Yidaki of the Month #8, February 2018, by Milkay Mununggurr

Milkay Mununggurr Yidaki of the Month

I love telling people this story, mostly so I can say the following sentence. This is the only yidaki I ever bought because I didn’t like it.

Early in 2004, Milkay and I scheduled our first meeting to work on the Hard Tongue Didgeridoo CD. He recently sold a batch of yidaki to us at Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka. When he met me there, I showed him my favorite of the bunch and suggested that he use it to teach me. He played it very briefly then dismissed it. He chose another one. One that I could barely even play, due to its tight mouthpiece and very high back pressure for a lower-pitched yidaki. Milkay declared that it had “good balance.” I didn’t understand.

After that first lesson, it went back into the available stock at Buku-Ḻarrŋgay. I decided I better practice on it until it sold, to try and figure out why it was good to him but practically unplayable for me. My lip control improved over a few weeks of picking it up and playing for just a minute at a time here and there throughout my work day. After about a month, nobody bought it from Buku’s website, so I decided I simply had to buy it for myself. I still have it and love it, although I admit it’s still not the easiest for me to play.

Milkay yidaki
A screenshot from the old yirrkala.com archive. See, any of you could have bought this one back in 2004.

We went on to use it for the trumpet exercises and cover images of the CD. So I trust all of you have seen and heard this one already.

Milkay Mununggurr Hard Tongue Didgeridoo

drone – right on the edge of D and D# • first trumpeted note – F
150cm long • 2.8cm mouthpiece (interior average) • 8.6cm bell (largest part of exterior)

Milkay yidaki mouthpiece
Milkay yidaki bell
Bottom end

Here’s the maker playing it.

Djalu’ taking his turn.

Interestingly, Djalu’ commented that this yidaki has the same deep and powerful sound as his own, but that he didn’t like the higher back pressure. He spotted it right away as the sound of an older man, but the playing qualities that younger Yolŋu go for.

Here’s another one of those younger Yolŋu players, the late Mirrwatŋa Munyarryun. He and a few of his family at Dhalinybuy all agreed this was a good “bass yidaki” suitable for ceremonial use.

Lastly, here’s when I played it as part of my “Didjeridu of the Day” series on Instagram.

Milkay & Buyu play yidaki
Milkay & his son Buyu play this and Yiḏaki of the Month #2 at Dhanaya in 2005.

#1, July 2017, by Djakanŋu Yunupiŋu
#2, August 2017, by Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr
#3, September 2017, by Djalu’ Gurruwiwi
#4, October 2017, by Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra
#5, November 2017, by Baḏikupa Gurruwiwi
#6, December 2017, by Buwathay Munyarryun
#7, January 2018, a Bad Yiḏaki

Gurrumuru CD – More Info

Gurrumuru CD

Last month, I gave you a mother lode of information about the Mulka Project’s Dhalinybuy CD. Documentation for the other titles I recorded wasn’t so far along when I suddenly had to leave Yirrkala, but I’ll provide you what I can to try and fulfill the original educational goal of these CDs. This month, Gurrumuru.

Gurrumuru sign
The Road to Gurrumuru.

We recorded at the Dhaḻwaŋu clan homeland of Gurrumuru on 28 September 2007. Once again, it was a road trip from Yirrkala with a stash of food, basic recording gear, the original young Mulka staff Ḏiṉḏirrk Munuŋgurr and Ṉuwaniny Burarrwaŋa and this time Buku-Ḻarrŋgay staff member Balwaltja Munuŋgurr, who wanted to see the process and visit family at Gurrumuru. Dhaḻwaŋu clan leaders Yumutjin and Warralka Wunuŋmurra sang while their gäthu, or nephew by non-Yolŋu thinking, Wambuna played yidaki (a yidaki you can hear more of HERE).

Gurrumuru Studios, Studio A
Studio A, Gurrumuru

We had one little mishap that day and the external hard drive used for the recording took a tumble. It seemed fine, but died completely shortly after the trip while I was trying to back it up. Fortunately, I already made a rough mix for the artists. That rough mix had to serve as the final mix. At least on this CD, there was no hard work to be done mixing it!

Gurrumuru band
From left, Wambuna, Yumutjin and Warralka Wunuŋmurra.

We recorded Yumutjin telling the story of the songs before I left Yirrkala, but we didn’t finish transcribing or translating it. My knowledge of the Dhaḻwaŋu Dhay’yi language and the high level ceremonial words Yumutjin used isn’t sufficient for me to do it on my own now. Instead of pestering some Yolŋu to help for free long distance, I’ll summarize as best I can.

The songs tell of Birrinydji, or Ḻiya-Yiki, the knife warrior. Some say he was a Macassan, one of the sailors from modern day Sulawesi in Indonesia who came to Arnhem Land hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. Some say he was something else. Macassans didn’t normally venture as far inland as Gurrumuru. Maybe he was one of the Bayini, a group shrouded in myth who arrived before the Macassans. Maybe he was something else. Some historians believe Chinese sailors visited the Arnhem Land coast first. In either case, the songs of Gurrumuru and Birrinydji include introduced material culture such as knives, tobacco, playing cards, and rice.

Gurrumuru on bark by Yumutjin Wunungmurra
Bark painting by Yumutjin Wunuŋmurra.

To paraphrase Yumutjin:

This is how we sing the land at Gurrumuru. We sing of the warriors of the knife at Gurrumuru. Of the preparation of the place for the spirit we call Ḻiya-Yiki.

They followed the path, came to this place and prepared the land, clearing the brush. Making the place clean. This is the place they and we belong.

He spotted a special tree and went to sit in its shade to look over the clearing. He fell asleep and dreamed of the place. When he awoke, he smoked tobacco from his long pipe. It is a special smoke given to the people of Gurrumuru. Then he got up and began playing and singing. (YidakiStory side note: he plays the djoling, often translated either as ‘mouth harp’ or ‘flute’. I suspect it is not a coincidence that Indonesians have a bamboo flute called suling, and that Yolŋu don’t have an ‘s’ in their language).

From there, he went to find money and started playing cards with the other men. There is tension among them. He goes and gets alcohol and drinks. As he gets drunk, he gets more wild. He gets his knife and begins an aggressive dance. The red calico flags of Gurrumuru are raised.

Meanwhile, rice is being cooked. Some is stirred in the pot and some is tossed into the clearing. All the leftovers are thrown out to the clearing. The jungle fowl Djiḻawurr emerges, stamps its feet in the rice and calls out. It announces to other birds and by extension the humans that the north wind is coming, clearing the air and the land.

As Djiḻawurr cries out, the sun sets, casting spectacular colours of red and yellow in the clouds.

I’ve posted this several times before but here again is a video clip from near the end of the recording session.

Much of Yumutjin’s telling included lists of ‘power names’ for places, people and objects. I don’t feel comfortable including them here without his oversight even though he recorded the statement for the public. I might get something wrong and the specific words don’t contribute much to the story for us outsiders, anyway.

I don’t want to overstep any other bounds, but I’ll say that Djiḻawurr’s calls are often said to be announcements of death and the raising of flags is part of mortuary ceremony. It’s probably safe to assume that Birrinydji’s drunken aggression with his knife was his undoing, and that this story establishes Dhaḻwaŋu funeral practices. That’s all I’ll say about that.

A couple of years later, the Mulka Project worked with Yumutjin and others at Gurrumuru to create a short film of the dance for a small part of this song cycle. You can get a little more context and see the quick version of the story as told here:

I hope this helps you appreciate that CD or download you’ve got a little bit more and gives you another small window of insight into Yolŋu culture.

See also my post about the origins of the CD series HERE.