Two Brothers at Galarra: A Case Study in Ethnomusicology Coming Full Circle, Part 3

This concludes a three-part series. Read part 1 HERE and part 2 HERE.

Ethnomusicology Coming Full Circle – Success & Pitfalls

Two Brothers at Galarra is on many levels a successful story of ethnomusicology coming full circle in a time when old documentation is being repatriated and formerly “primitive” people are telling their own stories. An American ethnomusicologist’s recordings inspired members of the Wangurri clan, living in a remote bush community, to create new art in a modern medium. Families united in common purpose. From Binydjarrpuma on tape and in an archival photo to young boys in the dance scenes, four generations of Wangurri clansmen appear in the film. They celebrated their ancestors and their culture. Indigenous people created a new document for their own future generations.

Truth

The film also reveals some of the pitfalls of documenting previously oral cultures and using these documents as sources of “truth.” We began shooting the film by setting up around a fire and asking Mathuḻu to tell the story, partly to capture his narration for the film and partly for the white crew to learn the story. With my limited grasp of his Wangurri dialect, I suspected, but wasn’t sure, that something wasn’t quite right. Gurumin and Malalakpuy confirmed this when translating the story immediately afterwards. Mathuḻu told the sequel – the next part of the story that we were not there to film. But everyone told us it was OK. We could move on. The younger men knew the story. Binydjarrpuma killed his brother Djalatharra in ritual vengeance.

On the last day, we decided to try again to film Mathuḻu telling the story to use as either a frame or narration throughout the film. This final recording of Mathuḻu revealed that his sons might have combined elements of two different incidents. They were thinking of Binydjarrpuma and Djalatharra, but Mathuḻu declared in his second session that the songs described Binydjarrpuma and Nyepayŋa, a brother from the same mother but a different father – in fact a father from a different clan, the Dhaḻwaŋu. On one level, we simply lost a visual opportunity. The Dhaḻwaŋu brother should have worn a red loincloth rather than the Wangurri green that they both wore. Worse, we got a major plot detail got wrong. Nyepayŋa was speared in a ritual clearing of animosity for a past wrong, but he was not killed. Drawing blood was good enough to erase the debt. Our film ended with him lying on the ground motionless for several minutes. Yolŋu are very sensitive about their stories and tales of trouble between ancestors. We got the story wrong and we had not in any way consulted with the Dhaḻwaŋu, including Nyepayŋa’s many living sons. As Mulka Project coordinator and the film’s editor and producer, I had a tough job of diplomacy ahead in order to save the project.

It seemed at first that Malalakpuy, Baṉḏamul and Banul did not know the whole story and got the film wrong. We acted accordingly and adjusted the best we could. I consulted with one of Nyepayŋa’s eldest surviving sons, re-edited the ending and recorded new narration with Mathuḻu to close out the film. Later, I realized that the song in the climactic spear fight says clearly that a Wangurri warrior dodges the spears while preparing to accept one. Not a Dhaḻwaŋu warrior. Perhaps the young men had the story correct, and the elderly man who sang the song 55 years earlier got it wrong. Mathuḻu has now passed away. We can’t ever know whether the story Mathuḻu told is “truth.” Yet nothing would have happened at all if the project had not happened in his last years.

The songs are poetic, telling the story symbolically rather than through a literal narrative.  Yolŋu can not be certain what the exact events were. Documenting a culture doesn’t preserve the culture, either as a whole or even the whole truth of any one small event. It creates snapshots that are no substitute for living, breathing culture. We did what we could to correct our error in post production, but even this Yolŋu-made film now serves as a not 100% accurate document for future generations.

This specific case is perhaps not so significant. It is not the end of the world if this one story is not maintained 100% accurately. The issue becomes more significant as indigenous cultures try to recreate ceremony and languages from documentation created before missionaries and other outside influences changed cultural practices. I reflect on this with each new call for academics to record song or languages “before it’s too late.” What is being preserved and for whom? Perhaps it does not matter if these songs or languages are performed “correctly” in the future. Perhaps all that matters is people are alive to try and use them, and some documentation for inspiration is better than nothing. Still, the more time I spent in Arnhem Land, the more drive I felt to work against issues that disrupt culture and cause its loss or change, rather than to spend my time documenting the culture.

All that said, the people of Dhalinybuy and I will remain eternally grateful to Dr. Richard A. Waterman for his research and recordings that inspired Two Brothers at Galarra. It was clearly a valuable and moving project for the people of Dhalinybuy, with the community dance scenes as a highlight. Apart from the value of showing the poetry of Yolŋu philosophy on film, these scenes included three generations of Wangurri kin. With Waterman’s recordings of Binydjarrpuma, that’s four, with Mathuḻu as the link. This is the truly glorious moment of ethnomusicology coming back to the community. It inspired a project to pass down a story and create new art in a participatory way through several generations.

Yolngu are People 2b: Follow-up

A long list of new topics awaits, but I feel the need to follow up on my last post and some comments/questions I received. First off, a reminder: Yidakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja, the centerpiece of this website, represents as best as possible the consensus views of many in northeast Arnhem Land. Many Yolŋu people participated in or reviewed its contents. This blog, on the other hand, only represents the views of the author. Me.

The Good

Last time, I discussed the common occurrence of non-Aboriginal didgeridoo events promoted with images of unrelated Aboriginal People and artwork. I want to reiterate that I first privately contacted the didge player whose event, promoted by someone else, inspired the post. He quickly resolved the issue. Yay. Thanks!

Most of my prior experience with this issue has been similarly positive. A while back, another non-Aboriginal didge player sent me a draft poster for a concert & workshop with a giant picture of Djalu’ Gurruwiwi’s face on it, asking me how to get permission to use it. I told him that if Djalu’ saw the image, it would confuse him at first. As a teacher and performer himself, he would likely wonder why his face was used to promote an event he hadn’t been invited to teach or perform at. The didge player immediately understood that point and all its implications and changed the poster to something that more accurately reflected the event.

The Bad

Not everyone responds as well to such suggestions. I won’t go into detail and don’t want to open old wounds, but on another occasion, I tried to give a friendly warning to someone who used an image of an Aboriginal didgeridoo player without permission. My suggestion was ignored. Later on, that Aboriginal man saw the image and some other inappropriate behavior on the same website. The ensuing scandal escalated to the point of death threats and coverage by Koori Mail, Australia’s major indigenous newspaper.

So even if you disagree with my posts on this subject and correctly refuse to take my word as gospel, please be humble and try to understand the feelings of Aboriginal People. Most didgeridoo players claim to have a deep respect for the origins of the instrument. If your activities with it might inspire death threats from the instruments’ origins, then perhaps you should reconsider what you’re doing and humbly correct yourself.

Again, I don’t bring this up to shame the parties involved years later, but as a clear example we can all learn from. Other factors contributed to the size of the scandal, but it began with an Aboriginal man finding his image used without permission by non-Aboriginal didgeridoo players to promote themselves.

“Remember us.”

Here’s where it gets tricky. On one hand, Yolŋu and other Aboriginal People don’t want their images used without permission by didgeridoo players for self-promotion. On the other, they don’t want the world to forget that the instrument comes from a living culture. Yiḏaki is part of the Yolŋu foundation, laid down by the ancestors. The entire website you’re reading now exists solely to remind you of that. Yolŋu voiced their wishes for awareness and respect for the instrument’s origin in the 1999 Garma Yidaki Statement that inspired this website, the first blog post, and on the Final Thoughts page of the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu. Here’s Djambawa Marawili’s final statement form that page. “Remember us.”

So no one suggests, “white didge players should never under any circumstances post pictures of Aboriginal People.” You just need to be smart and sensitive about it, and weigh whether you’re promoting yourself or advocating for them.

Education & Advocacy

After my post last week on this subject, a non-Aboriginal didgeridoo seller asked me if the images he used in his promotion were appropriate. He took them on his own visits to Arnhem Land. Among other products, he sells authentic instruments from Arnhem Land. As long as the use is tasteful, I think this is entirely appropriate. I only suggested that he add more information. Something like, “this is _______, a yiḏaki artist I met while visiting in 2010.” This acknowledges a real person, rather than using the image as anonymous clip art. It provides an example of a didgeridoo player who made the effort to go the instrument’s origins to learn. That’s good. Yolŋu want us to learn from them.

Perhaps ironically, when I posted that last blog, a flyer was circulating for an event I was involved in, using an image of me with a Yolŋu person. I’ll share my rationale for the use of that image. It’s all about context.

Randin & Gayili

It’s 2004. I had only recently arrived to live in Yirrkala. My adopted Yolŋu brother, going back to my first visit in 1999, passed away. In the photo, “my daughter” Gayili is painting me for part of the funeral ceremony. On a simple level, the image shows that I have some connection to Aboriginal culture, so in that regard, it works as self-promotion. On a deeper level, I use it because it shows me sitting down, humbled, in a setting where I don’t really know what’s going on, but am being brought in to learn. It shows that I am the student, and the Yolŋu person is the teacher. That’s the spirit I use it in. When advertising a yiḏaki workshop, my show A Personal History of the Australian Didgeridoo, or anything that focuses on education and advocacy, I use this image to communicate that the event is about listening and opening up to learn about Yolŋu culture.

I do more education than performance these days, but when I do perform, I never use the picture with Gayili. To promote a concert of my work Didgital late last year, I used this pic of me from the album cover shoot. There’s a clear distinction between me doing my own thing and me as student of Yolŋu culture.

Didgital

In conclusion, this follow-up adds a little more open discussion about context to the previous post. I see how the last post could be interpreted as, “don’t you dare use photos of Aboriginal People!” I don’t want to come off as too strict or to discourage people from sharing images of their own experiences in Arnhem Land. Just consider the context. Do you feel you have the right to share the image? Would you do it if you knew the pictured Aboriginal Person was going to see it? Are you only promoting yourself or are you promoting Aboriginal People and culture?

Yolngu are People 2: They’re not Clip Art

Yolngu People 2 header

Pet peeve alert! I photoshopped it to remove and change details, but this appeared in my Facebook feed this morning.

Yolngu are People 2 - Didgeridoo Promotion

The event in the United States features a white, American didgeridoo player, but the Facebook event image shows a young Aboriginal man in ceremonial garb. Why? To imply that the presence of a didgeridoo invokes Aboriginal People or spiritual powers from their land? Does the person who selected this photo know anything about the pictured man and his culture? Does it have really anything to do with the event?

The photo was clearly chosen to feature a token Aboriginal didgeridoo player, but he is not an anonymous bit of clip art. He is a real person. His name is Ŋalkan Munuŋgurr. He is a young Djapu clan man from Yirrkala. The photo, taken by Dan McGarry, shows Ŋalkan performing with the band East Journey at the 2011 Fest Napuan in Vanuatu. I don’t know him well, but wager that he has never played for a didgeridoo sound bath and yoga class, and never will. He definitely is not playing at this upcoming event in the USA. He plays for his band and for Yolŋu ceremony. I imagine that he would not appreciate the use of his image without permission to lend some sort of mysterious authenticity to an event that has nothing to do with him or his culture.

This certainly is not the first time something like this has happened and my goal is not to shame this particular promoter. I contacted the American didj player for the event. He was unaware of the use of Ŋalkan’s image and asked for it to be changed to one that represents the actual event. I know that in my youthful enthusiasm as a young, white didgeridoo player, I said and did things that I would not now. All over the world, didge players and event promoters use token Aboriginal images, art and words to suggest an authenticity or connection to Australia that doesn’t exist. Think of it this way. Do you see random token images of guitar players and drummers pulled from the internet to promote rock concerts? Or pictures of an old, white European cellist on a Yo-Yo Ma flyer to lend his concerts some authenticity?

I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion of identity and cultural colonialism, but think about that for just a second. Posters for concerts in most genres feature images of the actual artists and original artwork. Posters for didgeridoo events in the USA and Europe by white artists playing instruments made by white people sometimes feature images of Aboriginal People and artwork taken from the internet. Why? And why do we feel OK using random pictures of people we don’t know from another culture when we wouldn’t do the same with people of our own culture?

Yes, the didgeridoo comes from Aboriginal Australia. That does not mean that blowing into a tube on the other side of the world makes an instant connection to Aboriginal culture and gives you permission to steal Aboriginal images and concepts to promote your own activities. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do those activities. Just own them and be yourself. Don’t use a picture of an Aboriginal Person from the internet to promote your event unless he’s going to be there!

I’ll give Wukuṉ Waṉambi the last word here, in a video that appears with more discussion at http://yidakistory.com/dhawu/yidaki-issues/does-playing-the-didjeridu-connect-you-to-aboriginal-people/.