Dubbed ‘Soul Sista’ by regulars at the Winsome soup kitchen, where she played piano and sang for six months after moving to Lismore in 2013, Sheli Nagas is a fourth generation of the South Sea Islander people ‘blackbirded’ from the Pacific to work in Australian sugar plantations in the late 19th century.
Sheli’s forebears came from the island of Tanna in Vanuatu and were among the few - estimates suggest around 2500 - who avoided deportation when it was decided their labour was no longer needed. In all around 62,000 islanders were tricked or kidnapped onto company ships and brought to northern NSW and Queensland to cut cane for miserable wages.
Sheli grew in Bundaberg, the heart of sugar country.
“We were sugar-slaves,” Sheli says, without bitterness but keenly aware of her people’s terrible history.
She fondly remembers her parents, Rev. ‘Tiger’ Gordon, a cane cutter himself, although long after the slave era ended, and a fine Rugby League player, hence his nickname. A cousin is former Canberra Raiders star Kenny Nagas.
Later her dad became a Christian pastor, working across a range of congregations, many focused on Indigenous communities. Her mum was known as ‘Dixie’, a moniker she got from American troops, from the name of the field mess tin.
“Music was always central to our family life, my dad could play anything - guitar, banjo, trumpet… he was the B.B. King of Australia, he made the guitar dance! Gospel music was very much a part of my upbringing.”
Church was central to the family’s life as the kids were growing up in Bundaberg, the heart of sugar country, and Sheli still goes to church when she can. Of the many stories that stand out from her childhood is sitting on the knee of Aunty Ceil Brown at the age of three.
“It’s a long time ago, but I remember it clearly. Aunty had this lovely voice, and she burst into song with the famous hymn ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’.
“Can you believe that at the age of 18 I would be singing that hymn as part of a choir on the steps of the Sydney Opera House!”
As we sip coffee in the grounds of Lismore cultural precinct Sheli begins to sing the hymn, her voice clear and beautiful, even operatic, which comes as a surprise after listening to her new 8-track CD Sailing Away. The title could be, but isn’t, a tribute to those South Sea Islanders who were taken off by ship to a distant and unknown land.
The album features Sheli’s vocals and guitar work, its jazz-infused feel reminiscent of, say, Nina Simone, with the mostly original lyrics speaking of family, her own not-always-easy life, and, in ‘The night that Debbie came;’ the impact of the 2017 Lismore flood.
To go with her beautiful voice Sheli has an engaging presence, and this charisma is matched by her passion for enhancing the profile of the Australian South Sea Islander (ASSI) community.
Due in no small part to her efforts, a national association has been formed, the federal government has recognised ASSI people as having a distinct identity, and closer links are being made between ASSI descendants and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with whom inter-marriage has been relatively common over the years.
One aspect of this story is the situation of people of Aboriginal heritage living in Vanuatu
Hundreds of South Sea Islanders in the Pacific nation say they are being discriminated against because they have Aboriginal ancestry, and say they want official Australian recognition. These people are seen as related to the tens of thousands of sugar-slaves who were forcibly repatriated to the islands at the start of the 20th century.
This is another aspect of how the ‘blackbirding’ scandal was written out of Australian history.
When asked to name her favourite things, Sheli mentions living in the Northern Rivers, which she loves, and music. Anything else?
“Yes, football… walking in the footsteps of my dad, and of course cousin Kenny… I’m a League nut, and used to play in a women’s team up in Bundy… maybe getting a bit old for it now though!”
While a very youthful 54, Sheli may have a point, but then her music is more than enough to score points.