In late 2004, I made a trip from Yirrkala to Darwin to work with my master’s thesis supervisor at Charles Darwin University. The local ABC radio affiliate’s Leon Compton invited me to come in and talk about my project. An hour or two before the show, I ran into Yolŋu dancer, singer and yiḏaki player Djakapurra Munyarryun on the street downtown. I quickly realised that I needed to invite him to join me on the radio. They asked me to talk about my M.A. & Fulbright project about the didgeridoo. Well, the project’s aim was to collaborate with Yolŋu People to get the word out about the origins of the didgeridoo in Arnhem Land on their own terms. It seemed an obvious bit of fate that I crossed paths with Djakapurra so that this interview could also be a collaboration with Yolŋu.
Ten years ago, we lost a legend. He may not be a household name, but few people influenced the yidaki world as much as Milkay. In the 1980s and 90s, he broke new ground in traditional yiḏaki style, inspiring young players at home and all over Arnhem Land. As one of the Yolŋu founding members of the band Yothu Yindi, a teacher, and creator of the instructional CD Hard Tongue Didgeridoo, he brought traditional yiḏaki to the outside world. Even though they might not be a big influence on younger worldwide didgeridoo players, Yothu Yindi’s popularity in the 1990s drove a lot of interest towards Yolŋu music and culture. If not for the band, yidaki may not have ever gained notice for its special place among other types of didgeridoos. Without the yidaki’s influence, we might not have the large, conical didgeridoos that are made around the world these days.
Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr was born in 1966 at the Yirrkala mission clinic, which after much renovation is now the beautiful Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka art centre. His father was Mutitjpuy Munuŋgurr (1932-1993), one of the handful of Yolŋu artists who painted the historic Yirrkala Church Panels. Mutitjpuy in turn was son of the great Djapu clan warrior and patriarch Woŋgu. Milkay’s mother was Gulumbu Yunupiŋu (1943-2012), daughter of Mungurrawuy, another Church Panel painter, land rights activist and leader of the Gumatj clan. Gulumbu traveled the world as an award-wining artist, but cared deeply about maintaining knowledge at home, shown most publicly by her establishment of a Yolŋu healing centre at Guḻkuḻa.
Despite his two great visual artist parents, Milkay never took to painting. His passion lay elsewhere. “It got into me, I think. The yidaki,” he told me in 2004. “I think because it was… yidaki was my destination, eh? I was destined to play yidaki. I don’t know why.”
Milkay’s mother told him he started playing on PVC pipe when he was only 5 years old. After his dhapi, or initiation ceremony, possibly around age 8, Milkay moved to Gäṉgaṉ, his waku, or mother’s mother’s mother’s country. There, his father gifted him his first proper wooden yidaki, named Guḏurrku after the brolga, an important totem for Dhuwa people and yiḏaki players in particular.
He returned to Yirrkala and his passion for yiḏaki grew with some new influences. He learned a lot from his Gumatj clan uncles, but his ear really perked up when he heard tapes of Dhaḻwaŋu clan ceremony at Gurrumuru – once again, his wakupulu, or mother’s mother’s mother. Dhaḻwaŋu clan players Djalawu and Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra (read this post, too!) lead the path to a newer, more aggressive style known as yiḏaki ŋäṉarr-ḏäl, or “hard tongue didgeridoo.” Milkay studied their playing on tape, then went to live with Djalawu at Gurrumuru.
Milkay started playing yiḏaki for ceremony in his teens and quickly became a favored player for his mother’s Gumatj and other closely related clans. But his uncle Mandawuy wanted to take their culture to the rest of the world, too, and formed the band Yothu Yindi. Everything changed when a remix of their song Treaty hit the Aussie pop charts in 1991.
Plenty has been written about Yothu Yindi elsewhere, so I’ll just post two videos here. First – the clip for Tribal Voice, because it features footage of the band on the road. Milkay saw the world, and as you’ll see in a few quick flashes particularly starting around 3:30, he played yiḏaki all over the world.
Yothu Yindi performed traditional song alongside pop music. Here’s a video for Guḏurrku featuring Milkay with Witiyana Marika. Remember that Milkay’s first proper yiḏaki made by his father was named Guḏurrku.
After the initial boom of Yothu Yindi’s success in the early 1990’s, Milkay retired from the band to stay close to home and not live the rock star lifestyle. He became a ranger with Dhimurru Land Management, traveled a few times as a solo performer and teacher, and occasionally made instruments for sale when interest in yiḏaki boomed at the end of the 90’s and into the 00’s.
I met Milkay in 1999 but didn’t get close to him until I moved to Yirrkala in 2004. I ended up staying longer, but at the time, was on a one-year fellowship and volunteering at Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, the Yirrkala art centre. I considered creating a new volume of my instructional CD series there with a Yolŋu guest teacher, but quickly realized it would be better to make it a Yolŋu-owned product instead. I approached the coordinator of the art centre about releasing it and Milkay about creating it, and plans quickly came together.
A future blog post will talk more about the creation of Hard Tongue Didgeridoo. For now, note the cover. Milkay insisted on Guḏurrku making an appearance with him.
Also featured: images with his gäthu, or son, Buyu and crossed yiḏaki symbolizing the transfer of knowledge. With these images, Milkay acknowledged his father, his deeper totemic identity, and the passing of knowledge to future generations.
He took me under his wing a bit as we got to know each other through the CD project. We had some good times and he taught me a lot… but those might be subjects for future blog posts.
Milkay struggled with alcoholism and depression like many of the disenfranchised people of Arnhem Land. Many people knew him a lot longer than I did, but I feel like I saw him at both his best and his worst in his last few years with us. For one thing, as a Djapu clan man, he was a shark. He was born of a Gumatj woman – a crocodile. He definitely embodied these ancestral totems. These raw powers of beauty and sudden aggression. But he was also a big softie.
I’ll share one personal story I’ve only told privately to a few people. Our first trip together was in October 2004. Thanks to the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, we went to Canberra for a reception with the US ambassador, spoke at the National Museum of Australia and on ABC radio, and got to look through the NMA’s collection of yiḏaki. We stopped on the way back for a workshop in Sydney. Milkay indulged in alcohol now and then during the trip. It wasn’t a problem to that point, but he took it too far that last night, getting very drunk during the workshop. We spoke about it on the plane home the next day. I tried not to be too preachy. I told him that he was an adult and free to do what he liked, but that he should remember that he was representing his people, the yiḏaki and his entire culture at events like this. The conversation was brief and to the point. He acknowledged it but we didn’t dwell on it.
Our next trip was in June 2005, to teach yiḏaki workshops at the first Dreaming Festival in Woodford, Qld. It was four days, and everything went smoothly. After the last workshop finished, he started drinking, celebrating big time. It took a herculean effort to get him on the plane the next morning, but we made it. Then he totally shocked me on that flight by bringing up the conversation we had on the plane home from our previous trip eight months earlier. He told me he remembered everything I said and didn’t want to let me or his people down this time, so stayed sober until the work was done. I almost cried. I knew this was a person with human failings but deep integrity. A person I wouldn’t give up on.
He continued as a person of extremes after that. He attempted suicide at least once then got sober for an extended period, about 7 months. It seemed a huge step. He had seen the outside word, seen different ways to live and could see a better way for his people. But the situation in Arnhem Land was too much for him. He got caught back up in the self-medication that is so common among his people as they try to survive their existence, stuck between two worlds, not knowing what the way forward could be.
Two years later, in June 2007, we returned to The Dreaming with a group of about a dozen Yolŋu to perform and present various workshops. The Yolŋu music world took a big hit while we were there. Gumatj clan singer George Rrurrambu of Warumpi Band fame passed away from lung cancer at Galiwin’ku. When word came through to the festival and our group, Milkay took on a new leadership role. As senior djuŋgaya/child of the Gumatj clan present, it fell to him to make sure protocols upon the death of this Yolŋu man were followed by our group, and by extension by everyone at this Aboriginal-themed festival. He liaised with festival organizers to put out the word that we wouldn’t be saying his name, playing his music, etc., and led a public memorial ceremony. He had spoken to me earlier about wanting to move away from playing yiḏaki and start to sing as a leader. He did that at the Dreaming in performance and in this brief ceremony. I was proud of him.
Meanwhile, funeral ceremony was ongoing back home for his own sister who had passed away from cancer. As the festival closed and it was time to head back home, Milkay didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to get dragged back into the old cycles of depression and drinking back home. He wanted to stay with his cousin who lived nearby in Brisbane, attending boarding school. He of course had been drinking at this time, so it was hard to say if he was in any state of mind to make such decisions. I did my job and rallied the group to get him on the plane, reminding him that he needed to get home for the close of his sister’s funeral.
A few weeks later, on a peaceful Sunday morning in July 2007, Milkay went fishing. Everyone said he seemed peaceful and happy. He returned home and took his own life. I got a call hinting at what happened and saying I should hurry from Yirrkala to Gunyaŋara’ to see him. The car horn started blaring around Yirrkala announcing a death. I couldn’t get myself to rush so just made it in time to be part of the procession to the hospital. I can’t say exactly what I felt, but I didn’t feel the need to see his lifeless body. I wasn’t particularly upset or sad in that moment. I remember mostly thinking that at least he could finally rest now, and being glad that I got to be part of his last few years here.
It has now been ten years since Milkay passed away. Part of me wonders what he would be doing now if he were still with us. Part of me is satisfied he completed his journey and is at peace. Both parts miss him. Both parts are grateful for what he accomplished and shared both with the world and with me, personally.
I’ll leave you with a world premiere. In 2006 as we were shooting video for Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja, he mentioned his aspiration to graduate from yiḏaki player to a singer, leading ceremony rather than accompanying it. We did a hasty recording of him playing and singing – what else – Guḏurrku, the brolga.
And that yidaki he’s holding in the picture above and in the fundraiser video? If you’re in North America, you can buy it and/or one other from Burrŋupurrŋu here – http://gingerroot.com/catalog/yidaki.htm, with a share of the purchase price going to the campaign.
Who is Burrŋupurrŋu?
To be brief, Burrŋupurrŋu AKA Bruce Wunuŋmurra is a leader of the Dhaḻwaŋu clan, an undisputed yiḏaki-djambatj (didjeridu master) and one of the nicest guys in Arnhem Land. Born around 1950, he grew up between the bush and the Yirrkala mission, where he attended school. He lived most of his adult life at his clan homeland at Gurrumuru, but now finds himself at Gunyaŋara’, closer to the hospital and other services in the mining town of Nhulunbuy.
Coincidentally, Burrŋupurrŋu’s father already appeared on this blog.
Nyepayŋa, at left, was one of the “Two Brothers at Galarra.” He fathered many children who became leaders and renowned artists. The late Yaŋgarriny was a prominent Yolŋu artist. Burrŋupurrŋu’s brothers Yumutjin and Warralka lead song with gäthu/nephew Wambuna on yiḏaki in this video clip from the recording of the album Gurrumuru.
Burrŋupurrŋu’s mother was Gangarriwuy of the Marrakulu clan – stringybark people, as we learned in the first blog post.
Burrŋupurrŋu credits two main yidaki influences. First, Djalu’ Gurruwiwi, who I assume needs no introduction to readers of this blog. The other is Manydjarri, father of well known yidaki maker Ŋoŋu Ganambarr. Manydjarri & Ŋoŋu lead song here:
With Manydjarri & Djalu’s tutelage, Burrŋupurrŋu and his brother Djalawu became the hot yidaki players in the 1970’s, in demand for ceremonial playing. The late Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr credits them as his biggest influence. He told me about walking through Yirrkala when he was a school boy and hearing cassette tapes of ceremony playing from houses. He would go, sit down and listen and analyze the playing style. This was the beginning of what he would later call yiḏaki ŋäṉarr-ḏäl, or “hard tongue didgeridoo.” Milkay went to live with his Dhaḻwaŋu kin, partly to learn yidaki from Djalawu and Burrŋupurrŋu.
Burrŋupurrŋu and the Yiḏaki Boom
Worldwide awareness of didgeridoos in general and yidaki specifically grew greatly in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Djalu’ rose to prominence first, but other Yolŋu names soon followed. Burrŋupurrŋu stood out, partly because of his crafting prowess and partly because his wife, Djul’djul Gurruwiwi, is a talented artist, daughter of the late great Gälpu clan painter Mithinarri. While most yidaki craftsmen shifted to acrylic paints, Burrŋupurrŋu and Djul’djul stuck with traditional ochres and clay. To me, this was an important part of the package making them “the real deal.”
From the initial yidaki boom circa 2000, through my tenure in Yirrkala 2004-2009, and right up to today, Burrŋupurrŋu and Djul’djul have remained some of the hardest working yidaki makers with the highest standard of quality in both craftsmanship and artistry.
Excerpts of my 2005 interview with Burrŋupurrŋu appear on two pages of Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja. Check out his off-the-cuff comments on non-Aboriginal didgeridoo makers and female players.
A few years ago, Burrŋupurrŋu was diagnosed with leukemia. I haven’t been nosy enough to find out the exact type, but it’s in the category of Myeloproliferative neoplasms. Patients with these diseases may not ever be cured as such, but they can live with the condition for many years. This seems to be the case with Burrŋupurrŋu. He’s going on with his life, but without the strength he once had, and with the extra complications and expense of regular medical treatments.
This fundraiser aims to help offset those extra complications and expenses. I’ll turn you over to the fundraiser page for more info.
Once again, I’m selling the yidaki Burrŋupurrŋu is holding in the picture and video on the fundraising page, plus one other he made. He was already paid his normal share for these, but I’ll kick another $100 each into the fundraising campaign when they’re sold. Check them out here:
I stopped in on the gallery a few hours before my performance in town this Thursday night. Julie, the owner, shocked me with the revelation that she has thirteen finely painted yidaki sent by my old colleagues in Yirrkala. We pulled them out of storage, admired them for a bit, then recorded quick videos of me trying them all out. We’ll work out how to list them for sale online soon. Up until now, they were for sale to her art collector clients. Now, they will be available to yidaki players around the world.
For now, check out these examples. Attention fellow film snobs: I am not responsible for the aspect ratio of the videos.
Manini Gumana painted the first one with miny’tji (sacred design) of Yirritja moiety salt water at Garrapara. This one is a great instrument, but is a little awkward to play due to a roughly shaped natural mouthpiece. A little wax or wood filler will easily fix it.
Buwathay Munyarryun adorned this powerful yidaki with Gularri and Djapanaminy’tji of his Wangurri clan.
Lastly (for now), is a fantastic yidaki with old school playing characteristics, painted in a very fine hand by my friend and former co-worker Marrnyula Munuŋgurr with her Djapu clan’s characteristic square design.
I honestly would love to buy all three of these yidaki and a few others in the collection, but simply can’t come up with an excuse to own any more than I do already. Soon I’ll post information on how you can make me extremely jealous by buying them for yourself. Stay tuned!
People often ask me about the yiḏaki in my collection. Therefore, I bring you the first YiḏakiStory vlog and the first in a new series: Yiḏaki of the Month.
Made circa 1992 by Djakanŋu Yunupiŋu, best known to worldwide yiḏaki players and fans of Yolŋu culture as sister to Mandawuy Yunupiŋu and wife of Baḏikupa Gurruwiwi, Djalu’s father’s younger brother. Deep and warm C#. First owned by the late Mike LeBien, a dear friend and co-founder of my label Ginger Root Records.
Future editions of Yiḏaki of the Month will feature footage of Yolŋu players on the instrument when I have it.
I will record in my studio in the future. I tried to go the easy way and film in my live-sounding living room with an iPad, but clearly I need to capture the sound better. Next time!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Pet peeve alert! I photoshopped it to remove and change details, but this appeared in my Facebook feed this morning.
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!
With the news of another death in the yiḏaki world, perhaps it is time to talk about death in Yolŋu culture. This post scratches the surface of this huge topic and introduces you to some basic concepts and protocol.
First, the News
A great Yolŋu yiḏaki player and maker passed away last week. As I’ll discuss below, Yolŋu custom forbids speaking the name of the deceased for a period of mourning. I believe it is a bit extreme to apply this to typing on the internet, but for those who are sensitive about it and in case any Yolŋu family read this, I’ll just type the first name here once in white text. Datjirri #1 Wunuŋmurra. Double-click or hold your finger on that white space to select the text and see the name.
Find more information about Mr. Wunuŋmurra on the old Yirrkala Yiḏaki website, thanks to the internet archive. He was talented, knowledgable, charismatic, funny and lots of trouble, and I will miss his presence when I’m in Arnhem Land. I will never forget the sparkle in his eye as he said, “let’s go shopping,” whenever we went out to cut yiḏaki.
When a death occurs in northeast Arnhem Land, word goes out about a bäpurru, in this case meaning “a death.” Bäpurru is also the main word for “clan” in Yolŋu languages. Individuals identify the bäpurru to which they belong, such as Djapu, Gumatj, Gälpu, or in Mr. Wunuŋmurra’s case, Dhaḻwaŋu. I can’t explain to you why Yolŋu use the same word for “clan” and “a death.” I made a quick scan of my library and didn’t find any clear explanation from academics. The best guess is that it stresses the kinship connections between everyone and suggests “a death in the family.”
In short, if a Yolŋu person tells you, “_______ is my bäpurru,” they’re telling you their clan affiliation and therefore, in many respects, their very identity. If someone says something like, “did you hear about the bäpurru?” they’re alluding to news of a recent death.
Use of Name & Images
Yolŋu do not go around telling everyone, “hey, John just died.” No one utters the name and no one is told in such a matter-of-fact manner. Families gather and are sung the news. Leaders bang the biḻma, or clapsticks, with particular patterns and sing songs that indicate the person’s lineage (including their own bäpurru). On at least one occasion I witnessed, this song was followed with a few words to clarify a potential ambiguity, such as which of two brothers died. Upon hearing the news, women begin to wail and sing milkarri – crying songs. They improvise words to clan melodies to mourn and celebrate their connection to the deceased. Find a little more info and a video clip from the film Bulunu MilkarriHERE.
Why do they not say the name? On a simple level, to avoid upsetting surviving relatives. On deeper levels, there are two main reasons corresponding to two different Yolŋu concepts of the soul.
Birrimbirr refers to a good spirit that leaves the body of the deceased to journey back to its home. For some clans, this is a water hole on sacred land. For others it is said to be an island of spirits to the northeast. Others speak of the stars in the Milky Way as the souls of departed clansmen. From this reservoir of souls, this birrimbirr may leap into the body of a pregnant woman later on. Calling out the deceased person’s name may distract the birrimbirr from its journey and break the cycle of spirits coming into humans to keep the clan alive.
A darker, perhaps trickster part of the soul is referred to by the general word for spirits, mokuy. This spirit lingers after death. It haunts the deceased’s home, workplace and possessions. Calling out the name of the deceased might get the attention of this mokuy and bring “spiritual pollution” to close relatives, causing injury, illness or even another death. Shortly after the death and the ensuing funeral ceremony, Yolŋu perform cleansing ceremonies with water or smoke to wash away this spiritual pollution. If you visit a Yolŋu community, you may see houses or vehicles with traces of red bands painted around them. This indicates that they were cleansed following ceremonial business.
Yolŋu integrate introduced technology such as photographs and audio recordings into these customs. These new media remind families of the deceased and may invoke the spirit. However, not all Yolŋu feel the same way about this. Many privately collect, view and share photos of recently deceased kin. On at least one occasion, family chose to display a portrait of the deceased at a memorial service, to mixed response from Yolŋu in attendance. Rules are often bent for Yolŋu who rose to prominence outside of Arnhem Land. Family of the late lead singer of Yothu Yindi allowed his image to be displayed much sooner than normal, and the late George Rurrambu of Warumpi Band insisted while dying from lung cancer that people keep playing his music and showing his image.
Yolŋu also avoid words that sound like names of the deceased. Didjeridu players may remember a few years ago when the word yiḏaki was not to be spoken because it is one letter away from the name of a deceased man. The alternate word mandapul became prominent at that time in the area around Yirrkala, but yiḏaki is clear for use again.
The mourning period varies widely from a few years to a decade, and may vary between different people across the region. Close family avoid a name or word for longer than other Yolŋu will. Yolŋu from the west of the region, at Milingimbi, for instance, most likely continued using the word yiḏaki as they were not close to the man with the similar name who passed away in Yirrkala, on the eastern edge of Yolŋu country.
The best advice, however, is to err on the side of caution to avoid upsetting anyone. If you are physically with Yolŋu people, speak with caution. Do not post photos or video and audio recordings of recently deceased Yolŋu people. As for typing names of the deceased on the internet, I was once told, “spirits don’t read.” I’d wager that typing a name will not distract a spirit from its journey. But sensitive family members or overprotective outsiders may happen across it.
In the old days before European influence, Yolŋu painted the deceased body with sacred designs of the person’s lineage while song and dance continued. After this first round of ceremony, bodies were left in shallow graves or tree platforms to decay. Later, family returned to collect the bones and paint them. Key parts such as thigh bones and skulls were bundled in paperbark and carried for a time, perhaps a year. Then, in a final round of ceremony, hollow log coffins known by various names such as ḻarrakitj, ḏupun or dhakandjali were painted with sacred designs of the deceased’s lineage. Yolŋu placed the bones in these coffins for final disposal and left them in the bush to decay.
With the introduction (imposition?) of quicker in-ground burial, modern Yolŋu mortuary procedures are a bit condensed. Singing begins around the body as families are notified all over the region. Usually, if the death is in or near Yirrkala, the body is ceremonially carried to a vehicle for a slow procession to the hospital in the mining town of Nhulunbuy. On arrival, song and dance escort the body from the vehicle to the morgue. Families then plan the funeral ceremony, then at the appropriate time, return to collect the body and again ceremonially escort it from the morgue to the vehicle and from the vehicle to its resting place for the ceremony. The body is ritually guided at every movement. Long distances complicate this, such as deaths in remote homelands or major cities like Darwin. Every movement from house to car to plane to car to hospital to morgue must be accompanied ritual song and dance.
Funeral ceremony lasts anywhere from a few days to a few months depending on the person’s significance and the amount of family involved in the ceremony. The deceased own clan, mother’s clan, mother’s mother’s clan and djuŋgaya (see http://yidakistory.com/dhawu/yolngu-rom/yothu-yindi/ for more info) take primary roles, but more distant relations may also be involved. Other ceremonies such as boys’ initiation often piggyback on funerals to take advantage of the large gathering.
Every funeral is different. Leaders of the concerned clans gather and decide the needed series of events. Each day brings new cycles of ritual song and dance that aim to guide the spirit to its resting place. Related clans take turns doing their part. Intensity builds until the climax of the burial. Designs once painted on hollow log coffins now adorn coffin lids and grave markers. In the days following the burial, ritual cleanses the mourners, particularly those who handled the body, of any spiritual pollution.
Cleansing ceremony after a funeral in Yirrkala, 2007.
Further Reading & Viewing
The legendary anthropologist Donald Thomson, who worked in northeast Arnhem Land in the 1930s, wrote that if he could fully understand Yolŋu funeral ritual, he would have the key to a full understanding of the whole culture. The quest for that understanding continues today.
If you want to delve deeper into this, my number one recommendation comes in two parts. The film Madarrpa Funeral at Gurka’wuy by Ian Dunlop and the book Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest by Howard Morphy both document one Yolŋu funeral from 1976. The film allows you to see and “experience” some of the action for yourself while the book has more time to fill you in on the background. Morphy discusses in detail who participated and why, and what micro-ceremonies added up to create the whole funeral. Combining the strengths of written word and visual media to cover one ceremony conveys more understanding than any one film or book can alone.
That said, neither are easy to come by, even in Australia. Search for the book at libraries, particularly university libraries, and online used book websites. The film is part of the Yirrkala Film Project, a series of 22 films shot throughout the 1970s. Again, look at libraries near you, but don’t expect much outside of Australia. If you are seriously interested in Yolŋu culture, I highly recommend that you purchase the entire series HERE. You will learn so much. I got my hands on most of the series between my first and second visits to Arnhem Land in 1999 and 2001. Viewing the films greatly improved my knowledge and ability to communicate with Yolŋu.
Last week I traveled to Los Angeles for a rare opportunity to reconnect with some Yolŋu friends, Wukuṉ Waṉambi and Yinimala Gumana. They just reached the last stop of a 4-week trip to the United States to work with the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. Mostly, I wanted to see them and learn about the project they’re working on, but I also thought it would be a good opportunity to get them on video for a post on this new blog. Perhaps they would answer some questions from the web. Perhaps Wukuṉ would follow up on his comments quoted in my first post.
On arrival, I quickly decided to let that go and just hang out with them. They had been away from home for a long time, constantly traveling, performing, being poked and prodded and questioned, everywhere from the Smithsonian to the Getty. Yinimala had never been outside of Australia before, so nearly a month on a coast-to-coast USA trip must have been overwhelming. They met countless strangers who spoke to them in English. The best thing I could do was provide a familiar face, speak to them in their languages, and blast Yolŋu music as I drove them around town. To help them relax and feel at home. To make no demands of them.
Because they’re people. Not ethnographic curiosities. They have no responsibility to constantly provide education, enlightenment or entertainment.
I think back to my first visit to Yolŋu country with my wife in 1999. Two Aussies encouraged us to come. They told us they would connect us with Djalu’ Gurruwiwi so we could learn about yiḏaki from him at his home in Arnhem Land. It only took one night of sleeping in a tent behind his sister’s house before we began to feel that our presence was incredibly inappropriate. What if someone from another part of the world showed up at your door expecting to camp in your backyard for a couple of weeks? Expecting you to change your life to look after them, showing them around, teaching them how you live your life? It’s absurd, but it happens in Yolŋu country all the time.
We weren’t the first, but we were early in a long line of Djalu’-crashers and my old website about the trip undoubtedly inspired others to follow in our footsteps. In 2004, my first year living in Yirrkala, Djalu’ and family barely had a week to themselves. Didgeridoo players from overseas would come and stay in tents for anything from a weekend to a couple of months. The sheer numbers and consistency were amazing to witness. The family of course allowed it and did their best to profit from it, but the constant stream of visitors was clearly draining. They later opted to work with a more professional tourism operation to control the numbers and guarantee an income stream for their time.
There’s no huge point or dramatic conclusion to all of this. I’m simply sharing a few thoughts and reflections. I will post more later about the project Wukuṉ and Yinimala worked on here and try to get video someone else took of their “performance” to ceremonially open an event at the LA Consul-General’s residence. For now, I’ll share a few pictures from the only time I took out a camera to “document” my Yolŋu friends – as tourists at the Griffith Observatory.