Yolngu Mälk, or Skin Names

Yolngu Culture - Malk

Didgeridoo players who visit northeast Arnhem Land or study Yolŋu culture at all invariably run into the complexities of Yolŋu kinship. I spent a lot of time trying to work it all out during and after my first visit to Arnhem Land in 1999. I understood bits and pieces through my studies and further visits, but it took the full immersion of living in Arnhem Land to get comfortable with it all. I’ve thought in the past about blogging about the subject, and finally am getting around to it thanks to a nudge from a little bird.

This video from a couple years ago recently gained some new attention on social media. I for one shared it on the YidakiStory Facebook Page. Everyone calls this humbugging little corella Ngarritj, or Ŋarritj. That’s a Yolŋu mälk, or skin name, and part of the wee fella’s identity. This post introduces you to this aspect of Yolŋu kinship and identity.

First, let’s review Dhuwa and Yirritja

Everything in the Yolŋu universe is identified with one of the two moieties, or halves, of the culture – Dhuwa and Yirritja. We covered this already, mostly with an extended quote from the late Dr. Marika, ON THIS PAGE of Yidakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja. In short, it’s almost as if there are two entirely different Yolŋu cultures with their own languages, ceremonies and origin stories. But they always interact, look after each other, intermarry, and give birth to each other. Every clan, person, song, animal, tree, and shape of thundercloud is either Dhuwa or Yirritja. That’s all you need to know about the moieties right now.

The Mälk System

From the outside, academic perspective, this is a ‘subsection’ system, a term going back to anthropologist Dr. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Similar systems are found in much of Australia. The general term ‘skin names’ refers to all these systems, but I don’t recall the origin of that term and can’t find it with a quick bit of googling. People’s physical skin has nothing to do with these names in any region I know about. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s probably a loose translation of a word from the desert that was popularized as THE English name of the concept around the country.

In the Yolŋu world, mälk are a set of shared personal names that have some bearing on marriage options. The Yirritja and Dhuwa moiety each have 4 sets of male/female names.

Yirritja Mälk Dhuwa Mälk

Every Yolŋu person has one of these mälk/skin names and responds to it just like a personal name. Children are often called only by their mälk. Sometimes people whose personal name is the same or similar to the personal name of a recently deceased person will be called by their mälk. Sometimes people of certain relationships to each other will use mälk rather than personal names. It may sound impersonal, but is a friendly way to call out to someone.

A person’s mälk is determined by their mother’s. It’s not the same as their mother’s, but determined by a set cycle. I made this chart back in 2000 for some talks I gave about my first visit to Arnhem Land.

Yolngu skin name or malk system
A chart of the Yolŋu mälk system.

The red arrows show the passage of the names. For example, see gotjan, the female version of gotjuk/gotjan at the top left. The red arrow points to balaŋ/bilinydjan. A gotjan woman bears balaŋ boys and bilinydjan girls.

If Ŋarritj the corella has any sister birds out there, they are ŋarritjan and their eggs will hatch gamarraŋ and gamanydjan males and females. Make sense?

Note that Yirritja women bear Dhuwa children, and vice versa. This may help reinforce your understanding of the concept of Yothu-Yindi that we discussed in the Yidakiwuy Dhäwu HERE.

Marriage & Mälk

Now look at the yellow arrows. These indicate preferred marriage partners. First off, note that all marriages are between men and women of opposite moieties. Now, find the buḻany male at the bottom left. He should marry galikali or bilinydjan women. Note that a galikali woman bears gotjuk/gotjan children and a bilinydjan woman bears baŋaḏi/baŋaḏitjan children. The buḻany male does not determine mälk of the child (though he does narrow down the options).

In many cases, this means that people of the same mälk are brothers and sisters. But if you think about it for a while, you see how this is not necessarily the case. For one thing, due to the old practice of polygamy or any number of reasons, a man may have children with more than one woman. A buḻany man may have children with both galikali and bilinydjan women. So his own sons could be two different mälk. That said, Yolŋu mostly defer to matrilineal lines when working out relationships to each other.

Still, the possible sibling connection of people with the same mälk may be used to decide a relationship to an unknown Aboriginal Person from far away or an adopted outsider. I was first adopted at Ramingining, on the western edge of Yolŋu country. When I arrived in far northeast Arnhem Land, I tried to explain who adopted me. The Yolŋu there didn’t know who I was talking about, either because they genuinely didn’t know them or because I didn’t yet know how to communicate well with them. So they decided to re-adopt me into their family based on my mälk. Since I was buḻany, I was made brother to the nearest buḻany and buḻanydjan Yolŋu in this immediate family.

So how did Ŋarritj the bird get a skin name? I don’t know exactly. If anybody out there at Galiwin’ku reads this, please comment to let us know! I’d imagine it has to do with the people who found and took him into their home and the fact that his species, ŋalalak, is Yirritja.

Got it? Makes perfect sense, right? OK, now you can forget it.

Four years after my first visit/one year after my third visit, I thought I had this all figured. Then I discovered that a Yolŋu couple I knew well were the wrong mälk to be married to each other. That blew my mind.

My 2000 edition of the CDU Yolŋu Studies Study Notes book says:

It is important to remember that when Yolŋu identify how they are related to other Yolŋu, they very seldom use mälk. Gurruṯu (YidakiStory: actual bloodlines) is always the important rom (YS: law) for people who can trace ancestral connections.

That’s the big difference that confounded me when I first moved to Arnhem Land. Yolŋu love talking to visitors about mälk. They give you a skin name, call you by it. Perhaps for the same reason they refer to their children by mälk, although we newbie outsiders understand it less than Yolŋu 3-year olds do. But in Yolŋu relationships, the actual family lines that go back untold generations matter more than the too-tidy mälk system.

The first vocabulary you need to learn to participate in most everyday Yolŋu conversations is about gurruṯu. The words for father, mother, aunt, uncle, maternal grandmother, paternal grandmother, etc. Yolŋu talk about family all the time. Their whole lives revolve around family. My own adoption never fully made sense to me until I understood that I wasn’t just a buḻany who hung out a lot with his waku, Djalu’ Gurruwiwi. During all my brief visits, I thought that should be enough information, but it wasn’t. Even though I barely knew him during my first visits, the important detail is that I’m the late Djäŋa Yunupiŋu’s brother. The fact that he was a buḻany didn’t matter at all when working out my relationship with any Yolŋu I met while living in Arnhem Land.

Furthermore, mälk is (or was not so long ago) NEWFANGLED.

This is the part current Yolŋu may not know or agree with, themselves.

While variations of skin name systems exist over large parts of Australia, some anthropologists theorize based on linguistic clues that the whole idea originated in the Daly River region of northwestern Northern Territory, and spread from there. Dr. W. Lloyd Warner discussed the mälk system at Milingimbi, on the west side of Yolŋu country in the 1920s, but Dr. Ronald M. Berndt, who worked in Yirrkala, the far northeast corner of Yolŋu country, in 1946-7, said that mälk was a brand new concept there. He discussed this more in his book ‘Love Songs of Arnhem Land’, but I just have his book ‘Kunapipi’ handy, in which he says:

…within recent years the sub-section system has been introduced from the south and south-west, coming up the coast through Rose River and Blue Mud Bay. In the Milingimbi region it seems to have been introduced at an earlier date, through contact with the inland tribes, particularly the Rembarrnga. At Yirrkalla (sic), however, the sub-sections are not yet completely co-ordinated with the kinship terminology, and among the older people are not in constant use.

This certainly helps to explain why actual relationships are better known and more useful to everyday Yolŋu life, still today.

So what does this mean to you, dear reader?

Honestly? Probably nothing. How many of you even read this far? The average didgeridoo player around the world doesn’t need to know any of this. Anyone who does spend any amount of time with Yolŋu will however run into these issues. I know I had a great fun playing with the mälk system, trying to understand it. I’m glad I did. You’ll have fun conversations with Yolŋu as your mind boggles over these things. Then you’ll move on. If you become more a part of Yolŋu life, you’ll understand things as you need to. This post will give you a big head start, though, and you can come back and refer to it as needed.

Now go and play some yidaki.

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

Milkay Mununggurr Yidaki of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

Milkay Mununggurr Hard Tongue Didgeridoo

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

Milkay yidaki mouthpiece
Milkay yidaki bell
Bottom end

Here’s the maker playing it.

Djalu’ taking his turn.

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

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

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

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

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

Gurrumuru CD – More Info

Gurrumuru CD

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

Gurrumuru sign
The Road to Gurrumuru.

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

Gurrumuru Studios, Studio A
Studio A, Gurrumuru

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

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

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

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

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

To paraphrase Yumutjin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yidaki of the Month #7, January 2018, a Bad Yidaki

I’ve shown you some really amazing yidaki over the past few months. How about a bad yidaki for a change?

Bb drone • D first trumpeted note
165cm long • 4.5cm mouthpiece (interior, before wax) • 10cm bell (largest part of exterior)

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

Dhalinybuy CD – In Depth

Dhalinybuy cd

Back in September, I wrote about The Mulkay Manikay Archives and promised to share more detailed information about the Dhalinybuy CD. Here we go!

I’ve talked a lot about Dhalinybuy since this blog started last April, mostly in the series of posts about the short film Two Brothers at Galarra. The families of the late Mathuḻu Munyarryun embraced the creative potential of the Mulka Project’s new media facilities before other local Yolŋu. They pitched the first film idea outside of a workshop and recorded the first CD within a month of Mulka’s official launch.

The Session

On 31 August 2007, I drove out to Dhalinybuy with Mulka’s first two employees, Ḏiṉḏirrk Munŋgurr and Ṉuwaniny Burarrwaŋa, some basic recording and filming equipment, and a bunch of food. We began with the senior singers, Malalakpuy and Wakaŋ, supervised and sometimes joined by Mathuḻu, along with the late Mirrwatŋa on yidaki.

Dhalinybuy recording session

Listen to what happened from there on the CD, which is available from all the usual digital music retailers and from several yidaki sellers around the world. Here’s one sample.


After the recording, I asked Mathuḻu, “what will this CD be called? What will the album cover be?”

He only had to think for a few seconds. The title would be Baltha. Baltha, the Wangurri clan thundercloud which they sang at the beginning and end of the cycle we just recorded. He described the shape of it for me. He explained that they sang the journey of water from where we sat near the river Gularri to the sea, where it is sucked up by Baltha and rained down on the land to begin the journey again. They sing this cycle at funeral ceremony, the story of water paralleling the story of the human soul. The cover image would be a photograph of the cloud called Baltha.

While I loved the idea, I didn’t like my chances of pulling it off. I thought, “How am I supposed to get a picture of that? Call the Bureau of Meteorology and describe it to them, hoping they’ve got an archive of cloud photos?”

But I didn’t have to. Not long after the recording session, funeral ceremony was underway at Dhalinybuy. These ceremonies can last for weeks or even months. On 6 November, all of us at Yirrkala knew the funeral was wrapping up. My wife and I were out for a walk at sunset, looked in the direction of Dhalinybuy, and there it was. Baltha. Rising over the sea in Arnhem Bay. Possibly just as they were singing the end of this song cycle to conclude the ceremony.

I snapped a bunch of pictures and showed them to Mathuḻu at my next opportunity. He said, “yes, that’s it. That’s the cover.”

Dhalinybuy CD original cover
Balta, framed in green, the Wangurri clan’s colour.
the old man tells the story

As I said in my prior blog post about the CD series, the late founding Mulka Project Director, Dr. Raymattja Marika, and I had big plans for the liner notes. We wanted to show up every outsider academic who published recordings of Aboriginal music. Dr. Marika sadly passed away suddenly before we finished the process on any of the three CDs we had recorded, then I suddenly had to leave Yirrkala due to my own family medical crisis. Those three CDs and several more in the end were released with simplified titles and no information other than track and artist names. I do have the recording and text of the late Mathuḻu telling the story as he wanted it in the liner notes, so will share those with you all now. The late Margaret Yunupiŋu and I did the basic transcription and translation, which was then polished with help from Dr. Marika and the late (wow, I have to say that a lot) Gulumbu Yunupiŋu.

Tracks 1-7 on the final version are archival recordings, some of which are discussed thoroughly here.

Tracks 8-12 Baltha

Ŋunha nhän ga dhäya mayali’ dharyundawu. Murrun nhän Ŋarru ga dharyun nhän ŋarru. Ŋunhan nhän ga mayali’ miyaman dhaŋuyam Baltha. That cloud standing there shows that rain is coming. There will be thunder and rain. These songs are about the cloud called Baltha.

Tracks 13-21 Gulŋura (Lightning)/Maḻurrk (Rain)

Yow, Baltha ŋunha nhän gayŋan ḏurruwan ŋarran Baltha, banha ga bunbuwanam nhän bala dharyuwanan.  Dharyuwanan nhän bäŋnha bayman goḻurr. Bala nhän ŋarru dhuṉiyan garmak bayiwaḻiya dharyundawuy maḻwurrkkuŋ. Ŋunha murruyil’, manymak murruyil buṯthuwan ŋuymurru maḻurrkkuŋ dharyunda ŋuymurru nhanguru. Yow, dharyuwanan nhän buṯthuwanan djukdjukthuwanan bitjan bayiŋ yolŋuya. Ga bilinya dhuwanma dhäwu.

The cloud Baltha is forming, rising up. It begins to rain on the cycad palm leaves and the ground of the valleys. The valleys and rivers begin to flood from the rain. Murruyil the pigeon flies through the rain to get away from the storm. It fled from the rain, soaking wet, like Yolŋu People would. That’s the story.

Tracks 22-30 Murruyil (Pigeon)/Meṉḏuŋ (Snail)

Yow, ŋunha dharyuwan nhän ga manymak buṯthuwan murruyil’ dharyunda, dharyunda buṯthuwan murruyil’ djukdjukthuwan ga manymak after bayiwaḻiya murruyil’ŋuru nhän ŋätjin rirrakay’yuwan maypaḻ meṉḏuŋ yäku gunaminy.

It was raining, the pigeon flies through the rain, soaking wet, and after that, the snail gunaminy cries out.

Tracks 31-34 Ŋerrk (White Cockatoo)

Ga bayiwaḻiyam ga nhän buṯthuwan ŋerrk’nha ga ŋerrk’nha ḏurruwan ḏinguŋuru bäŋŋuru ŋayakandi dhopaṉŋuru. Nhän ḏurruwan ŋerrk, ŋarru wäyinma banha nhän wanhurr nininyŋu bawarraṉ ga dhaŋuya waŋganyma dhäwu.

From there, the white cockatoo flies away from the cycad palms, where it lives. That’s one part of the story.

Tracks 35-39 Warrkarr (Grass)

Note: Mathuḻu originally named this section Bulmirri. another name for the grass that he used in his story.

Yow, dhaŋu dhäwu banhaya dharyunda, dharyuwan nhän nhanam yuṯa dhawaṯthuwan ḏukitj muḻmu, wokara, nhän yindim yäku wokara, bulmirri. Nhän dhawaṯthuwan yuṯa djupaḻ dharpa gaṉakaṉa. Yuṯa dharyunda. Ḏukitj wulaynha dhawaṯthuwan. Wo ḏingu. Yuṯan ŋarran dhawayawaṯthuwan, ŋätjilim nhän guwaruwan ga banham nhän dharyuwanam nhän yuṯam dhawaṯthuwan. Muḻmu, dharpa banha yuṯan dhawaṯthuwan dhamany’tjuwan. Bilanya dhäwu.

In this next part of the story, it rains, then the new shoots of grasses come out. The razor grass – the special name for that is wokara or bulmirri. Those two come out, the razor grass and the stringybark trees. New growth from the rain, the grasses come out. And the cycad palms. The old plants were burned, but when the rain comes, the new growth comes up. The new grasses and trees grow up. That’s the story.

Tracks 40-51 Gapu (Water)

Note: Mathuḻu originally called this section Guḻarri after the specific water course, rather than Gapu, which is the general word for all water.

Yow, dhaŋu manikay garmak bayikuwuy dharyunda dhaŋum garmak bayikuwuy dharyunda banhan nhän dharyuwan dhaŋu nhän ŋarru dhuniyan baḻaya wunhanha ŋuḻŋuḻyun ŋarru nhän dhuniya guryun djarrawuryun Guḻarri.

This song is about the water from that rain, which comes down through the plants and becomes the rushing currents of the river Guḻarri in flood.

An Additional Note from Mathuḻu at this Point In the Recording

Yow, dhuwanma nhän waripuyi nhän bilyuwan muḻkurr. Muḻkurr ga ŋäṉarr. Ga garmak ŋarru nhän betjdjinan garmak, dhuniyanan. Betjna garmak ṉikundayinan ḻiŋgun. Dhuwaniyan garmak. Yow, waŋganydji yulŋum, ŋätjilim nhän biḻma, bala ḏirruwan waŋgalalin ga dhuwanmanam dhä-wupalin ḏirruwan gayawak mayali’ nhan manikay.

Now we are turning our minds to another part of the story. Our minds and our tongues. The water is calming, becoming more still as it flows down river. This water (Guḻarri) has become calm. It is all the same thing, the same old song, but as it returns to our country where the fresh and salt waters meet, the melody changes.

Tracks 52-58 Man’tjarr (Mangrove Leaves)

Man’tjarr, miyaman man’tjarr. Man’tjarr wokundurr gulam ŋarram dhaḻaḻyun. Ŋunhayam manikay ŋandjaḻa’yuwan djupal. Bilanya.

Leaves, singing the leaves. The leaves, branches and grasses washed out by the storm are flowing down the river. The singers turned the song around to this.

Tracks 59-66 Balin (Barramundi)

Barramundi, this manikay. Balin. Ratjuk manikay ŋarru yindin. Riŋgitjin nhana rakaram dhäyanhara dhawurrḻi. Djuṉmili nhän ḏam’thun gayŋa guwaman man’tjarr ḏuniyanhara. Biyapul Guḻarri wambal guwaman. Djaykurrŋa Guyuwuruyu. Banatja nhän dham. Ŋayawuḻuḻ Biruyuwanan nhän dhurrwaram. Ga ratjuk bawalamiyu bayiŋ guwaman ratjuk bilinya bitjan ŋuykal.

This song is about the barramundi, we call Balin or Ratjuk. This is the very sacred song for barramundi. The faster clapsticks signify that we have reached where all the leaves and plant material washed downstream by the storm have gathered up in the still water. The barramundi is biting at the leaves and drinking the water of the bottom of the river. The mouth of the barramundi in the water called Djakurrŋa Guyuwuruyu. Ŋayawuḻuḻ, Biruyuwanan are important names for the barramundi’s mouth. Everyone eats the barramundi, just like the kingfish.

Tracks 67-69 Watpirriya (Archer Fish)

Yow, waṯpirriya manikay. Waṯpirriya manikay baya nhän bayiŋ ŋoya, buryun. Dhawurrŋa djuṉmiliŋa nhän bayiŋ ŋoya. Ga bulu nhän bayiŋ makaŋa, gunydjakŋa ŋoya waṯpirriya nhanbayi, dhuwaniya manikay.

This is the song of the freshwater mullet waṯpirriya. The song of where waṯpirriya lie, splashing in the water. Where the leaves and branches are bunched up. Lying at the roots of the Yirritja pandanus. That is this song.

Dhalinbuy liner notes draft
Part of the original liner notes draft integrating Wangurri clan art related to the text.

Tracks 70-76 Gomuḻu (Heron)

Note: Mathuḻu used another name for the heron, Gany’tjurr. Which incidentally, is one of my given Yolŋu names.

Yow, manikay gany’tjurrwu. Gany’tjurr Baltha nhän ŋarru nhäma ḏirrun. Raripayu Guṉuyulumi Marrtjinyayu Baḻkpaḻkḻi. Dhaŋu miyaman ŋarra. Wayindhu gungulanhara. Wo ŋarru nhan miyaman Muthamulli. Muthamul, Warritja Ŋamundjiyu Banygarranhami. Dhaŋu manikay.

This is the song of gany’tjurr the heron. It is looking back at Baltha, towards the places Raripa, Guṉuyulumi, Marrtjinya, Baḻkpaḻk. That is what I sing. Then the bird looks down to the water, hunting for fish. We also sing to the places Muthamul, Warritja, Ŋamundjiyu, Banygarranhami. That’s this song.

Tracks 77-81 Baltha

Yow, dhaŋu Baltha wayinguŋ miyamanda gungulanhara. Ŋunhayam ḏurruwanam Balthan ḻiŋgun. Nhinathuŋganminy Dhaliny’ḻi Gunygunyayu Marrtjinyayu Ŋuḻpurrayḻi Guṉuyulmiyu Baḻkpaḻkli. Ŋunhayan Baltha ḏurruna ŋarra ga ḏirruwan Dhä-Yurpu Ŋamundjiyu, Muthamulyi. Dhaŋu ḏurrun ŋarra Baltha. Ŋunhayan wayinguŋun Dhä-Yurpu Dhä-Wupaŋa. Warritja Muthamulli ŋunhayan miyamanam ḏirruwanan wayinha.

This is Baltha, after singing about the bird hunting. We return to Baltha, then we are finished. The cloud is building up to Dhaliny, Gunygunya, Marrtjinya, Ŋuḻpurray, Guṉuyulumi and Baḻkpaḻk. That Baltha is building up and returning to Dha-Yurpu, Ŋamundji, Muthamul. Baltha is rising. From the heron to Dhä-Yurpu and Dhä-Wupa, the top and the bottom of the river. Singing the heron at Warritja and Muthamul.

There you go

There was meant to be more written to flesh out the context, but this has been what the senior man of the family wanted to tell all of you out in the world about what was happening in the songs. I hope that if you have the album, this brings you some new appreciation of it. If you haven’t bought it, I hope you do.

A draft of the tray card, featuring the river Gularri next to Dhalinybuy – the water course we travel down throughout this song cycle.

Wandjuk Marika in Port Moresby – Didjeridu Solo

It seems odd, but yes, 1977 saw the release of a 7″ record featuring the late great Rirratjiŋu clan leader Wandjuk Marika playing solo yidaki.

Wandjuk Marika Didjeridu Solo
images borrowed from discogs.com

Wandjuk Marika Didjeridu Solo back

Side 1:

From the original liner notes by Jennifer Isaacs, with modern spellings added for the titles:

(a) Dangultji (Ḏaŋgultji) – the Brolga. A secular camp dance in which the performers, particularly children, imitate the behaviour of the brolga.

(b) Malwiyi (Maḻwiya) – the Emu. A camp dance about the emu, Australia’s largest bird. It is flightless and may grow to 1.8 m in height. The Aborigines hunt them for food and relish their large green eggs.

(c) The Wawilak (Wäwilak) Story – The Wawilak myth gives rise to a most important cycle of ceremonies in North East Arnhem Land. In the Dreamtime the two Wawilak sisters, one of them pregnant, travelled over the land and finally came to rest by a lagoon where they built a shade for the birth. One of the sisters was gathering paperbark when she accidentally polluted the pool wherein dwelt the Lightning Serpent, a huge snake which could reach from the heavens to the earth. In a fury he sent a black cloud overhead, and torrential rain. The sisters cried out and danced to appease him but it was to no avail, and he swallowed them. The Wawilak sisters are the Creation Sisters – they gave rise to the present Aboriginal population.

(I) The first solo accompanies the Wawilak song which tells of the girls’ travels before they reached the pool.
(II) The second solo accompanies the Wawilak song which tells of the torrential rain sent by the Lightning Serpent.

Side 2:

(a) The Wawilak Story (from side one).

(III) Djuwan – This accompaniment tells of the time after the Dreamtime, when the children of the Creation Sisters return to the sacred waters where the Serpent Lives and re-enact, in ceremony, the original events. The song and didjeridu accompaniment are used in mortuary and age-grading ceremonies.

(b) Kadabana (Gatapaŋa) – the Buffalo. Buffalos brought by early European settlers have run wild in the swamps and plains of Arnhem Land. This is a camp dance which describes the heavy animal crashing through the undergrowth being hunted by Aboriginal men for food.

(c) The Wawilak Story

(IV) The clouds – this segment accompanies the song which tells of the rain, and dark cloud which the Lightning Serpent sent overhead.

(d) Katjambal (Garrtjambal) – the Kangaroo. The story of the kangaroo as he bounds along the grassy plains through the scrub.

The Rest of the Liner Notes:


Wandjuk Marika is a ceremonial leader of the Riratjingu (Rirratjiŋu) clan of North East Arnhem Land and Chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. He was born about 1930 om what was then the small mission settlement of Yirrkala. This has since become the focal point of one of the most important struggles for ownership of land by traditional Aborigines, and the site of the huge bauxite mine, Nabalco. Wandjuk Marika and his people have been catapulted into confrontation with an industrialised society and in the process they have emerged with a great degree of strength and political and social cohesion. Traditional culture remains a vital part of life in Eastern Arnhem Land, the stories of the exploits of the ancestral beings of the Dreamtime such as the Djanggawul (Djaŋ’kawu) and the Wawilak Sisters providing the basis for lengthy ceremonial cycles involving ritual and social obligations covering every aspect of life from birth to death. 

Wandjuk Marika learnt to play the didjeridu as a small boy from his father, Mawalan, who was a great and respected ceremonial leader, and who passed on to Wandjuk his knowledge of the sacred lore, the ceremonies and the sacred designs, just as Wandjuk is training his own sons today.

As well as his role in the traditional life of the Riratjingu, Wandjuk is also striving to explain the stories and create an awareness of the depth of his own culture in all Australians, through his work on the Australian Aboriginal Arts Board.

He says: “We realise the old way will never return, but we believe that much of our music, songs, dance and art can and must be preserved as a vital part of the culture of mankind.”


The didjeridu, or drone pipe, is the traditional wind instrument of the Aborigines of Northern Australia. It is in fact a branch or trunk of a young eucalyptus, or string bark tree which has been hollowed out by termites. The musician taps the tree to see if the resonance indicates it is sufficiently hollow, and then after he cuts it down, he selects a suitable length for the instrument. This is smoothed and painted, and bees wax or gum is applied to the end to be placed in the mouth. This narrows the diameter of the interior hole, and provides a comfortable mouthpiece. The length and diameter of the instrument determine its pitch and the tone produced when it is blown with loosely vibrating lips. Variations in the sound produced occur when the lips are tightened, or when the tongue is moved towards and away from the opening. The vocal chords are also used when producing a croak.

The sustained rhythm is achieved by a unique form of breathing. Air is drawn in through the nose in quick breaths. This is retained in the cheeks and continuously expelled through the mouth to maintain the sound.

The instrument is generally played as a rhythmic accompaniment to the songman and clapsticks, however, it is also played solo for camp dances and general fun and amusement.


Wandjuk Marika was invited to be a guest lecturer at the Seminar on Art in the Third World at the University of Papua New Guinea in 1976, organised by the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. Wandjuk Marika gave a lecture on Aboriginal art and music, together with a performance on the didjeridu. In addition he demonstrated the art of bark painting and opened an exhibition of Aboriginal art at the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies.

Recorded at the National Broadcasting Commission
25th February, 1976

Recorded by Frederic DUVELLE
Text by Jennifer ISAACS
Cover photo by Jennifer STEELE
First published by LARRIKIN Records 1977

YidakiStory Acknowledgments:

Thanks to John of manikay.com for first making me aware of this recording many years ago. Images borrowed from discogs.com. No, I do not have rights to this recording or text. But it’s long out of print, most likely never will be reprinted, and I know many of Wanjduk’s living family and bet they’d be happy to let this recording be heard as long as nobody’s selling it for a profit without them.

Yidaki of the Month #6, December 2017, by Buwathay Munyarryun

Yidaki of the Month by Buwathay

Buwathay Munyarryun, a Wangurri clan leader from Dhalinybuy, crafted this month’s featured yidaki in 2006. It’s warm and bassy, but still crisp. It has a nice, resonant trumpeted note. It is light weight despite having good bass and power. All in all, it’s a fantastic stick. Let’s give the late, great Milkay Munuŋgurr the first play.

Yidaki by Buwathay Munyarryun

E drone • F first trumpeted note
159cm long • 2.8cm mouthpiece • 9.2cm bell

Yidaki by Buwathay - mouthpiece

Djalu’ plays it here. This clip has been on our YouTube channel for a while.

The next video, however, is new. It shows what happened immediately before the above clip. Djalu’ and I were playing and discussing all the yidaki I collected during my first two years living in northeast Arnhem Land. He of course could play everything but didn’t prefer all the tight, high pressure and high-pitched instruments made by the hot young players of the day. Buwathay’s yidaki, on the other hand, has just the right depth, warmth and mid-level back pressure that Djalu’ likes. You will see him compare it to his own favorite yidaki of the moment. As he says in the video, it allows him to breath naturally. He often advocates for instruments like this, claiming that playing them is better for your health.

When I later asked him to play for a closeup, so we could see and hear him breathe while he played, Djalu’ asked to play Buwathay’s yidaki again. This clip also appears in The Dhäwu at http://yidakistory.com/dhawu/playing-the-didjeriduyidaki/breathing/.

Now we turn the mic over to the artist, himself. In 2006, I sat with Buwathay, Ŋoŋu, the late Mirrwatŋa and the late Mathuḻu, discussing yidaki and interaction between the Yolŋu and outside worlds. In the midst of a discussion of what kind of stories to share with didgeridoo players around the world, Buwathay suddenly pointed to this yidaki he made and gave a simple, surface level but true story of its meaning.

In the next video, Buwathay’s younger brother, the late Mirrwatŋa, plays the yidaki and then everyone briefly discusses how good it is. It is usable for any ceremony. Most interestingly, Buwathay himself points out what Djalu’ did. Even though this is a thin-walled, light weight instrument, it has the same characteristics as Djalu’s normally heavier instruments. It has the sound of what Yolŋu nowadays call a “bass yiḏaki.”

You can also hear this yiḏaki on a few tracks of the Yilpara CD, which I’ll blog about soon.

Last, I’ll let you hear a white guy play it. Here I am a couple of months ago, playing this one as part of my “Didjeridu of the Day” series on Instagram.

#1, July 2017, by Djakanŋu Yunupiŋu
#2, August 2017, by Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr
#3, September 2017, by Djalu’ Gurruwiwi
#4, October 2017, by Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra
#5, November 2017, by Baḏikupa Gurruwiwi

Ever Hear This Yidaki Technique? Murrkundi

Yidaki Technique - Murrkundi
Land of the Morning Star
cover image borrowed from manikay.com

Here’s an unusual yidaki technique you may not have heard. First, we’ll listen to a track from Sandra Le Brun Holmes’ album Land of the Morning Star. She recorded the player “Mudpo” at Milingimbi in 1962. I’d have to check again with Yolŋu friends back in Arnhem Land, but something in the back of my mind says he was a Gälpu clansman. I could be mixing this up with another field recording from Galiwin’ku, though, so a correction would be welcome if anyone out there can provide it. The track is labelled “Murrkundi (the Little Black Bird).”

Yes, you’re hearing right. “Mudpo” is making a little nasal squeak sound on top of normal yidaki technique.

A. P. Elkin caught a more extreme, squeakier version of the technique for his 1953 recording Tribal Music of Australia.

Tribal Music of Australia
cover image borrowed from manikay.com

Elkin’s liner notes say:

“the accompaniment for the dance and song of a small bird, called ‘moi kandi’. It has a high squeak which the Puller reproduces at the same time as he blows his didjeridu.”

“Puller” was a term used for didjeridu players by many anthropologists and presumably northern Aboriginal People in the 1950s and 60s, but the term has fallen out of use. I didn’t make a study of the term while I lived in Yirrkala, but the few young Yolŋu I asked about the word looked at me like I was crazy.

Unfortunately, neither Holmes nor Elkin recorded the full song so that we could hear this technique in context, nor did they detail what clan(s) sing it.  I never put much time into the issue, but asked some Yolŋu about “murrkundi.” Only a few older yidaki specialists, Djalu’ Gurruwiwi and the recently deceased Datjirri #1 Wunuŋmurra, said they were familiar with the technique. Both had health conditions that made the sound more difficult for them to produce, but gave me a brief demo. Unfortunately, neither were keen to have it filmed. So you just get a quick clip of me.

Now you. As Dr. Ed Harkins, who inspired me to start playing didjeridu, used to say, “this is the kind of thing you should be doing.”

If anybody out there has more information on this subject, please let me know and I’ll post an update.

Yidaki of the Month #5, November 2017, by Badikupa Gurruwiwi

Yidaki of the Month by Badikupa Gurruwiwi

This gorgeous Yidaki of the Month is one of the first instruments I bought upon moving to Yirrkala in 2004.

Yidaki by Badkupa

Eb drone • Gb first trumpeted note
155cm long • 3cm mouthpiece • 14cm bell

Mouthpiece by Badikupa

Yidaki by Badikupa bell

Badikupa Gurruwiwi crafted this yidaki. For those of you who don’t know much about Yolŋu people but recognize the name Gurruwiwi, yes, he’s related to Djalu’. In fact, Djalu’ calls Badikupa his father. By our reckoning, it would be “uncle.” Badikupa is a younger brother from another mother of Djalu’s father Monyu. In the Yolŋu world, you refer to all your father’s brothers as fathers, so although Badikupa and Djalu are close in age, they are technically father and son. Djakanŋu Yunupiŋu, maker of The First Yidaki I Ever Saw, was for many years Badikupa’s wife and crafting partner.

Yidaki of the Month _ Badikupa Gurruwiwi
Baḏikupa with his new catchphrase from yidakistory.com/dhawu/final-thoughts.

Yolŋu with the name Gurruwiwi belong to the Gälpu clan. Every clan claims several “totems” or ceremonial connections related to land, animals, plant life and even cloud formations. The Gälpu connect deeply to the power of the storm. The monsoonal wet season brings thunder, lightning, and fertility. Badikupa adorns most of his yidaki with his trademark version of Gälpu clan miny’tji, or sacred design, related to the storm.

It’s not just a looker, but a player, too. The recently deceased yidaki maker and player D#1 Wunuŋmurra called it “the master key.” He felt it could be played in any style. Djalu’ agreed that it had the depth and power of a Gälpu clan Djuŋgirriny’ but the lightness of both weight and tone to make it playable for any every day ceremony. Here’s Djalu’ playing it. He starts with the song of the west wind, which is appropriate for a Djuŋgirriny’, then moves on to a dolphin song – more of an every day yidaki piece.

The late Milkay Munuŋgurr agreed that it is a good yidaki suitable for general use. He plays it here.

And I played it recently as part of my “Didjeridu of the Day” series on Instagram.

OK, that’s it. No big conclusions from this one. Just a look and listen at a fine yidaki and a little insight into Yolŋu kinship and identity. I’ll go further into the symbology of Gälpu clan art later when I feature an instrument in my collection painted by Djalu’ & Baḏikupa’s cousin Djul’djul Gurruwiwi.

And oh yeah, last month’s yidaki by Burrŋupurrŋu still hasn’t sold! Get on it, people!

#1, July 2017, by Djakanŋu Yunupiŋu
#2, August 2017, by Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr
#3, September 2017, by Djalu’ Gurruwiwi
#4, October 2017, by Burrŋupurrŋu Wunuŋmurra

The Art of the Didjeridu by Trevor Jones

A  Facebook post by Hollow Log Didgeridoos, one of the supporters of the Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu update, nudged me to start a series I’ve been considering – features of important out-of-print didjeridu recordings. Manikay.com archives most if not all of these, but hasn’t been updated in many years and features out of date RealAudio files. So I’ll present streaming mp3s for you to hear. First up: ‘The Art of the Didjeridu.’

Trevor A. Jones must be one of the first academics to take a serious interest in the didjeridu, including learning the instrument himself. He published several papers on the subject, but we’re talking here about recordings. In 1963, he produced ‘The Art of the Didjeridu’ for Wattle Records. It features Jones demonstrating basic technique, some solo recordings he made of Arnhem Land players, and field recordings Lester and Betty Hiatt made in 1960 in and around Maningrida, north central Arnhem Land. It’s a unique release from the very early days of didjeridu recordings. A demonstration of basic technique by a non-Aboriginal player and samples of the instrument in context.

The Art of the Didjeridu cover
Album cover. Pic from discogs.com.

Following are excerpts from the original liner notes. I haven’t edited the spellings or added any interpretive notes based on my later experience in Arnhem Land… although it’s pretty tempting.

All the sounds heard on Side A of this record were made by Trevor Jones, who has over the past nine years taught himself to reproduce many of the sounds and rhythmic patterns used by native players of the didjeridu. He does not, however, claim to approach in virtuosity the expert aboriginal player, whose long and rigorous training from a very early age in the art of Didjeridu blowing provides him the technique that can only be weakly imitated by a white man. Breathing problems in particular preclude for the amateur the long stretches of endurance that give the native’s performances their hypnotic power and fascination. The patterns heard on Side B. band 1 (yidakistory note: our Track 06), are played by natives who are not fully professional players but who have achieved a remarkable standard nonetheless. These recordings were made by Trevor Jones in Sydney and Perth on occasions when full-blooded aborigines visited those cities for conferences of various kinds. The corroboree excerpts heard on the remainder of Side B feature professional didjeridu players who are accredited masters of their art. They were recorded in Arnhem Land in 1960 by Mr. and Mrs L. Hiatt. At that time Mr. Hiatt was carrying out anthropological research from the Australian National University, Canberra.

Art of the Didjeridu notesBack of the record sleeve. Pic from discogs.com.

Track 01: Tone Patterns
Didjeridu by Trevor Jones

Track 02: Breathing Techniques
Didjeridu by Trevor Jones

Track 03: Tone Combinations
Didjeridu by Trevor Jones

Track 04: Special Effects
Didjeridu by Trevor Jones

Track 05: Characteristic Rhythmic Patterns
Didjeridu by Trevor Jones. Short examples of nine characteristic patterns: the first four (Wadamiri, Djerag, Djedbangari, Mulara) belong to the overall north-eastern style known as Bunggal, and use the larger didjeridu. The next two (Gunborg, Gunbalanya) come from the central Arnhem Land region, near the coast, and also use the larger instrument, and these are followed by two (Wongga, Nyindi-yindi) that are typical of Lira style of the west, involving the smaller tube. The final pattern (Ubar) which also makes use of the smaller didjeridu, has traits of both western and central styles.

Track 06: Solo Didjeridu Playing
Recorded by Trevor Jones in Sydney and Perth of non-fully professional players who visited these cities for conferences of various kinds. First six solos are of the north-eastern Bunggal class using the blown overtone, both staccato and “hooted”, croaked notes, and pulsating fundamental. The next two songs are Wongga songs of the western Lira style, and make use of the continuous fundamental with varied timbre and the chordal superimposition. Finally an Ubar accompaniment, first played and then chanted, using the special stylised speech devised for imitating the actual sound of the instrument.

Track 07: North Central Arnhem Land Corroboree
Track 08: North Central Arnhem Land Corroboree
Recorded by Lester & Betty Hiatt, Arnhem Land 1960. Manigai, essentially north-central in style, using the continuous accented fundamental; in addition, however, they break the continuity with the “hooted” overtone, a trait typical of songs from further east. They therefore bear traces, in their didjeridu patterns, both of the Gunborg and Gunbalanya and more particularly of the mortuary songs of the Mulara and Ngorunngapa types.

Track 09: Central Arnhem Land Corroboree
Recorded by Lester & Betty Hiatt, Arnhem Land 1960. Borog song, more decidedly central in style, being from the western side of the Blyth River, and are also similar to the Gunbalanya in their didjeridu rhythms. This one bears the unmistakable western mark of the rhythmic use of the “hummed” chord.

Track 10: Central Arnhem Land Corroboree
Recorded by Lester & Betty Hiatt, Arnhem Land 1960. This one is from the west of the Liverpool River and exhibits even more clearly than the previous, the essentially “central” use of an evenly accented continuous fundamental with whole-tone rise in pitch, as in the Gunborg type.

Track 11: Secret Ceremonial Didjeridu
YidakiStory.com takes over: Sorry, I’m not going to include this track. Aboriginal People shared many things with early anthropologists that they choose not to share publicly now. They did not understand the implications of sharing with these (mostly) men who would then publish the material for countless others to see. I never played this track publicly when I lived in Yirrkala, so I won’t put it out publicly on the internet. It contains song and didjeridu from what is considered to by “inside ceremony” belonging to specific clans. It would not be shared with neighbouring Aboriginal People who were not initiated into the given ceremonial business, let alone a non-Aboriginal public.

OK, there you go. A quick look and listen of a historic didjeridu recording you may not have heard. I’ll bring you some more old tracks in the future.