Dhalinybuy CD – In Depth

Dhalinybuy cd

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

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

The Session

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

Dhalinybuy recording session

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

Baltha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracks 8-12 Baltha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracks 31-34 Ŋerrk (White Cockatoo)

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

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

Tracks 35-39 Warrkarr (Grass)

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

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

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

Tracks 40-51 Gapu (Water)

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

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

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

An Additional Note from Mathuḻu at this Point In the Recording

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

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

Tracks 52-58 Man’tjarr (Mangrove Leaves)

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

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

Tracks 59-66 Balin (Barramundi)

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

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

Tracks 67-69 Watpirriya (Archer Fish)

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

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

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

Tracks 70-76 Gomuḻu (Heron)

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

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

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

Tracks 77-81 Baltha

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

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

There you go

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

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

The Mulka Manikay Archives

The Mulka Manikay Archives

This post details the origins of The Mulka Manikay Archives CD series that documents songs of several Yolŋu clans of northeast Arnhem Land. A future post will go into greater detail about one of the recordings.

You can find the albums from some didgeridoo sellers and all the usual online digital music retailers. Here’s a link to them on Amazon.com.

The Mulka Project
The Mulka Project
Photos of ancestors at the Mulka Project

In 2007, Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, the art centre in the remote Australian Aboriginal community of Yirrkala, launched a new multimedia wing: The Mulka Project. Mulka refers to the centre as a holding place of Yolŋu culture. The original grant applications sought mostly to create an archive of materials made by anthropologists, missionaries and other visitors to Arnhem Land over the years, managed and made accessible to the community by Yolŋu librarians.

I luckily arrived in Yirrkala at the right time and with many of the right skills to become coordinator of this new project. Right away, I knew we needed to adjust Mulka’s charter. It wouldn’t just be an archive, but a production centre training Yolŋu to take the reigns of modern media to tell their own stories from now on. With my background as a musician and indie record label owner, it was a simple step to jump into making new audio recordings. We already started repatriating audio made decades earlier by outsiders. It was time for the community to make their own recordings of the current generation of singers.

During construction and development of the new project, the Yothu Yindi Foundation offered support including the use of their recording studio at Gunyaŋara’. Their Contemporary Masters series of CDs recorded there featured Galarrwuy Yunupiŋu, Djalu’ Gurruwiwi and more. This seemed the obvious way ahead. We would record new albums of clan song there.

Yothu Yindi Manikay CDs
The Yothu Yindi Foundation Contemporary Masters Series
Rirrakay Yirralkawuy Yirralkaŋura
Djambawa Marawilli at Yilpara
Djambawa Marawili at Yilpara 2004

The plan changed not long before the launch of the Mulka Project in mid-2007. Maḏarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili came in and poked around the new place just after I finished wiring our new theatre’s sound system. The voice of Galarrwuy Yunupiŋu from the Yothu Yindi Foundation CD Gobulu blared over the speakers. Djambawa listened for a moment and his face betrayed his thoughts.

I said, “so, do you want to record a CD of Maḏarrpa manikay (song)?”

“Yes, but I’m not recording in any studio. I’m doing it on my own homeland at Yilpara, looking out at my ocean.”

Done. Brilliant idea. I added a few items for remote recording to the list of necessary gear for the new centre and brought the idea to my colleagues. There were two Yolŋu Cultural Directors at that point; Wukuṉ Waṉambi and the late Dr. R. Marika. She deserves a whole blog post to herself, but to be brief, Dr. Marika had long been a key Yolŋu figure in Australian academia and Aboriginal activism. She loved the idea of recording remotely at significant locations and coined a name for the series: Rirrakay Yirralkawuy Yirralkaŋura, or “The Sound of the Homeland at the Homeland.”

Manikay at Dhalinybuy
Recording at Dhalinybuy in 2007

After her sudden passing and my sudden departure before the release of any of the recordings, the series became The Mulka Manikay Archives, which is much easier for non-Yolŋu minds and tongues to grapple with. I do however want the record to show that the original concept and the spirit of the recordings was definitely Rirrakay Yirralkawuy Yirralkaŋura. These are documents made in remote spots of Yolŋu singing the land. Of the three recording sessions I produced, Djambawa’s demonstrated this most clearly. As he and his clansmen sung of thunderclouds gathering over the ocean off of Yilpara, we watched it happening.

listen to them

Check them out now. If you’ve listened to them before, do it again. Know this time that these recordings are different. They’re not done in studios just to sell to the public. They weren’t done for an academic as part of his or her research. They are Yolŋu sitting on their own land, feeling what they’re singing with the intention of sharing with their families and future generations. Picture yourself on the beach at Yilpara or in the middle of Dhalinybuy and get lost in it.

I’ve posted this before, but here’s a video clip from the Gurrumuru session.

the documentation that could have been

Dr. Marika, having worked in western academia and knowing many of the commercially available recordings of traditional Aboriginal music, had a chip on her shoulder that I adored. All the prior recordings of Yolŋu music included liner notes written by non-Yolŋu academics. All of them got some things right and some things wrong. Dr. Marika declared that our CDs would come with the most thorough documentation ever, telling deeper stories direct from the Yolŋu perspective for the first time. No essays by outside academics. The layout and artwork would include symbology related to the songs and ancestral connections. She wanted to show the world what comprehensive liner notes written and designed by Yolŋu intellectuals looked like.

Yumutjin Wunungmurra
Yumutjin Wunuŋmurra at Mulka, recording the story for the Gurrumuru CD in 2008

Sadly, this idea was dropped along with her name for the series after both of us were out of the picture. All the recordings are released with just a track listing and artist information. I’m not privy to the reasoning behind the decision, but I can guess. First off, it’s less work. A LOT less. Secondly, Dr. Marika was one of few Yolŋu who knew academia and who would have read liner notes about Yolŋu music written by outsiders. Not many Yolŋu have a context for these kinds of recordings in the outside world, and certainly few if any would have that drive that Dr. Marika had to create the best liner notes ever. The vast majority of Yolŋu would be happy with a recording with no liner notes at all. Ever since the introduction of cassette tapes, Yolŋu have passed around recordings of manikay. For most of them, new technology just means better quality for the recordings that they listen to with no need for any information.

That said, I am grateful that the recordings have seen the light of day at all. The work of running Mulka is truly overwhelming. Over a year after the first recording and with two more in the can, we were just about ready to release the first CD when I suddenly had to leave Mulka and Yirrkala. I’m glad the CDs went ahead even without the work Dr. Marika and I wanted to do. It’s just a shame that they are less informative, less marketable and less significant than they could have been.

I didn’t take much with me when I left Mulka, but I do have a lot of the work that we did for what became the Dhalinybuy CD. I’ll share that in a future post so that in at least a small way, you can see some of the vision Dr. Marika had for these CDs.

Manikay from Dhalinybuy
Unfinished liner notes for what became the Dhalinybuy CD. More to come soon!

Once again, the CDs are available from some didgeridoo sellers and downloads are available from Amazon, iTunes, etc. Please support the Mulka Project and get the sound of the land in your ears by buying these albums!

Two Brothers at Galarra: A Case Study in Ethnomusicology Coming Full Circle, Part 3

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.

Truth

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.

Two Brothers at Galarra: A Case Study in Ethnomusicology Coming Full Circle, Part 2

Two Brothers at Galarra - Ethnomusicology in Action

This post, part 1 and the forthcoming conclusion are based on a paper presented on April 8, 2017 at the 2017 Society for Ethnomusicology Southwest Chapter Conference.

The Music & Logic of the Film

In Part 1, we saw how the film Two Brothers at Galarra came to be.  Now let’s break down the scenes and their music to see how Richard Waterman’s recordings were used and what they inspired.

The film opens with Mathuḻu sitting by a fire, introducing the story with spoken word. As we will see later, this was in fact the last scene shot for the film. His narration also concludes the film over instrumental music carrying on from the final song. Mathuḻu’s appearance and guidance provides continuity with the 1952 recordings.

Two Brothers at Galarra opening
Mathuḻu opens the film.

The rest of the film has nearly wall-to-wall music of three types.

1 – Dr. Waterman’s Recordings from 1952

These are of course the film’s inspiration and key soundtrack. As the film transitions from Mathuḻu’s spoken introduction to the reenactment, Binydjarrpuma and Mathuḻu sing of paperbark trees and the winds that hit them at certain places on Wangurri clan land. We see the brothers beginning their journey in country as described. The other two songs from the original recordings are far more intense. The first sets the scene for the fight to come with a long build of tension as the brothers walk through grasslands close to the ritual fighting ground of their destination. The second powerfully accompanies the film’s climactic fight.

Ethnomusicology in Action
The climactic spear fight, with subtitles of the words sung by Binydjarrpuma & Mathuḻu in 1952.

2 – Newly Recorded Song & Dance

The second category of music in the film was performed live with the dance scenes. Supervised by Mathuḻu, Malalakpuy lead the singing with Bibibak Munuŋgurr on didjeridu. Yolŋu land is alive with ancestral stories and powers. Cycles of song & dance tell and reenact these stories. On one evening of our shoot, twenty men and boys of Dhalinybuy sang and danced the journey depicted in the film to provide this context and, in the Yolŋu way of thinking, to tell the real story. Underlying powers and spirits in the land are the unchanging reality of the Yolŋu universe despite changing appearances or modern developments. They inform and influence the actions of humans. As the two brothers in the film journey across these ancestral lands, they come to embody the powers that lie within.

The final film doesn’t contain the whole cycle, but three key sections remain and inform a knowing audience about what’s really going on. After the first signs of tension between the two brothers, they arrive at a place of the ancestral dog Gulutharra — a role model for the Wangurri clan warrior, as we shall see in the climax and denouement of the film. Here we get a vision of the song and dance of Gulutharra. Later, the song and dance of the fighting club birku indicate that the brothers are getting psychologically ready for a battle to come. In the credits, we get the song and dance of wakuluŋgul, the dissipating fog, to show that enmity is clearing. The decision was made to let the visuals of the dances carry the full impact here, hence the lack of translation of the songs.

Two Brothers at Galarra - Ethnomusicology in Action
Dancing the fighting club Birku.

3 – In-Studio Sung Narration

We shot two scenes with no plan for music. Although I loved the unforgiving Yolŋu logic of the whole film thus far, we white people on set were concerned that the film would make no sense to non-Yolŋu viewers. We planned to add narration to these scenes to orient the audience. After editing the film, I brought Malalakpuy in to record the voiceover. I pressed play on the film for him to watch and started recording audio. He took me completely by surprise by beginning to sing rather than speak. Just like the 1952 and dance scene music, his song had no clear narrative, but poetry invoking Yolŋu symbols that inform what is underneath what we are seeing on the screen. This was the third type, or perhaps layer, of music in the film — in-studio sung narration. It was decided to accompany this layer of music and some of the film’s transitions with non-Yolŋu instruments to create atmosphere and further distinguish it from the other music in the film. This sung narration worked beautifully for an early establishing scene and the aftermath of the climactic spear fight.

Bandamul as Binydjarrpuma
“Binydjarrpuma” howling, with subtitles from Malalakpuy’s sung narration.

The Finished Film

Watch the film now, whether for the first time or a more informed repeat viewing. Recognize the different types of music and how they inform what is happening, both in the surface action and the underlying psychology.

Scene Breakdown

  1. Opening Titles
  2. Mathuḻu introduces the story.
  3. “Binydjarrpuma” & “Nyepayŋa” walk through the paperbark forest/swamp, accompanied by a 1952 recording of Binydjarrpuma & Mathuḻu singing. The words and pictures only give the slightest hints that a conflict is coming.
  4. Montage of the continued journey, spearfishing, etc., accompanied by Malalakpuy’s sung narration poetically describing the scene.
  5. “Binydjarrpuma” & “Nyepayŋa” reach a site associated with Gulutharra, the ancestral dog which is a role model for Wangurri warriors. “Binydjarrpuma” dreams the song and dance of Gulutharra. We see the intensity and that he is disturbed about what is to come.
  6. The brothers proceed through grasslands close to their destination as another 1952 recording plays, the lyrics more intense and clearly indicating the conflict that is to come.
  7. As they near the fighting ground at Galarra, we are treated to song and dance of the fighting club Birku. This is an obvious symbol of strength and preparation for battle.
  8. The climactic spear fight, accompanied by the most literal of the 1952 recordings, describing the skilled warrior preparing to accept a spear.
  9. “Binydjarrpuma” howls and imitates Gulutharra and leaves his wounded brother behind, as described in the sung narration by Malalakpuy.
  10. Mathuḻu, in spoken narration, reveals that Nyepayŋa survived what was merely a ritual clearing of animosity. He needed to accept a spear and bleed, but not to die. The concluding image of the real Binydjarrpumpa and Nyepayŋa was taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson in 1942, when both men were members of the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit.
  11. End Titles. The men of Dhalinybuy sing and dance Wakuluŋgul, the dissipating fog, to indicate the clearing of grievances.

This concludes Part 2. In the third and final part, I will discuss what went right and what went wrong in the making of the film, and what implications it raises for the idea of ethnomusicology coming full circle.

Two Brothers at Galarra: A Case Study in Ethnomusicology Coming Full Circle, Part 1

Two Brothers - Nyepayŋa and Binydjarrpuma

This post, part 2 and the forthcoming followup are based on a paper presented on April 8 at the 2017 Society for Ethnomusicology Southwest Chapter Conference. Part 1 discusses how one American ethnomusicologist’s work inspired indigenous Australians to create a new work of art including four generations of their clan.

Arnhem Land map - ethnomusicology full circle
Yirrkala & Dhalinybuy, Northeast Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Dr. Richard A. Waterman of Northwestern University lived with Yolŋu Aboriginal People on the remote mission of Yirrkala on the north coast of Australia while on a Fulbright Fellowship and grant from the American Philosophical Society. I can’t tell you why. Most of his published work stems from his interest in the African diaspora, including jazz, although he later co-edited a volume of papers from a symposium on change in Aboriginal Australia. Not many anthropologists visited Yirrkala before him since its founding in 1935, but many came after. Some became inextricably linked to the community’s history and are regularly referred to in the literature about the region and its people. Not so for Dr. Waterman. He never returned, was forgotten by the Yolŋu and is not often referred to by academics studying the area. However, as the first ethnomusicologist to show up in Yirrkala with a recorder and lots of tape, he left behind an unparalleled treasure trove of audio that upon rediscovery became much beloved by the Yirrkala community of today.

I did not study ethnomusicology or anthropology. My interest in Aboriginal Australia began when I started playing the didjeridu while a music composition student at the University of California at San Diego in 1993. In these heady early days of the internet, email listservs were the hot form of social media. On one of them, didjeridu players around the world emailed each other about the instrument. In 1999, only a few of us on that list in the United States were passionately interested in the origins of the instrument as opposed to its contemporary uses. One learned of the existence of Waterman’s recordings in the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music, obtained copies of most of them through his work, and shared those with me before my first visit to Arnhem Land. On that trip in 1999, I got to know the family of renowned yiḏaki, or didjeridu, expert Djalu’ Gurruwiwi. Djalu’ loved hearing his father Monyu on Waterman’s recordings.

I earned my own Fulbright Fellowship in 2003 to follow in Waterman’s footsteps and spend a year in Yirrkala doing a Master’s project on issues of globalization and commercialization of the didjeridu. After I spent a year as a volunteer, Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, the community art centre, hired me and sponsored my migration to Australia. I brought my copies of Waterman’s recordings as conversation-starters for my research and to share with the community.

Mathuḻu 2007 ethnomusicology
Mathuḻu Munyarryun

Early on, I got to know Wangurri clan families from the outstation community of Dhalinybuy (see map above). Once, in that first year there, 2004, I spotted one of the Wangurri elders, Mathuḻu, at the art centre and called him over to my desk, saying, “listen to this.” I pulled up the small collection of his clan’s songs that Waterman had recorded and played them for Mathuḻu, who calmly listened with approval and then asked for a copy.

Slippery Binydjarrpuma by Donald Thomson
Wangurri clan warrior “Slippery” Binydjarrpuma, 1942. Photo by Donald Thomson.

The notes on the recordings were understandably not very good by today’s standards. Waterman did not have much command of Yolŋu languages. In fact, very few outsiders did. Work to standardize the writing of the languages only began in the early 1950s. It was clear, however, that the main singer of the two men on the Wangurri tracks was “Slippery” Binydjarrpuma, a legendary warrior and sometimes renegade who was notorious right from the beginning of contact between Yolŋu and Euro-Australian people less than 30 years earlier (see works by Dr. Donald F. Thomson). Dhambudjawa, a well-known master of the day, played the yiḏaki, or didjeridu. The notes indicated that Binydjarrpuma and Dhambudjawa were joined by Galalpi.

I asked Mathuḻu about this. “It says the second singer is ‘Galalpi.’ Do you know who that is?”

He said, “yes. That should be Gaḏal’miny.”

“OK,” I replied. “Who was Gaḏal’miny?”

“He’s me.”

Mathulu Before & After
Mathuḻu Gaḏal’miny Munyarryun, circa 1948 & 2007.

Mind blown. Children’s songs on the recordings included currently living people, but I did not expect to find old men still alive who sang on Waterman’s “grown up” material. Mathuḻu AKA Gaḏal’miny as a young man sang with his uncle (by our way of thinking), or second father (by Yolŋu thinking).

A few years later, I launched the Mulka Project, a new multimedia wing of the art centre dedicated to a) repatriating all the media we could about the community that had been created by outsiders into a community-accessible archive and b) training the Yolŋu to take the reigns of modern media to tell their own stories from now on. One of my first actions was to contact the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music about getting copies of the entire Waterman Collection. They responded with great news. They were about to begin re-digitizing their entire collection and would start with the Waterman Collection for us. The new recordings were far better quality and included a lot of spoken word and secret-sacred recordings that were not in my old copies.

Around this time, one of Mathuḻu’s sons, Malalakpuy, told me his father needed a new copy of the CD I had given him. Malalakpuy hadn’t heard it, so I played the songs as I was burning a copy. He perked up and started telling me about the songs. Three were of particular interest. They told of a journey across certain of their clan lands, and of two brothers, “playing with spears.” It later came out that in fact this was the story of Binydjarrpuma journeying to a place of ritual combat to spear his own brother.

Malalakpuy came back a few days later with his brother Baṉḏamul and a proposal. They wanted to use the resources of the new Mulka Project to create a film with the two of them recreating the events described in the songs, using the old audio as soundtrack along with newly recorded song and dance reflecting the important totemic places along the journey.

This was exactly the sort of thing I wanted the Mulka project to do, and I was overjoyed that this idea had come about organically through our work. I hired two Australian film industry professionals to act as mentors for the project. Director Tom Murray spent a good deal of time in the area making his documentaries Dhäkiyarr vs. the King and In My Father’s Country. Cinematographer Bonnie Elliott participated in our first filmmaking workshop for young Yolŋu. Three of those students, Biyalŋa Biḏiŋgal, Bunbuyŋu Marika and Dhamarrarr Munuŋgurr, came along as trainee crew. We headed out for the hour and a half drive through the bush to Dhalinybuy, a remote community of less than 100 people of the Wangurri and related clans – our cast and the rest of our crew. Malalakpuy would co-star with Baṉḏamul while another brother, Banul would co-direct with him. Gurumin Marika, a senior djuŋgaya, or cultural custodian, of the Wangurri clan, would act as consultant and guide.

This concludes part 1. Part 2 discusses the film itself and the music in it. Finally, the forthcoming part 3 will discuss what went right and wrong, suggesting issues with ethnomusicology and documentation of culture. Next time, off to Dhalinybuy!

Yirrkala to Dhalinybuy
Yirrkala to Dhalinybuy. 1 h 53 min? We did it faster than that.