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For the Sake of a Song: Wangga Songmen and their Repertories=

By Katharine Leonarder

I should probably start this entry with a rather embarrassing admission, I know nothing about music. To me the sounds of Taylor Swift are on the same technical scale as those of the Basel Symphony Orchestra. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to read For the sake of a song: wangga songmen and their repertories and write this blog. Surprisingly enough I found myself enjoying the detailed descriptions of wangga music, even down to the meticulously documented notations of tempo, rhythm and structure, which – I might add – were written in such I way that even I managed to understand them.

For those who, like me, have never heard of wangga, it is a style of Indigenous dance-song that is generally associated with the Daly region of northwest Australia. Wangga is typically connected with two occasions: the circumcision ceremonies that mark a boy’s transition into manhood, and funerary rituals. Wangga is performed vocally, with instrumental intermissions on the didgeridoo and sometimes the clapsticks. The songs are always performed by men, typically having been passed to them in dreams by the deceased. This unusual form of bequeathing highlights the intensely spiritual nature of this form of music.

For the sake of a song examines the repertoires of groups of songmen from Barrtjap Muluk, Mandji , Lambudju, Walakandha and Ma-yawa wangga groups. In doing so it manages to construct a corpus of over 150 songs. Each song recorded with detailed translations, a transcription of the vocal sections and their meanings, and an analysis of the instrumental sections. In accompaniment the editors have also compiled a collection of audio CDs with recordings of almost every wangga song from the Daly region in the past 50 years, and a website to supplement the book and CDs are being created.

In constructing an archive of wangga music, For the sake of a song not only ensures public record of wangga music, but offers the general public access to something they might otherwise never have the opportunity to experience. In one example from the book the authors talk of Jimmy Muluk (1925–c.1986). Muluk was considered to be one of the great wangga songmen, and while his songs were probably passed on to others, they would have been lost in their original forms without recordings made by Alice Moyle, accompanied by Muluk’s personal transcripts, in the 1960s. The audio CDs accompanying this book are therefore as much for pleasure as for learning, archiving and creating accessibility.

Given my lack of musical understanding I can only imagine that, to those who appreciate all things musical, this book is a rare gem. It not only gives a sense of history to wangga, but also a rich cultural background. It is obvious that this book, with both its intricate detail and breadth of subject, has been years in the making. Fortunately the book is not the limit. For the sake of a song is accessible on a variety of formats, each of which is worth exploring – or simply enjoying.


Katharine Leonarder, a graduate of a Bachelor of Arts, wrote this post while she was an intern at Sydney University Press in 2013. She is now working as Digital Media Coordinator at Brand New Media.

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