First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee on Mojo Juju’s Native Tongue, a family saga of self-discovery
Mojo Juju isn’t afraid to be vulnerable. As we learn in her powerful and moving Native Tongue at the Melbourne Arts Centre, she’s no stranger to adversity. With many other Australian artists, she featured in Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore’s documentary Her Sound Her Story, an insight into the struggle of not being a cis white male and the lack of room for intersectional voices in an Australian music industry that is predominantly a boy’s club.
As a queer immigrant of Wiradjuri heritage who has battled prejudice all her life, her intersectional presence telling her story on her own terms is itself a rebuttal. But this album and the performance that grew from it isn’t just about her personal growth: it explores Mojo Juju’s family stories, and her battle against time to salvage their history.
The show begins with a voice-over acknowledgment of country followed by a man singing in language. The band is in shadow, heads bowed, honouring the song. Mojo’s sequined suit glitters in the dim light as she stands, her back to the audience, so we can see the Aboriginal flag emblazoned on her jacket (note to self:I need to find out where she got that jacket!)
A deep male baritone hum, the bass voices resonating in our chests, introduces the Pasifika Choir and the title song. Beginning the show with Native Tongue, the best known song on the album, is a perfect introduction to this show. The audience shifts, whistles and nods rhythmically in anticipation. Mojo’s singing is effortless, as the humming ceases and the choral voices emerge under Mojo’s vocals.
She begins by telling the audience about growing up in a household in which her father was the only one who spoke his language, of her life as a young girl growing up in Dubbo as an “RNB kid in a field of Cold Chisel fans.” Mojo reveals childhood hurts: racist slurs from school kids, not knowing where she belongs, the all-too-known question “yeah, but where are you really from?” She was bullied for being Chinese: her grandmother comforted her by telling her Chinese people are beautiful.
Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Mojo is forever looking for where she fits: “No matter where I go, I’m always the other”. It reminds me of the constant battle I encountered growing up in a tiny regional school, how other children and the teachers insisted on keeping me labelled, keeping me small.
Being made to feel small is something Mojo reflects on throughout the show as she juggles the limitations of of queerness, race, and gender imposed on her by the outer world. She says she was rendered silent, because “the injustice I felt was crushed by the weight of shame”. But she bites back, refusing to be defined by her oppressors: “I do not belong inside your narrow definition.”
Mojo begins her complicated family history with her idolised older brother, with projected slides of him growing up and accounts of the racism that he also faced. She introduces her band as her family, with bassist Yeo, and her younger brother Steven Ruiz de Luzuriaga on the drums. Steven greets us in Spanish, Tagalog and English, honouring his heritage, and expresses his desire to connect with his Wiradjuri language and culture as well.
During the middle section of the show, Mojo Juju explores her tangled family history, with three songs about her grandmother’s struggle to define herself. She was estranged from her Wiradjuri heritage because her mother, Mojo’s great-grandmother, kept secret an affair with a Wiradjuri man. The first song is from her grandmother’s perspective, the second from her great-grandmother Pearl’s, and the third, from Jackson, the father that Mojo’s grandmother was never permitted to have. Like Mojo herself, her grandmother is determined to discover more about her heritage: “I kept on digging, like the search was my religion.” Tragically, both the biological father and daughter knew the truth, but neither were ever allowed to form a relationship.
The simple set consists of a large screen above the drumkit where images are projected of her family members. It’s like sitting down for a yarn with a friend and a photo album. Peter Rubie’s moody lighting changes are frequent, intensifying the mix of electronica and live music in this intimate performances. Sometimes it feels like Mojo’s voice requires a heavier, more confident sound from the band. Although her voice was always going to be the dominant presence, I craved more depth from the bass and drums.
Although this album is largely a love letter to her family, Mojo also takes us on a journey through her own self-discovery. While her songs are self-reflective, she challenges us with lyrics like “I’d like to see you walk in a darker shade of skin”. She tells us she hopes these songs are relatable for anyone who feels alone and unsure of where they belong in the world. She doesn’t speak, she says, for anyone other than herself, but while she has a voice, she will use it. “If I can be what eight-year-old me needed on the TV, then I will”.
Native Tongue by Mojo Juju, produced and directed by Russell Beattie. Lighting designed by Peter Rubie. Performed by Mojo Juju (Lead Guitar and Vocals), Yeo (Bass), and Steven Ruiz de Luzuriaga (Drums). With guest performers Joshua Tavares, Mirrah Fay-Parker, Ileini Kabalan and the Pasefika Choir. At Melbourne Arts Centre. Sydney Opera House as part of UnWrapped, August 19. Bookings
- Wheelchair access
- Assistive hearing
- Companion Card