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Several Indigenous Australian music stories.

Last year's Stanner Award went to Allan Marett for his ethnomusicological study, Songs, dreamings, and ghosts: The Wangga of North Australia: Wesleyan University Press (2005). This is an award for "the best published contribution to Australian Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Studies that is considered by Council to be a significant work of scholarship in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Studies and which reflects the dynamic nature of Professor Stanner’s life and work."

And the award ceremony was moving. Yes there were speeches. And then Allan explained how the wangga songs link the living and the dead (and check out also the radio program Ghost songs). He showed three short clips of performances of wangga. Then Joe Gumbula, a Yolngu scholar and musician, and the first Indigenous Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, sat down on the floor with his didgeridoo. Allan sat down next to him with clap sticks, and they performed two songs, Allan singing. Many traditional Indigenous Australian songs are HARD, hard to learn the words of, and hard to sing, but he made it seem effortless. Two scholars and musicians, Yolngu and non-Indigenous-Australian, performing traditional songs together. A future for us all.

And then the other way around. Indigenous Australians have been writing and performing modern Anglo-Australian songs in traditional languages for a while now.

Missionaries started the trend - circulating cassettes of hymns. Then came a song which was immensely popular right across Central Australia, Jailanguru pakarnu (out of jail), written by Sammy Butcher and Neil Murray, the first (1983) rock song in a traditional Australian language (Pintupi/Luritja) - and sung by the Warumpi Band[1]. That was followed by the phenomenal success of Yothu Yindi singing in Arnhem Land languages. And after that lots of bands took off, singing in their own languages.

And now some groups are podcasting their songs - thanks to Kim Christen at Long Road, I listened to a podcast of a Warlpiri song - at Winanjjikari. It's sung by Brian Murphy and the Nomadics. In 2001 Brian talked about what he sings about:

"My songs are in English, and in language. I sing about the land, and about the lives of our people, about domestic violence, car accidents, about alcohol related problems, about families leaving their children behind while going out drinking. I sing songs about how to solve these problems."

[Google cache of http://www.ntl.nt.gov.au/dcdsca/intranet.nsf/Files/CA_Artifacts/$file/artifacts_jun01.pdf]
In keeping with his theme, listen out on the podcast for the all-encompassing pity/empathy word wiyarrpa, a meaning (but not form) which is widespread across Indigenous Australia.

You can buy CDs from some other Warlpiri bands at the CAAMA website or at Skinnyfish (which also distributes CDs of traditional music). Lajamanu Teenage Band, North Tanami band, Watjilarringi (Homesick) and the Yuendumu bands Blackstorm, Rising Wind, as well as solo albums (Jimmy Langdon's "My spinifex country"). Lots of bands! Lots of Warlpiri songs! No sleep at Yuendumu, especially when evangelists with loud-speakers start competing with them.

And then, thanks to a Sydney Morning Herald 'Stay in touch' piece, I came across this Ngaanyatjarra music website. Lyrics, alas, are greyed out. This is how the podcast site started:

"I've been going out to the Ngaanyatjarra lands for five years now, primarily to do songwriting and recording," says [John] Gordon, [...]. "Mainly with the young fellas, who love music with a passion. That, and AFL. English is very much the second language for them but music bridges a gap. In August I took a basic recording set-up out there and we began recording in Warburton, the main community and original mission."

It'll be interesting to see how these podcast sites pan out - how many downloads, and where, and whether community members start burning CDs or buying iPods, and can small communities sustain them - putting up songs frequently could be all too hard. .

Buzzing around my head are shreds of lyrics for songs in several languages - sometimes the only words of a language that I really remember. So having heaps of good and interesting and enjoyable songs (ancient and modern..) in communities is not just for pleasure, but is also important for keeping languages strong.


[1] Neil Murray's autobiography, Sing for me, countryman (Rydalmere, N.S.W.: Sceptre 1993) gives a startlingly honest and vivid account of what it was like for a young Anglo-Australian man working with the Indigenous band members to try to create a band, and the kinds of clashes that occurred. The Desert Princess stuff could have done with editing, but, generally, it is more evocative and interesting than writings about Indigenous Australia by travel-writers such as Bruce Chatwin and Nicolas Rothwell. The reason, no doubt, is that Murray was a participant and not just an observer. But, hey, that scale of participation takes more courage than many of us have.

Comments

The music stuff is so interesting.

Christian songs in language are very popular here at Ngukurr. Generally, I don't like the songs, but love them for the fact that it's one of the few domains in which these endangered languages are still alive.

White men singing traditional songs (properly) is special. I would've loved to have been there. I've only seen it done once, when Ted Egan came to Ngukurr last year. The local mob sang and danced for the occasion, and then he surprised everyone by busting out with something... i don't what/where from the song was, but there were that many wide eyes here at Ngukurr!!

And the contemporary stuff is great too. At Numbulwar up the road, a great band is making waves and having a nice subtle effect of promoting Nunggubuyu here at Ngukurr. They sing mostly in language. They're at www.yilila.com. (And they're great too, just waiting to be 'discovered').

What an amazing event.

The christian women at Barunga and Weemol also write fellowship songs in Dalabon - this is the only domain in which Dalabon is contemporarily used, let alone productively!

While on a bush trip recently, QB got up from sleep one evening to dictate to me the lyrics of a song she'd just made up. We spent quite a bit of time talking about the meaning of the lyrics, and trying to translate them into English. I found it really difficult, cos she was describing a transcendental experience.

It was so cool to be a witness to creative uses of Dalabon. Unfortunately the song sucked muscially, which doesn't really create a 'wow, cool' factor which is probably necessary to generate a buzz of interest in language transmission/learning/revitalisation...

Maybe I could pair her up with Allan?!

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