Sound On: The power of voice with Jeremy Donovan

As the oldest surviving culture on Earth, Australia’s Indigenous voice has a history that spans more than 65,000 years. It's because of voices that stories, languages and traditions have been passed down through generations, preserving the culture of Australia's First Nations people. 

To celebrate and commemorate the 2019 NAIDOC Week theme of Voice, Treaty, Truth, Bond University has produced a three-part podcast series. Hosted by Bond student and Torres Strait Islander woman Jondayah Martin, the podcasts dive into the truths of the past to explore ways we can move forward, together, towards a better future. 

Welcome to the first part of the podcast series, featuring the inimitable Jeremy Donovan. Jeremy has made a career out of using his voice to inspire and connect people all over the world.

You might remember Jeremy from the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, where he played the didgeridoo. That moment was the start of an incredibly successful career, but it was a long (and sometimes bumpy) road for Jeremy to get there. 

Jeremy joined Jondayah to share his remarkable story. Press play to listen to Part One of Sound on: Voice. Treaty. Truth. 

Listen to part two of Sound On: Talking treaty with Bethany Allen.

Listen to part three of Sound On: Learning from truth with Aunty Joyce Summers.

Jeremy also spoke with the Bond Newsroom about finding his voice through music and culture 

Jeremy Donovan had almost lost everything when he found his voice

His childhood, freedom and cultural identity had been stripped away. He was shattered in mind and body.

But when he spoke up through an instrument crafted by termites and the world’s oldest living civilisation, the world was listening.

The kid who couldn’t read poured out pain and joy, loss and love, in sounds both haunting and beautiful. 

“I'd fallen off a horse and fractured my femur, and no-one lines up to push you around in a wheelchair in the sand,” Mr Donovan says.

“My grandfather gave me a didgeridoo and said, 'Learn to play it'.

“The moment my lips hit the didgeridoo something special happened. It just came very naturally -- almost like the didgeridoo chose me.”

A hollowed-out eucalyptus and the man who handed it to him would turn out to be Mr Donovan’s saviour.

Now an acclaimed artist, musician, keynote speaker and Indigenous ambassador for Bond University, Jeremy Donovan was born near Mossman Gorge in the land of the Kuku Yalanji people.

He was sent to Sydney around the age of six as a ward of the state and placed in the care of a loving Polynesian couple.

Much later he would be diagnosed with PTSD, dyslexia and ADHD but at the time he just seemed to be a slow kid constantly in trouble at school.

“I'd grown up thinking I was from a mixed Maori background so when I found out at 13 that I wasn't, I felt I had my identity taken off me,” Mr Donovan says.

“I found out my father is Aboriginal and the only thing I knew about Aboriginal culture was the derogatory stereotypes that existed in the playground.

“I rejected everything. I rejected life. I found myself in front of the children's court at 13 and that became the narrative of my life until I was 19.”

Mr Donovan would serve 11 sentences as a juvenile and one as an adult.

In 1998 after finishing his final sentence, he went home to North Queensland to see his late grandfather who posed him a question: “What do you want to be?”

“He said, ‘You can either be another Aboriginal kid in jail or you can dream to become somebody’. And that statement -- you can dream to become somebody -- it shocked me because I didn't think I had that entitlement,” Mr Donovan says.

“Up until that moment I thought that being Aboriginal, you went to jail.”

For the first time in his life, Mr Donovan dared to dream – and he had plenty of time for that while mustering cattle with his grandfather and great-uncles, who were all hard-working ringers.

“I went from stealing Mustangs to riding mustangs,” Mr Donovan says.

“I got submerged into this very deep culture. English was not the first language and we had strong business up there.”

Mr Donovan’s leg healed, and the didgeridoo turned out to be a salve for his soul.

“It's my great love in life. Nobody in this world knows me like the didgeridoo. I've spent so much time with my face in that thing, just giving it every bit of pain, every bit of happiness.

“At times when I couldn't articulate or talk about some of the sadness or the pain that I'd been through, from the abuse to the loss of life that I've watched around me, I could channel it through the didgeridoo.

“I'd been broken by it all, but this instrument could turn it into a sound that people loved.”

In March 2000 Mr Donovan was sitting on a beach in remote Arnhem Land playing didgeridoo when he was approached by a choreographer who asked him to perform during the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics.

In the whirlwind 11 years that followed, he travelled to Australian embassies around the world, performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, at Buckingham Palace (twice) and the White House.

His experiences led to a career as a keynote speaker and he became CEO of billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s Indigenous advocacy group GenerationOne.

In 2016 he was back in Arnhem Land for the Garma Festival to take part in an interview panel with Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Warren Mundine – some of the biggest voices in Aboriginal affairs. He had risen from prison to the top -- and he hated it.

“I looked around and went, this is not my world. I walked off stage without telling anyone, so it upset a few people,” Mr Donovan says.

“It was a massive breakdown. I got some money out in Sydney and bought a ticket to Lima.

“I went six hours up the Amazon to a place I'd been before where I knew I could get away from everyone.

“I was up there for two, three weeks and ended up being listed as a missing person.”
These days Mr Donovan has found balance in his life, mixing art, music, and working in prisons with Indigenous inmates.

He tells them: “There are people out there who have made it. So look for us because we'll help you, we'll be the shining lights.”

“My biological father was in prison the whole time I knew him,” Mr Donovan says.

“His life was ruined by prison, and then he took his own life.

“That's why I go back inside. For the ones who never make it.”