Let’s listen to some Djaṯpaŋarri. It’s a kind of Yolŋu music and dance which, according to ethnomusicologist Dr. Alice M. Moyle, Gumatj clansman Dhambudjawa invented in the early to mid 20th century. The style was mostly popular with young men during Moyle’s visit in 1962-3, but as those men grew up, djaṯpaŋarri became popular with all ages. In short, it’s characterized by casual, often modern subjects, fun dances, and a more mellow and repetitive yidaki style than most Yolŋu ceremonial music. Because of that last factor, some inexperienced listeners mistake northeast Arnhem Land djaṯpaŋarri for western Arnhem Land music. Newer djaṯpaŋarri usually mentions, or seemingly addresses, young men by their SKIN NAME.
We’re going to listen to three variations on the same song subject from different decades. In the liner notes for Songs from the Northern Territory vol. 3, Moyle writes:
This ‘Comic’ Djatpangarri sung by Minydjun (b. 1944) originated as the result of a Disney film cartoon seen by Yolngu people at one of the air bases during the Second World War. Donald Duck is the subject of the associated dance.
The second and third versions below will be familiar to long time yidaki aficionados, but this first one is a rarity. Dr. Richard A. Waterman recorded Roy Ḏaḏayŋa (Rirratjiŋu clan) and Rrikin (Gumatj) singing ‘Comic’ with Djinini (Djambarrpuyŋu) on yidaki in 1952. Notice that Roy & Rrikin don’t sing anything other than the word “comic.” This stresses the importance of djaṯpaŋarri as a dance music. This isn’t the most intricate poetry you’ll ever hear.
Here’s Minydjun (with an uncredited yidaki player), recorded at Milingimbi in 1962. This version adds the word djaṯpaŋarri itself and other word fragments common to the style. Milingimbi is near the western edge of Yolŋu country. You’ll notice that the yidaki has more influence of western Arnhem Land playing than the other two “Comics.”
Here’s Galarrwuy with his late nephew Milkay Munuŋgurr on yidaki from the 1992 Yothu Yindi album Tribal Voice. Note that he’s got more of the style of Roy & Rrikin, with the sung yidaki part and short wordless notes. He however adds the skin name references often heard in djaṯpaŋarri songs. And of course, Milkay brings his “hard tongue” to the table.
On Yothu Yindi’s hit Treaty also from Tribal Voice, they mix djaṯpaŋarri with pop & rock music. While you may have just known that bit as “the traditional part,” it’s not serious manikay you would hear in ceremony, but this simple, fun, public song. Listen carefully and you’ll hear that the second word you hear in the first Yolŋu language part around 0:50 is in fact djaṯpaŋarri. You’ll also hear the fragment djaṯpa a few times in the song. Mandawuy also sings a reference to a boy’s skin name and a call out to all the young men.
Note that you can find the second track above on the must-have landmark set of recordings Songs from the Northern Territory from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies HERE. The 5-disc set contains an invaluable survey of music of the Top End from 1962-3, including lots of incredible didjeridu. Yothu Yindi’s music doesn’t seem to be on iTunes and Amazon and CD’s are getting hard to come by. Search for used copies your favorite way. The first track above, from 1952, has never been commercially released.
Djalu’ crafted this excellent yidaki in mid-2004. I bought it for myself, but it became Djalu’s standby for a few years, seeing regular use in ceremony and performance, as seen in this clip from the Yidakiwuy Dhäwu. Here, Djalu uses this powerful instrument to demonstrate the song Bärra‘ or West Wind at the Garma Festival in 2004.
Stats: drone – E • first trumpeted note – F 154cm long • 3.2cm mouthpiece (interior average) • 16x11cm bell (largest part of exterior)
This is truly an incredible yidaki. Great warmth, great clarity, great playability, great power. If your lips are in shape, you can trail off the warm-sounding trumpet note like a bell. To me, this one sounds like the definitive Djalu’ tone. It’s quintessential Djuŋgirriny‘, hence his use of it while telling that story at Garma. Here he is playing Bärra‘ again.
The late Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr loved it, too. He said he’d love to record with it, although he’d prefer a smaller and lighter yidaki to carry around in ceremony!
The late Mirrwatŋa Munyarryun shows us some brief, simple yet beautiful playing on it. He, his brothers and cousin Ŋoŋu at Dhalinybuy all said it was a great “bass” instrument they would happily use at ceremony.
Lastly, here’s me from my Didjeridu of the Day series on Instagram last year.
Back in 1999, Djalu’ blew my mind with his ridiculously simple fix for a knothole in a new, in-progress yidaki. Maybe he did this all the time. I’m not sure. I never happened to see it again. I present the photos here online for the first time, in their full, highly-compressed, 640×480 1999 digital camera quality.
Djalu’ found a particularly good yidaki, so sat down to work on it right there in the bush. Here he is carving away the bark and outer layers with a draw knife.
Whoops! It’s hard to see, but in the yellowish area, Djalu’ exposed a knothole as he carved down the wood. To the right of the instrument in this photo, he is carving a small wedge of wood out of the trimmings.
Next, he hammered that little wedge into the hole (with the not often recommended technique of holding a knife blade and hammering with the handle).
He switched to an axe. That’s better.
The result: a non-leaky yidaki with a protrusion.
Then, he simply sawed off the protrusion with the blade right against the yidaki.
Voila. Knothole filled. Good as new. The instrument was finished, glued, painted, and sold to one of you out there who has no idea that this ever happened.
There you go. Djalu’ Gurruwiwi, yidaki master with all the cool tricks.
In January and February, I wrote about the first two albums I recorded for what became the Mulka Manikay Archives CD series; Dhalinybuy and Gurrumuru. In both posts, I provided some of the documentation that my Yolŋu colleagues and I created, including statements from the senior singers involved. Very little of that work was done for the last recording, Yilpara, before I suddenly had to leave Yirrkala. To complete this series on the three Mulka Manikay CD’s I recorded, let’s get some insight from relevant art documented in the book Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country.
In the late 1990’s, 47 Yolŋu artists created a suite of 80 bark paintings reflecting their knowledge of and connection to the sea. The people of northeast Arnhem Land started the first Australian land rights case in the early 1970’s. It was time for sea rights. Long story short, this lead to a 2008 High Court ruling which handed ownership of the intertidal zone to Aboriginal People on a large portion of the Northern Territory coast.
The Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney acquired the entire collection back in 2000, and is displaying half of it now until February 2019. If you happen to be in the area, CHECK IT OUT. The ANMM’s webpage about the exhibition features this video of Djambawa Marawili, accompanied by an excerpt from his singing on the Yilpara CD. If you’ve been through the Yidakiwuy Dhäwu, you’ve heard him say similar things already.
If you’ve studied this website, you may also remember the concept of the five dimensions of Rom. Wäŋa (Land), Gurruṯu (Kinship), Dhäwu (Stories), Miny’tji (Art) and Manikay (Songs). Yolŋu understand and express life through all these dimensions. Therefore, we can get insight into the songs on the Yilpara CD from stories told in paintings.
We’ll stick with Djambawa at first. His painting Gurtha at Dhakalmayi is described in Saltwater like this:
Yathikpa is an important site for the Maḏarrpa as it was here that first came to the shores of north-east Arnhem Land for the first time. Bäru, the Ancestral Crocodile power tote for the Maḏarrpa clan is strongly associated with the first fire.
Two Ancestral beings, Burrak and Munumiŋa, took to the sea in their dugout canoe from this Blue Mud Bay coastline of Yathikpa to hunt. Djambawa has depicted them under shelter preparing to go to sea.
Once offshore and upon seeing a dugong, they pursued it. In this area of saltwater was another sacred site of fire – a submerged rock surrounded by turbulent and dangerous water. It was here at Dhakalmayi that the dugong took shelter to escape the hunters. When the hunters flung their harpoon towards the dugong, hence the rock, they enraged the powers that be, causing these dangerous waters to boil with the sacred fires underneath. The canoe capsized, drowning and burning the Ancestral Hunters with their canoe and hunting paraphernalia. The harpoon, rope, paddles and canoe are sung at ceremony and manifestations of these objects are used as restricted secret sacred objects in ceremony today.
Djunuŋgayaŋu, dugongs, are associated with this site, attracted by sandy sea beds that grow the sea grass called Gamaṯa on which they graze. In this painting Djunuŋgayaŋu is at this site around Dhakalmayi. The cross-hatched design is the sacred clan design for the Maḏarrpa representing saltwater and fire here and is a manifestation of the sacred waters and Gamaṯa waving like flames below its surface.
Here’s Yathikpa by Marrirra Marawili, the senior man on the Yilpara CD, which provides more clues to the inclusion of the Bäru (Crocodile) and Dhupuntji (Log) tracks.
The open-ended strings of diamonds mark the classic miny’tji of the saltwater estate of Yathikpa. Here Bäru the ancestral crocodile, carrying and being burnt by the Ancestral fire, crossed the beach from Garraŋali and entered the saltwater. After his burns were soothed, Bäru decided that he would stay in these waters. His sacred powers and those of fire imbue the water there today.
Later from the same beach the Ancestral Hunters took their hunting harpoon and canoe out to the sea of Yathikpa in pursuit of the dugong. The hunters were lured too close to a dangerous rock by the dugong seeking shelter. At this sacred site fire spouted and boiled the water, capsizing the canoe. The sacred harpoon changed into Dhakandjali (YS: or Dhupundji) the hollow log coffin that floats on the seas of Yathikpa and further afield within Blue Mud Bay. It travels along the coast connecting other clans (Maŋgalili, Dhaḻwaŋu and Munyuku).
Neither of these provide you a strict narrative lining up perfectly with the track listing on the CD, but you can see the connections and understand a little of the context. To be too brief, you can look at the tracks about various fish and birds and the animals both seen by the Yolŋu, and who themselves witnessed the events of the story.
The album ends with Waŋupini, thunderclouds rising over the sea. I wish I had all the photos I took the day of the recording, but they’re all on a drive somewhere in Yirrkala. As the songs were sung, the clouds gathered on the horizon over Blue Mud Bay. I took photos on the spot that Djambawa indicated would be the album cover (reminiscent of the original Dhalinybuy cover idea). Instead, I’ll close out this post with a detail of another of his Saltwater paintings, one supervised by his late father Wakuthi. The anvil shape at center is how the Maḏarrpa clan paint their characteristic thundercloud.
This has been a very simple look at some of the Maḏarrpa clan art and story which is expressed much more deeply on the Yilpara CD. If you can find a copy of Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country for yourself, you will be blown away by the depth of Yolŋu knowledge of and connection to the land, and the beauty of their visual expression of said knowledge and connection. Grab a copy of that book and the CD as part of your journey of understanding the culture that brought us the yiḏaki.
The film also features a few clips of song & dance. But no, in real life Yolŋu don’t ever freeze like that at the end of a dance.
This may be a controversial statement, but those are the only good parts of the film. As a whole, it bears all the marks of an outsider with grand ideas telling Aboriginal People what to do instead of listening to them and letting them tell their own story.
I was very sad and we were there for three-and-a-half weeks to make the Green Ant film… All my people was there and three of us is main ones: Roy, Wukaka and myself, Wandjuk Marika.
We change the name instead of our own names… We told them, “Do not put our name on it, because my name and Roy’s name is on the land right book. The people have been push ourselves to Land Rights case, Rirratjiŋu.” But I found it there, on the film – which is make me sad or unhappy…
Then the three of us flew over to Melbourne pretending to the Land Right case, which is Judge Blackburn’s work, which is made up – that was the very dangerous thing to do…
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Wandjuk and Roy Marika signed the Yirrkala Bark Petition and played significant roles in Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, Australia’s first ever land rights case, wherein the people of Yirrkala sued to claim ownership of the land they had lived on for untold generations. They of course lost. Their law was not recognized by the occupying government. This was a very tender sore spot for the Yolŋu People, and Wandjuk worried that the film’s re-enactment made a mockery of the real case that he cared so much about.
Wandjuk also called out the phoniness of the story and complained about being directed by an outsider to make a mockery of Aboriginal law.
…in that film that Dreaming is made up (that’s a made up Dreaming, yes it’s a true story about the Green Ant Dreaming but from Oenpelli Dreaming, not for Rirratjiŋu, not for Wuḻaḻa, that Dreaming is for Gunwinggu western Arnhem Land. Green ants don’t live in the desert…)
And also I always feel angry and get wild because they always ask me to say this and say that and do what I don’t want to do, and I said, “Look, don’t ever ask me to do that… I know how to speak English, I know what to deal with…”
and Werner Herzog said, “Yes, I know but I’m from a different country.”
“What does it matter what different country, why you come to Australia?”
There it is. The do-gooder outsider co-opting the indigenous people and their story in his own way. And this is why Wandjuk says:
The special film was the one I made by myself. I ask Ian Dunlop, he was working in Film Australia, my film is (In) Memory of Mawalan.
After his father Mawalan’s passing, Wandjuk instigated a large Djuŋguwan ceremony and invited Ian Dunlop and crew to film it as part of the Yirrkala Film Project. It’s a stretch for Wandjuk to say he made the film by himself, but we know what he meant, and how important the movement he began is. He was a large part of the founding of Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, Yirrkala’s own community art centre in the 1970’s. When we expanded it with the Mulka Project multimedia centre in 2007, we had the specific goal of turning modern media over to Yolŋu to tell their own stories from now on. The way Wandjuk would have wanted it.
See how I drew you in with yiḏaki then made this post all about larger cultural issues? Tricky, eh?
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.
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.
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 DhäwuHERE.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stats: 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)
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tracks 70-76 Gomuḻu (Heron)
Note: Mathuḻu used another name for the heron, Gany’tjurr. Which incidentally, is one of my given Yolŋu names.
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.
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.