papua New Guinea.

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