“Ngarra Bura Fera” (Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army)

“Ngarra Bura Fera” is a Yorta Yorta adaptation of the African American spiritual “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army,” which is in turn an adaptation of the two Jewish praise songs—one Moses’s, one Miriam’s—recorded in Exodus 15, following the Jews’ successful escape from slavery in Egypt.

Miriam dancing

Phillip Ratner, Miriam. Dennis & Phillip Ratner Museum, Bethesda, Maryland.

Yorta Yorta is the language spoken by the Aboriginal people of the Goulburn and Murray Valleys in northeastern Victoria, Australia. Discriminated against for centuries because of their black skin, they resonate with the Jews’—and African Americans’—experience of state-sponsored oppression.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers of Nashville, renowned for bringing the African American spirituals tradition out onto the world stage, visited Maloga Aboriginal Mission in August 1886. They sang their standard repertoire, but the song that stole the show was the one they had translated into the native language of its audience, “Ngarra Bura Fera.” The song celebrates freedom from oppression, victory over evil. It became for indigenous Australians a song of defiance and hope. 

The second verse goes,

Yunduk bekuk Jesu
Barwal bokuna yumina
Narrwa bura Fera yumina
Yala

(We’re going to pray to Jesus
To bring some valiant soldiers
To drown old Pharaoh’s army
Alleluia)

I first heard this song a few weeks ago when I was watching The Sapphires, a 2012 comedy-drama about four Aboriginal girls who, despite obstacles, form a musical group that is selected to perform for US troops in Vietnam during the 1960s. Based on a true story.

Listen to the song from the movie below, featuring the vocals of Australian pop singer and actress Jessica Mauboy. You can find out more about the song’s history and read its lyrics, with translation, here.

As a church we recognize that “Pharaoh’s army” has risen up again and again in different guises throughout history, as governments and institutions that demoralize and afflict, and we fervently pray for a miraculous toppling of this army and all its outposts. We pray for justice and freedom for all.

If you know of any Aboriginal art that depicts any bit of the Exodus account, please let me know.

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One Response to “Ngarra Bura Fera” (Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army)

  1. Matt says:

    Super glad to see the story of Bura Fera moving around the world. It is, I think one of the great songlines, stretching from the Red Sea in the second millennium BC, to the banks of the Murray River in the late 19th Century through to today. Given that it’s the paradigmatic story of liberation, the Hebrew story of the Exodus (and, interestingly, of the giving of the Law) has held a strong appeal in the imagination of Indigenous Australians. Bible themes frequently appear in Aboriginal artwork, including these http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/artist/31/

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