This post takes us out of yiḏaki country and therefore outside the main goals of this website, but I can’t help it. I admit I haven’t researched this thoroughly and don’t know if this has already been debated in academic circles, but the idea keeps showing up in my social media feeds, so I’ll provide my thoughts here.
On one hand, I like it. It’s a fun idea. But here’s the thing. I don’t buy it. At all. Here’s why.
First: Coincidences Happen
To briefly ground ourselves in this blog’s home country of northeast Arnhem Land, here’s one of the few bark paintings I bought for myself while I was a coordinator of the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala. It’s by Baluka Maymuru, whom you can hear singing with yiḏaki on the Mulka Project CD Yiŋapuŋapu. The Maṉgalili clan sing, dance and paint the river Milŋiyawuy, which is paralleled in the night sky by the stars of what we call in English the Milky Way Galaxy. I find the similarity of the terms Milŋiyawuy and Milky Way quite striking, but I have no doubt it’s coincidence. Yolŋu would say the term Milŋiyawuy was given by ancestral beings at the time of creation. The name Milky Way, though obviously an English translation, has its origins in Greek myth. I don’t see any way that these terms could have influenced each other.
Second: Historical Context
The researcher stated that in an experiment, “asking subjects to make the sound of the instrument yielded words full of vowels starting with the letter “b” or “m”. No subjects made the sound didgeridoo.”
Now there’s a little detail that I trust is obvious to anyone reading this blog that was not taken into account by the researcher. If you ask average people around southern Australia or anywhere in the world to think of the sound of the didgeridoo, they’re going to think of the crisp drones or “womble” rhythms of mainstream contemporary didge playing.
But if we’re talking about the origin of the word didgeridoo, we’ve got to go back to the first European settlers having their first contact with the instrument. Traditional didge snobs reading this blog know what that means.
Here’s Dr. Alice Moyle’s map of the traditional origins of the didgeridoo, based on her field work in the Top End in 1962-3. It’s widely accepted as fact that the didgeridoo’s use was limited to roughly this area at the time of European contact. Dr. Moyle identified two main styles of playing in that region, the western A-type and the eastern B-type. Basically, A is non-Yolŋu playing that many didge fans around the world know as mago style, and B is Yolŋu yiḏaki style.
European settlement of the Top End came overland from Alice Springs to the south and via the sea mostly to the central part of the Northern Territory. There we find the failed early attempts at settlement near what, in an eventual success, became the city of Darwin. This is all firmly in the territory of Dr. Moyle’s A-type didgeridoo style. This is the first didgeridoo playing that was regularly heard by Europeans.
What does that sound like? Here’s the late great David Blanasi playing in 1962.
And here he is singing the rhythm.
Unlike the subjects interviewed by the Flinders University researcher, anyone familiar with this style of didgeridoo playing would indeed start an imitation of the sound with a ‘d’ instead of a ‘b’ or ‘m’ and would most likely in fact start with the syllable ‘didj’.
Third: Historical Record
The Gaelic origin of didgeridoo theory is just that – a theory, based only on a coincidence. There is no historical record I am aware of to support it. On the other hand, records exist to support the onomatopoeia theory. Didgeridoo didn’t start appearing in dictionaries until 1919, but the term’s origin could be as much as 90 years older than that.
Collet Barker was an English military officer and ‘explorer’ of Australia. He developed better relationships with Aboriginal People he encountered than most Europeans did at the time, including during his brief tenure as commandant of the short-lived Fort Wellington on the Coburg Peninsula, the top center of the Northern Territory’s Top End. Firmly in Moyle A-type didgeridoo country. He wrote, circa 1829:
Mago had brought a kind of musical instrument, a large hollow cane about 3 feet long bent at one end. From [this] he produced two or three low & tolerably clear & loud notes, answering to the tune of didoggerry whoan, & he accompanied Alobo with this while he sang his treble. source
‘Didoggerry whoan’ is clearly similar to didgeridoo. It is specifically how an early European visitor to Australia’s Top End described the sound of the instrument. Perhaps it is the earliest extant written description of the sound. This obviously supports the standard onomatopoeic origin story for the word didgeridoo.
I don’t mean to be a spoil sport and have nothing against the person who came up with the Gaelic origin theory, or anybody who finds it fun to think about. But all this context seems important and instructive, so I thought it should be stated all together at least somewhere on this crazy internet. If anyone has more information to share on the subject please do so!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, I’m going there. The issue that won’t go away. And has no answer.
Should women play didgeridoo?
Yiḏakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjŋurunydja addresses the issue at www.yidakistory.com/dhawu/yidaki-issues/women-play-didgeridoo. In conducting interviews and writing the basic text for the Dhäwu, I aimed to represent the range of views in northeast Arnhem Land as much as possible. To summarize, key male figures in the Yolŋu yiḏaki world like Djalu’ and Burrŋupurrŋu invite non-Aboriginal women to learn to play from them. Baḏikupa and Djambawa speak of Yolŋu women playing in ceremony in older days when no men knew the songs. Wukuṉ, on the other hand, believes that women should not and are in fact incapable of playing. Three women, Banduk, Merrkiyawuy and a late sister of Djalu’, share a range of opinions but all agree that Yolŋu women will stick to their traditional women’s business. Only Banduk says strictly that outsider women should never play didjeridu, while the other two leave some room for personal choice.
On this blog, I share my own experiences and views – and in this case, those of my wife, Brandi – instead of strictly representing Yolŋu opinions. I asked Brandi if she would write a guest post, but she passed and told me to write this up. Those who disagree with early parts of this post, please press on to the end. SPOILER ALERT: She used to play, but doesn’t anymore. Here we go.
First off, the didjeridu comes from the Top End.
Period. That refers to a large area and we cannot pinpoint one origin of the instrument within it. Different Aboriginal groups across the Top End tell different stories of the didjeridu’s creation. I have no interest in judging them or choosing between them and won’t discuss academic theories on that issue here. I also won’t take time debating the larger point. Although exact borders can’t be drawn, academics and many Aboriginal People from around Australia agree that the didjeridu comes from the north of the Northern Territory and spread from there. I accept this as fact.
Stories of physical harm or sudden pregnancy coming to women who play are oft repeated outside of that area. I’ll never forget a woman who came to me in tears many years ago, telling me how she went to pick up a didjeridu in a tourist shop in New South Wales, but an Aboriginal man in the shop snatched it from her and yelled at her. It broke her heart both that she wanted to play but wasn’t allowed, and that she unintentionally offended this man.
Countless arguments about this litter social media. Non-Aboriginal women post pictures or videos of themselves playing and find themselves the target of great ire from Down Under. From both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal People, but not from traditional owners from the Top End as far as I’ve seen.
I visited a few times then lived in northeast Arnhem Land for 5 years, working with countless Yolŋu People while completing a Fulbright & M.A. project on the instrument. No one gave me a reason why Yolŋu women don’t play. It simply is not done. I only heard the cautionary story of didjeridu playing making a woman pregnant once. Banduk, who lived in Sydney for many years, referred to it as a superstition.
One Woman’s Experience in Top End Didjeridu Country
Brandi and I met in the USA in 1997 through our shared interest in the didjeridu and went to Australia for the first time in 1999. We started in Sydney, and didn’t have any issue with her as a woman player there, apart from one semi-related suggestion by an Aboriginal Person that she would be speared once we got to the Top End where the law was much stricter.
We made our way north to Katherine, where we had no trouble shopping together for instruments at stores managed by white Australians. From there, we made our way to an Aboriginal community in Top End didj country for the first time. Manyallaluk offers day tours for tourists. Local people take you for a bush walk to talk about medicinal plants and native foods. We ate kangaroo tail and drank green ant “tea.” We threw spears. We heard “Dreaming stories” of the place and had a quick go at painting on bark.
And then, out came a didjeridu for everyone to try. Everyone. It was passed around for the whole group, men and women alike. Most people of course failed to play it. I wondered what the reaction would be when it got to me, the hot shot that people in the USA thought was so good. Mostly, it was buzzkill for all our fellow tourists who had just failed at it. Our local Aboriginal hosts reacted with, “hey, that’s cool, you know how to play.” I told them that I would soon be hosting a workshop with David Blanasi back home.
Then I passed it to Brandi. She played and our male tour guides went nuts. They laughed and applauded. They called over the other men and women of the community sitting nearby.
“Hey, you’ve gotta come see this white woman who can play didjeridu! She knows Blanasi!”
Instead of bringing out the spears for punishment, the moment brought a bit of joy and wonder to the community for a minute – though admittedly, it excited the men more than the women. It seemed that somehow, in 1999, this was really the first time these men had seen a woman play didjeridu with any competence. I’m sure this didn’t instigate a cultural revolution such that we’ll go back and find that all the local women play now. I know their culture holds strong. But this cross cultural moment brought no shame, anger or warnings of impending physical harm or pregnancy. Just a pleasant surprise for all concerned.
On to Yolŋu Country
A few weeks later, we found ourselves staying with Djalu’ Gurruwiwi’s family at Gunyaŋara’ in northeast Arnhem Land. Djalu’s fame hadn’t reached today’s heights yet, but he had traveled and hosted visitors before. A woman player didn’t shock his family as it did the residents of Manyallaluk. They accepted Brandi. As a western couple, we planned to do everything together while on our trip. But she was smart enough to see that not all was right.
Both at Manyallaluk and Gunyaŋara’, Aboriginal People lead lives somewhat divided on gender lines in a way we as an “enlightened” couple from the USA didn’t. When we popped in to Manyallaluk for one day, a white woman didj player was cool. Staying at Gunyaŋara’ for a few weeks, however, was a different story. It got a bit awkward. Once Brandi suggested that we go our separate ways, with me doing men’s business like didgeridoo playing while she joined in women’s business, our relationships with the Yolŋu improved. We did as the Romans did and fit ourselves into their world view rather than insisting on bringing our own to their place.
That’s not to say yidaki is 100% men’s business. In Djalu’s family, everyone helps in the crafting process. During our first yidaki cutting trip with Djalu’, his wife Dopiya brought me a log she just chopped down, asking me to test its playability. A small, irregularly shaped mouthpiece hole sat in the middle of a thick log. With my little lips, skinny face, big nose and prior experience mostly with beeswax mouthpieces, I couldn’t fit my face on there and get a seal to try it properly. Dopiya gave up on me, took it into her own hands and blew a drone on the log for herself. Just for testing purposes since this white kid was worthless.
Brandi assisting Djalu’ in 1999.
Before this trip, Brandi wanted to be a hot chick with a stick.
Few women publicly performed on didjeridu around the world. Joining those elite ranks was a sure way to get attention. The experience of the instrument’s context in Arnhem Land changed that for Brandi. It wasn’t about her anymore and she’d rather do what the women do. We visited the family a few times, then lived nearby for 5 years, immersed in life there. Brandi blew a note or two over the years, same like Dopiya testing out freshly cut instruments for herself, but she never went back to being a chick with a stick. It wasn’t appropriate for the life we lived, and it wasn’t nearly as fun as hanging with the women. As Merrkiyawuy said, Yolŋu men and women respect each other’s roles.
This is not absolutely the right answer for everyone. Djalu’s late sister (WARNING to family not to click unprepared on the following video) voices her opinion clearly. It’s up to a woman to decide for herself, but Yolŋu women will stick to their traditions.
I suppose the best thing now is to reiterate the summary I wrote for the Yidakiwuy Dhäwu.
So the best advice for non-Yolŋu women is to make your own choice for what you do on your own time, knowing that there are some Yolŋu who would encourage you to play. But be very sensitive about who you are with. If you are in Arnhem Land or in the presence of people from Arnhem Land, carefully check that no one will be upset before playing. Be aware that it may be shocking, and may inspire the laughter that women playing does in initiation ceremonies. Yolŋu women have their own business, and like to stick together and stick to their customs. You will not win any friends and begin a relationship of open sharing with Yolŋu by forcing your point of view, and will likely alienate Yolŋu women who could otherwise become friends.
As I said above, this paragraph was written to represent Yolŋu opinion, but from my own limited experience, I would apply that same view to the rest of the Top End didjeridu origins in the Northern Territory. You won’t be judged as harshly as you would by people from other parts of Australia for playing didjeridu, but you won’t make friends with local Aboriginal women that way, either.
If you just want to play the instrument and don’t plan to ever be involved with Aboriginal People,
then know that some people at its origins feel you have that choice. People like Djalu’ Gurruwiwi.
People like Western Arnhem Land mago master David Blanasi who allowed women into workshops like the one I arranged in San Diego in 1999.
But also know that like any other subject, you will run into arguments about it on the internet. You will never win that argument. Those people, if they’ve read this far, are not convinced by me right now. But I personally believe all the evidence that instrument originates from the Top End and only recently spread all over Australia. I choose to listen to traditional owners from that region. Not that 100% of them agree on this issue.
I also choose not to pick fights with people from outside that region. Please don’t insult them or intentionally cause confrontation to assert your own view of your rights. They have their own struggles in the aftermath of the invasion of their country and intentional destruction of their culture. They are proudly holding on to what they can. They deserve understanding and respect.
So. Make your choice.
Do what you gotta do. If you decide to play, know that some Aboriginal People will support your decision. Many won’t. Be respectful wherever you are, including the internet, but don’t feel you need to hide yourself, either. I wish there was an easier answer for every situation to keep everyone happy but there isn’t.
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.