NAIDOC Week – Bura Fera

In observance of NAIDOC Week, we bring you the story of a Yorta Yorta nation song, Bura Fera, sometimes called Ngarra Burra Ferra; an earlier hymn was translated into the Yorta Yorta language, which expressed their identification with the Jews as the dispossessed of the Book of Exodus.


Bura Fera, sometimes called Ngarra Burra Ferra, is a traditional Yorta Yorta song, the language spoken by the Indigenous peoples of the Goulburn Valley and Murray Valleys centred around modern-day Echuca. The history of Bura Fera suggests a story that stretches across several continents and thousands of years.

To find out more about the Yorta Yorta Language, go here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yorta_Yorta_language

The Yorta Yorta lyrics are based on an ancient song within the Jewish tradition, known as the “Song of the Sea” from circa 1446BC. Sometimes called “Miriam’s Song”, the song was composed and sung by Miriam, the older sister of the prophet Moses. It may be found in Exodus 15, especially verse 4, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea.”

Bura Fera Lyrics and Translation
Lyrics provided by Geraldine Briggs and translated with the help of Dr Heather Bowe

The song was originally bought to Aboriginal ears by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The tour of this world-famous ensemble in 1886 bought negro spirituals to Australian audiences, probably for the first time. Led by Frederick Loudin, the group enjoyed widespread success.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers saw a particularly enthusiastic reaction to their gospel music when they visited the Maloga Aboriginal Mission in August of that Year. In fact, the director of the choir wrote a letter about the welcome they got – which was frosty at first. But became very warm once the men and women from Nashville began singing.

While many spirituals were sung that day, no doubt including “Swing Low” and “Steal Away”, the one song that made a lasting impression was “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army”. For it is the one song from the repertoire of the Jubilee singers that was translated into the language of those Indigenous people, which is, of course, “Bura Fera.”

It might be said that the Fisk Jubilee Singers entrusted this song to the Aborigines. For while the American ensemble has sung for decades – and still sing today – it seems neither they, or any choir performs this song today. No one, except for the Aboriginal communities that have their roots in Maloga.

It’s a tradition held by some, particularly in the Briggs family, that it was Theresa Clements who worked with Thomas James to compose the Yorta Yorta version of “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army”. Certainly, Mr James, a Ceylonese Tamil who’d become the resident educator at Maloga, was a polyglot and was more than capable of assisting in translation.

Whoever created the final version of Bura Fera, or Ngarra Burra Ferra as it’s sometimes called, it soon became owned by the Bangerang people, or, in fact anyone who identified with Yorta Yorta people. For people like Pastor Denis Atkinson, whose memories of Cummeragunja stretches back to the 1940s, Bura Fera was a song that the community always sang – and he would say the song belongs to the Cummeragunja choir.

But it was never a song that Bangerang people kept to themselves. It was a song to sing out to all Australians, as a statement. Professor Bain Attwood found that, as William Cooper and others negotiated with officials as to how best commemorate the founding of Melbourne, the Aboriginal leadership was able to include a performance of their Biblical song of defiance and hope.

In the concert held to mark Melbourne’s foundation in May 1937, the grand finale was the aboriginal choir’s singing of a ‘Burra Phara’, an African American spiritual, translated into the Yorta Yorta language, which expressed their identification with the Jews as the dispossessed of the Book of Exodus…


Womriga Moses yinin walla
Walla yupna yeipuch
Nara Bura Fera yumena yalla

[Chorus]
Nara Bura Fera
Yumena yalla yalla
Nara Bura Fera
Yumena yalla yalla
Nara Bura Fera Yumena
Bura Fera Yumena
Bura Fera Yumena
Yalla yalla

Nyundo peco Jesu
Bora bocono yumena
Nara Bura Fera
Yumena yalla

[Chorus]

Lyrics to Turnback Pharoah's Army
Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army was an important part of the repertoire performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, as is seen in the collection of their songs published in 1880. File retrieved from http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.5348:1.lincoln

The original lyrics to “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army” can be found in the book about the Fisk Jubilee Singers by J B T Marsh. The lyrics the troupe used, and later published by Fisk were, probably, first set down by the Hutchinson Family Singers. This white family were well-known Abolitionists, who had supported the great Frederick Douglass in his campaign for emancipation. Interestingly, they adopted many of these slave songs, but arranged them using a closed part harmony style from Austrian choristers who had visited the United States, such as the Tyrolese Minstrels.

The first publication of “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army” came thanks to the work of William A Pond in 1870. It was one of a collection of pieces collected and arranged by Abby Hutchinson Patton.

Source, The Sapphires on Youtube, Jstor
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