Djalu’ Gurruwiwi made this yidaki in August 1999. I helped in between taking pictures for my website documenting my first visit to Australia. I’ll repeat of few of those old photos in higher resolution here. I don’t have video of any Yolŋu playing this yidaki like I did of the last Yidaki of the Month. Instead I have about 40 minutes of audio of Djalu’ playing it. Apart from a couple of excerpts in Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja and a few Mulka Project videos, these recordings have only been heard by a few of my friends.
key of D with E first trumpeted note
mouthpiece approximately 3.2cm
distal end approximately 9cm
And now, the “making of” photos. In the finest digital photo quality 1999 had to offer!
I’ll post more below, but let’s listen to just one bit now, shall we? His rapid alternation of drone and trumpet notes totally mystified me back then, so this has always been my go-to demo of how amazing the old man’s playing is. An excerpt of this track appears on the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu How to Play: The Trumpet Note page, but I’ll include the full three minutes here. He plays a few renditions and provides the “mouth sounds,” or teaching pneumonics. This yidaki part normally accompanies song and dance about monsoonal rains.
Confession. While the Yiḏaki of the Month was Djalu’s clear favorite of the three, I couldn’t get along with it for many years. I preferred the black one at the right. It had a tighter top section, more back pressure, and a larger interval between the drone and trumpeted note. I didn’t know how to play trumpet notes with any subtlety back then. I almost always pushed too hard, with too tight a lip, and overshot the trumpet note on Djalu’s favored yidaki of the batch. Yet he demonstrated hitting it with such ease in the piece you heard above. I struggled to play along with his recordings and learn, but just couldn’t connect with the yellow yidaki. I always used the black one to demonstrate what I had learned of Yolŋu style, right up to when I moved to Arnhem Land.
These yidaki all stayed in the USA while I lived in Arnhem Land. After living for five years near Djalu’ and developing my playing style and lip with his and other Yolŋu players’ influence, guess what? I now very much prefer the yellow one. Young Yolŋu probably would prefer the black one with its higher back pressure. I guess I’m an old man like Djalu’ now, preferring mid-level back pressure and a slightly more open bore.
Here are a few more recordings of Djalu’ playing it.
This post details the origins of The Mulka Manikay Archives CD series that documents songs of several Yolŋu clans of northeast Arnhem Land. A future post will go into greater detail about one of the recordings.
You can find the albums from some didgeridoo sellers and all the usual online digital music retailers. Here’s a link to them on Amazon.com.
The Mulka Project
In 2007, Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, the art centre in the remote Australian Aboriginal community of Yirrkala, launched a new multimedia wing: The Mulka Project. Mulka refers to the centre as a holding place of Yolŋu culture. The original grant applications sought mostly to create an archive of materials made by anthropologists, missionaries and other visitors to Arnhem Land over the years, managed and made accessible to the community by Yolŋu librarians.
I luckily arrived in Yirrkala at the right time and with many of the right skills to become coordinator of this new project. Right away, I knew we needed to adjust Mulka’s charter. It wouldn’t just be an archive, but a production centre training Yolŋu to take the reigns of modern media to tell their own stories from now on. With my background as a musician and indie record label owner, it was a simple step to jump into making new audio recordings. We already started repatriating audio made decades earlier by outsiders. It was time for the community to make their own recordings of the current generation of singers.
During construction and development of the new project, the Yothu Yindi Foundation offered support including the use of their recording studio at Gunyaŋara’. Their Contemporary Masters series of CDs recorded there featured Galarrwuy Yunupiŋu, Djalu’ Gurruwiwi and more. This seemed the obvious way ahead. We would record new albums of clan song there.
Rirrakay Yirralkawuy Yirralkaŋura
The plan changed not long before the launch of the Mulka Project in mid-2007. Maḏarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili came in and poked around the new place just after I finished wiring our new theatre’s sound system. The voice of Galarrwuy Yunupiŋu from the Yothu Yindi Foundation CD Gobulu blared over the speakers. Djambawa listened for a moment and his face betrayed his thoughts.
I said, “so, do you want to record a CD of Maḏarrpa manikay (song)?”
“Yes, but I’m not recording in any studio. I’m doing it on my own homeland at Yilpara, looking out at my ocean.”
Done. Brilliant idea. I added a few items for remote recording to the list of necessary gear for the new centre and brought the idea to my colleagues. There were two Yolŋu Cultural Directors at that point; Wukuṉ Waṉambi and the late Dr. R. Marika. She deserves a whole blog post to herself, but to be brief, Dr. Marika had long been a key Yolŋu figure in Australian academia and Aboriginal activism. She loved the idea of recording remotely at significant locations and coined a name for the series: Rirrakay Yirralkawuy Yirralkaŋura, or “The Sound of the Homeland at the Homeland.”
After her sudden passing and my sudden departure before the release of any of the recordings, the series became TheMulka Manikay Archives, which is much easier for non-Yolŋu minds and tongues to grapple with. I do however want the record to show that the original concept and the spirit of the recordings was definitely Rirrakay Yirralkawuy Yirralkaŋura. These are documents made in remote spots of Yolŋu singing the land. Of the three recording sessions I produced, Djambawa’s demonstrated this most clearly. As he and his clansmen sung of thunderclouds gathering over the ocean off of Yilpara, we watched it happening.
listen to them
Check them out now. If you’ve listened to them before, do it again. Know this time that these recordings are different. They’re not done in studios just to sell to the public. They weren’t done for an academic as part of his or her research. They are Yolŋu sitting on their own land, feeling what they’re singing with the intention of sharing with their families and future generations. Picture yourself on the beach at Yilpara or in the middle of Dhalinybuy and get lost in it.
I’ve posted this before, but here’s a video clip from the Gurrumuru session.
the documentation that could have been
Dr. Marika, having worked in western academia and knowing many of the commercially available recordings of traditional Aboriginal music, had a chip on her shoulder that I adored. All the prior recordings of Yolŋu music included liner notes written by non-Yolŋu academics. All of them got some things right and some things wrong. Dr. Marika declared that our CDs would come with the most thorough documentation ever, telling deeper stories direct from the Yolŋu perspective for the first time. No essays by outside academics. The layout and artwork would include symbology related to the songs and ancestral connections. She wanted to show the world what comprehensive liner notes written and designed by Yolŋu intellectuals looked like.
Sadly, this idea was dropped along with her name for the series after both of us were out of the picture. All the recordings are released with just a track listing and artist information. I’m not privy to the reasoning behind the decision, but I can guess. First off, it’s less work. A LOT less. Secondly, Dr. Marika was one of few Yolŋu who knew academia and who would have read liner notes about Yolŋu music written by outsiders. Not many Yolŋu have a context for these kinds of recordings in the outside world, and certainly few if any would have that drive that Dr. Marika had to create the best liner notes ever. The vast majority of Yolŋu would be happy with a recording with no liner notes at all. Ever since the introduction of cassette tapes, Yolŋu have passed around recordings of manikay. For most of them, new technology just means better quality for the recordings that they listen to with no need for any information.
That said, I am grateful that the recordings have seen the light of day at all. The work of running Mulka is truly overwhelming. Over a year after the first recording and with two more in the can, we were just about ready to release the first CD when I suddenly had to leave Mulka and Yirrkala. I’m glad the CDs went ahead even without the work Dr. Marika and I wanted to do. It’s just a shame that they are less informative, less marketable and less significant than they could have been.
I didn’t take much with me when I left Mulka, but I do have a lot of the work that we did for what became the Dhalinybuy CD. I’ll share that in a future post so that in at least a small way, you can see some of the vision Dr. Marika had for these CDs.
Once again, the CDs are available from some didgeridoo sellers and downloads are available from Amazon, iTunes, etc. Please support the Mulka Project and get the sound of the land in your ears by buying these albums!
Keeping with last month’s tribute to him on the 10th anniversary of his passing, this month’s featured yidaki was made by the late Milkay Munuŋgurr in 2005. Here he is playing it in 2006.
He found this yidaki while doing his ranger duties, clearing roads after a cyclone that took a heavy toll on the region in early 2005. Mr. Munuŋgurr couldn’t help but notice the potential yidaki among the fallen trees. I believe he made two from what he found post-cyclone.
He originally intended to sell this elsewhere along with a few others, but asked me what I thought about the lot first. A couple were really great, with this at the top of the list. I raved about it but told him his hole patching wouldn’t fly. It’s normal to come across knot holes in the wood while carving down a yidaki. He used epoxy to cover up these holes, leaving visible white lumps on the otherwise natural wood instruments.
I said, “c’mon, you’ve got to at least paint over these patches.” I raved about this instrument, anyway, and told him if he could make more like it, I’d buy them all day, any day for top dollar at the Yirrkala art centre.
He came back a week later with this instrument painted. He told me that since I liked it so much, it was for me. And I’ll always keep it.
This little cyclone-power yidaki got used a lot over the next few years. We used it for the pictures on his instructional CD, Hard Tongue Didgeridoo instead of the actual instrument used on the CD which was made by someone else. If this yidaki existed at the time of recording, I’m sure he would have chosen it instead.
We took it to festivals and workshops. I loaned it out for ceremony if I was there to keep an eye on it. I had a collection of 8 yidaki that I showed to different payers and elders to get comments for my master’s project, and this was always the favorite of younger players like the late Mr. Munyarryun in this clip.
After he played all the yidaki, I asked him to pick a favorite, tell me why, and show off on it for a bit. Unfortunately, my camera battery ran out just then and I only have a few seconds of that. I’m glad I at least have the above simple clip.
Djakapurra and Mirarra also participated in that project and loved this instrument.
It was used on the first three Mulkay Manikay Archives CDs that I recorded at Dhalinybuy, Yilpara and Gurrumuru. I brought a couple of options, but the players and singers always settled on this yidaki for the majority of the recording. Here’s a clip from the Gurrumuru session which I’ve posted before.
And here is young Arnold Djunbiya Marika playing it at Dhalinbuy with some of the youngest songmen you’ll ever see.
Incidentally, I have a sealed set of those first three CDs. If you want them, contact me. You can also buy downloads from all the usual online suspects. Here are links to Amazon: Gurrumuru – Dhalinybuy – Yilpara. Several more were recorded and released after my time there as well. I’ll write another post about that series later on.
Most elders said that this yidaki is a potential ceremonial instrument called Dhaḏalal. In this clip, slightly extended from what appears on elsewhere on this site, Djalu’ plays the yidaki, taps it a bit and then says, “Guḻkuḻa,” referring to the birthplace of the Dhaḏalal for his mother’s Gumatj clan.
Oddly enough, its maker disagreed. To him and the younger players I showed it to, it’s a perfect “lead yidaki” suitable for any clan song. Yolŋu today use rock and roll terms and talk about, lead, rhythm or bass yidaki. Despite older museum examples and what many elders said, Mr. Munuŋgurr, who played Dhaḏalal ceremonially countless times, preferred a deeper yidaki with a fuller trumpet note, like the one he’s pictured with here. He chose that one for the trumpet note exercises on his instructional CD. But that’s for a future Yidaki of the Month episode.
Nevertheless, I used this little cyclone-power yidaki semi-formally as a Dhaḏalal, myself. The annual Garma Festival takes place at the origin of the Dhaḏalal at Guḻkuḻa. The Yirrkala art center’s Gapaṉ Gallery traditionally opens at the festival with Mr. Munuŋgurr’s mother and her sisters doing a small bit of that ceremony, performing ritual mourning, or milkarri. Crying songs. Garma 2007 was just a few weeks after his passing. I figured they’d need a yidaki for that gallery opening ceremony. I brought this one out and showed it to his mother and asked if she’d like that one to be used. She cried briefly, hugged me and asked me to play it. So as dark fell that night, I played the ceremonial dups, triggering the beginning of the ritual crying of his mother and her sisters, obviously in a more real and heartfelt way than usual.
It then had a little break out of the public eye, then continued to be a popular loaner. Yolŋu men often saw the craftsman’s signature and pointed it out to others. This little yidaki continued to get respect on behalf of its maker who earned it.
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?