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.
In Part 1, we saw how the film Two Brothers at Galarra came to be. Now let’s break down the scenes and their music to see how Richard Waterman’s recordings were used and what they inspired.
The film opens with Mathuḻu sitting by a fire, introducing the story with spoken word. As we will see later, this was in fact the last scene shot for the film. His narration also concludes the film over instrumental music carrying on from the final song. Mathuḻu’s appearance and guidance provides continuity with the 1952 recordings.
The rest of the film has nearly wall-to-wall music of three types.
1 – Dr. Waterman’s Recordings from 1952
These are of course the film’s inspiration and key soundtrack. As the film transitions from Mathuḻu’s spoken introduction to the reenactment, Binydjarrpuma and Mathuḻu sing of paperbark trees and the winds that hit them at certain places on Wangurri clan land. We see the brothers beginning their journey in country as described. The other two songs from the original recordings are far more intense. The first sets the scene for the fight to come with a long build of tension as the brothers walk through grasslands close to the ritual fighting ground of their destination. The second powerfully accompanies the film’s climactic fight.
2 – Newly Recorded Song & Dance
The second category of music in the film was performed live with the dance scenes. Supervised by Mathuḻu, Malalakpuy lead the singing with Bibibak Munuŋgurr on didjeridu. Yolŋu land is alive with ancestral stories and powers. Cycles of song & dance tell and reenact these stories. On one evening of our shoot, twenty men and boys of Dhalinybuy sang and danced the journey depicted in the film to provide this context and, in the Yolŋu way of thinking, to tell the real story. Underlying powers and spirits in the land are the unchanging reality of the Yolŋu universe despite changing appearances or modern developments. They inform and influence the actions of humans. As the two brothers in the film journey across these ancestral lands, they come to embody the powers that lie within.
The final film doesn’t contain the whole cycle, but three key sections remain and inform a knowing audience about what’s really going on. After the first signs of tension between the two brothers, they arrive at a place of the ancestral dog Gulutharra — a role model for the Wangurri clan warrior, as we shall see in the climax and denouement of the film. Here we get a vision of the song and dance of Gulutharra. Later, the song and dance of the fighting club birku indicate that the brothers are getting psychologically ready for a battle to come. In the credits, we get the song and dance of wakuluŋgul, the dissipating fog, to show that enmity is clearing. The decision was made to let the visuals of the dances carry the full impact here, hence the lack of translation of the songs.
3 – In-Studio Sung Narration
We shot two scenes with no plan for music. Although I loved the unforgiving Yolŋu logic of the whole film thus far, we white people on set were concerned that the film would make no sense to non-Yolŋu viewers. We planned to add narration to these scenes to orient the audience. After editing the film, I brought Malalakpuy in to record the voiceover. I pressed play on the film for him to watch and started recording audio. He took me completely by surprise by beginning to sing rather than speak. Just like the 1952 and dance scene music, his song had no clear narrative, but poetry invoking Yolŋu symbols that inform what is underneath what we are seeing on the screen. This was the third type, or perhaps layer, of music in the film — in-studio sung narration. It was decided to accompany this layer of music and some of the film’s transitions with non-Yolŋu instruments to create atmosphere and further distinguish it from the other music in the film. This sung narration worked beautifully for an early establishing scene and the aftermath of the climactic spear fight.
The Finished Film
Watch the film now, whether for the first time or a more informed repeat viewing. Recognize the different types of music and how they inform what is happening, both in the surface action and the underlying psychology.
Mathuḻu introduces the story.
“Binydjarrpuma” & “Nyepayŋa” walk through the paperbark forest/swamp, accompanied by a 1952 recording of Binydjarrpuma & Mathuḻu singing. The words and pictures only give the slightest hints that a conflict is coming.
Montage of the continued journey, spearfishing, etc., accompanied by Malalakpuy’s sung narration poetically describing the scene.
“Binydjarrpuma” & “Nyepayŋa” reach a site associated with Gulutharra, the ancestral dog which is a role model for Wangurri warriors. “Binydjarrpuma” dreams the song and dance of Gulutharra. We see the intensity and that he is disturbed about what is to come.
The brothers proceed through grasslands close to their destination as another 1952 recording plays, the lyrics more intense and clearly indicating the conflict that is to come.
As they near the fighting ground at Galarra, we are treated to song and dance of the fighting club Birku. This is an obvious symbol of strength and preparation for battle.
The climactic spear fight, accompanied by the most literal of the 1952 recordings, describing the skilled warrior preparing to accept a spear.
“Binydjarrpuma” howls and imitates Gulutharra and leaves his wounded brother behind, as described in the sung narration by Malalakpuy.
Mathuḻu, in spoken narration, reveals that Nyepayŋa survived what was merely a ritual clearing of animosity. He needed to accept a spear and bleed, but not to die. The concluding image of the real Binydjarrpumpa and Nyepayŋa was taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson in 1942, when both men were members of the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit.
End Titles. The men of Dhalinybuy sing and dance Wakuluŋgul, the dissipating fog, to indicate the clearing of grievances.
This concludes Part 2. In the third and final part, I will discuss what went right and what went wrong in the making of the film, and what implications it raises for the idea of ethnomusicology coming full circle.
This post, part 2 and the forthcoming followup are based on a paper presented on April 8 at the 2017 Society for Ethnomusicology Southwest Chapter Conference. Part 1 discusses how one American ethnomusicologist’s work inspired indigenous Australians to create a new work of art including four generations of their clan.
Dr. Richard A. Waterman of Northwestern University lived with Yolŋu Aboriginal People on the remote mission of Yirrkala on the north coast of Australia while on a Fulbright Fellowship and grant from the American Philosophical Society. I can’t tell you why. Most of his published work stems from his interest in the African diaspora, including jazz, although he later co-edited a volume of papers from a symposium on change in Aboriginal Australia. Not many anthropologists visited Yirrkala before him since its founding in 1935, but many came after. Some became inextricably linked to the community’s history and are regularly referred to in the literature about the region and its people. Not so for Dr. Waterman. He never returned, was forgotten by the Yolŋu and is not often referred to by academics studying the area. However, as the first ethnomusicologist to show up in Yirrkala with a recorder and lots of tape, he left behind an unparalleled treasure trove of audio that upon rediscovery became much beloved by the Yirrkala community of today.
I did not study ethnomusicology or anthropology. My interest in Aboriginal Australia began when I started playing the didjeridu while a music composition student at the University of California at San Diego in 1993. In these heady early days of the internet, email listservs were the hot form of social media. On one of them, didjeridu players around the world emailed each other about the instrument. In 1999, only a few of us on that list in the United States were passionately interested in the origins of the instrument as opposed to its contemporary uses. One learned of the existence of Waterman’s recordings in the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music, obtained copies of most of them through his work, and shared those with me before my first visit to Arnhem Land. On that trip in 1999, I got to know the family of renowned yiḏaki, or didjeridu, expert Djalu’ Gurruwiwi. Djalu’ loved hearing his father Monyu on Waterman’s recordings.
I earned my own Fulbright Fellowship in 2003 to follow in Waterman’s footsteps and spend a year in Yirrkala doing a Master’s project on issues of globalization and commercialization of the didjeridu. After I spent a year as a volunteer, Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, the community art centre, hired me and sponsored my migration to Australia. I brought my copies of Waterman’s recordings as conversation-starters for my research and to share with the community.
Early on, I got to know Wangurri clan families from the outstation community of Dhalinybuy (see map above). Once, in that first year there, 2004, I spotted one of the Wangurri elders, Mathuḻu, at the art centre and called him over to my desk, saying, “listen to this.” I pulled up the small collection of his clan’s songs that Waterman had recorded and played them for Mathuḻu, who calmly listened with approval and then asked for a copy.
The notes on the recordings were understandably not very good by today’s standards. Waterman did not have much command of Yolŋu languages. In fact, very few outsiders did. Work to standardize the writing of the languages only began in the early 1950s. It was clear, however, that the main singer of the two men on the Wangurri tracks was “Slippery” Binydjarrpuma, a legendary warrior and sometimes renegade who was notorious right from the beginning of contact between Yolŋu and Euro-Australian people less than 30 years earlier (see works by Dr. Donald F. Thomson). Dhambudjawa, a well-known master of the day, played the yiḏaki, or didjeridu. The notes indicated that Binydjarrpuma and Dhambudjawa were joined by Galalpi.
I asked Mathuḻu about this. “It says the second singer is ‘Galalpi.’ Do you know who that is?”
He said, “yes. That should be Gaḏal’miny.”
“OK,” I replied. “Who was Gaḏal’miny?”
Mind blown. Children’s songs on the recordings included currently living people, but I did not expect to find old men still alive who sang on Waterman’s “grown up” material. Mathuḻu AKA Gaḏal’miny as a young man sang with his uncle (by our way of thinking), or second father (by Yolŋu thinking).
A few years later, I launched the Mulka Project, a new multimedia wing of the art centre dedicated to a) repatriating all the media we could about the community that had been created by outsiders into a community-accessible archive and b) training the Yolŋu to take the reigns of modern media to tell their own stories from now on. One of my first actions was to contact the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music about getting copies of the entire Waterman Collection. They responded with great news. They were about to begin re-digitizing their entire collection and would start with the Waterman Collection for us. The new recordings were far better quality and included a lot of spoken word and secret-sacred recordings that were not in my old copies.
Around this time, one of Mathuḻu’s sons, Malalakpuy, told me his father needed a new copy of the CD I had given him. Malalakpuy hadn’t heard it, so I played the songs as I was burning a copy. He perked up and started telling me about the songs. Three were of particular interest. They told of a journey across certain of their clan lands, and of two brothers, “playing with spears.” It later came out that in fact this was the story of Binydjarrpuma journeying to a place of ritual combat to spear his own brother.
Malalakpuy came back a few days later with his brother Baṉḏamul and a proposal. They wanted to use the resources of the new Mulka Project to create a film with the two of them recreating the events described in the songs, using the old audio as soundtrack along with newly recorded song and dance reflecting the important totemic places along the journey.
This was exactly the sort of thing I wanted the Mulka project to do, and I was overjoyed that this idea had come about organically through our work. I hired two Australian film industry professionals to act as mentors for the project. Director Tom Murray spent a good deal of time in the area making his documentaries Dhäkiyarr vs. the KingandIn My Father’s Country. Cinematographer Bonnie Elliott participated in our first filmmaking workshop for young Yolŋu. Three of those students, Biyalŋa Biḏiŋgal, Bunbuyŋu Marika and Dhamarrarr Munuŋgurr, came along as trainee crew. We headed out for the hour and a half drive through the bush to Dhalinybuy, a remote community of less than 100 people of the Wangurri and related clans – our cast and the rest of our crew. Malalakpuy would co-star with Baṉḏamul while another brother, Banul would co-direct with him. Gurumin Marika, a senior djuŋgaya, or cultural custodian, of the Wangurri clan, would act as consultant and guide.
This concludes part 1. Part 2 discusses the film itself and the music in it. Finally, the forthcoming part 3 will discuss what went right and wrong, suggesting issues with ethnomusicology and documentation of culture. Next time, off to Dhalinybuy!