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Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

Songs From the Northern Territory 2: Music From Eastern Arnhem Land
Alice Moyle
Label Information:
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS): AIAS 2 CD
Media Type:
Recorded 1963; Released 1997

Notes: For the purpose of music description, Eastern Arnhem Land of the Northern Territory is divided here as follows: the north-eastern sector including offshore islands; the eastern sector extending along the coast as far south as the Roper River; and the Groote Eylandt archipelago north-west of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Field recordings reproduced on this compact disc were collected in the eastern sector at Numbulwar, an Aboriginal settlement at the mouth of the Rose River where the Aboriginal language spoken is Nunggubuyu. They include a few samples of songs by Djapu-speaking Yolngu people who were living temporarily on this same settlement, their own territory being situated at Caledon Bay further north.

Songs heard on disc 2 represent the music of some of the last groups of Aboriginal people to live in continuous contact with a white settlement. A mission station (Church Missionary Society) was established at Numbulwar as recently as 1952.

Since the 1970s, however, there have been many changes in the places of Aboriginal settlement. Mission stations and government settlements are now Community Centres administered by the Aboriginal people themselves, and many have preferred to live more or less permanently on outstations situated within traditional territories or homelands.

Item characteristics of Eastern Arnhem Land clan songs performed and recorded in 1960s-all of which were sung by men-are summarised here as follows: (1) a didjeridu accompaniment which utilises two tones differing widely in pitch (the interval between the higher or overblown tone and the fundamental often sounding close to a tenth but varying according to the shape and length of the hollowed branch); (2) a narrow vocal range of pitch (compare them, for instance, with Western Arnhem Land songs) which rarely exceeds a fifth or sixth and may be less than a second; (3) song words which are translatable, meaningful and appropriate to relevant clan territories and related myths; and (4) the occurrence of an unaccompanied vocal termination (UVT), or termination of a song item by voice or voices alone after the accompanying instruments have ceased. Good examples of this fourth item characteristic are to be heard on discs 3 (Track 11) and 4 (Track 1).

Song refrains may consist of repeated strings of words and syllables; a prolonged single syllable; or a repeated pattern of vocal sounds (for example, bird calls). These calls are incorporated into the particular sectional or phraselike structure of many item sequences performed in Eastern Arnhem Land.

All but one of the Nunggubuyu items on disc 2 were referred to as 'New Brolga' items. Ngardhangi (Track 9), was said to have been the first to introduce into the New Brolga style the preliminary 'cry' or opening vocalised glide. This 'cry', which covers a notably wide pitch range (approximately a twelfth), was interpreted as the brolga bird's longing for its home country. It is followed by two song sections, each taken at a lively pace and ending with chirping calls such as durrk and so on. In the breaks between the vocal sections, the didjeridu and stickbeating accompaniments maintain the item's continuity.

Clan items in the 'Old Brolga' style (Track 7i), though rarely performed at the time, exhibited the four characteristics stated above.

Divided into five tracks for the convenience of listeners, the first five tracks consist of a continuous recording of a complete dance event or corroboree. The twenty-two items were contributed by members of two clans of the Mandhayung moiety: the Ngalmi clan represented by Brolga singers Gulundu (b. 1922), Ngardhangi (b. 1933) and Arrama (b. 1938); and the Murungun clan who contributed Fish and Feathered String items sung by Larangana (b. 1910) assisted by Djingudi.

Didjeridu accompaniments for both clans were played almost without falter by Rimili (b. 1938), Nunggargalug clan, Mandirritja moiety. Throughout the performance there was regular alternation between the singers of each clan as follows:

i. The Brolgas come in ii Yambirrigu (fish)
iii Another flock arrives iv Yambirrigu (fish)
v Another flock arrives iv Yambirrigu (fish)
vii Daybreak viii. Dhambul (feathered strings)
ix Daybreak x Dhambul (feathered strings)
xi* Brolgas coming from Warkala
xii Dhambul (feathered strings)
xiii Still coming from Warkala, Ramiyu and Karangarri
xiv Dhambul (feathered strings)
xv Daybreak
xvi* Dhambul ('stand them up', that is hold up the sticks by which the feathered strings are hoisted)
xvii Brolgas coming from Warkala
xviii Dhambul
xix Brolgas coming from Warkala
xx* Dhambul
xxi Brolgas coming ('finish')
xxii Dhambul ('finish')
Asterisks mark the first items in tracks 1-5.

Dancers performed solo, in pairs and more often as a group. Fifteen or more men could be seen following one another in circular formation or advancing, side by side, in a line with bird-like hops, arms outstretched like wings. Their chirping sounds intermingle with the bird-call refrains of the singers.

Women and girls watched but did not take part in the performance.

Many bystanders contributed to the general atmosphere of excitement and their asides and high-pitched communications are to be heard in the recording.

After the concluding items by each clan ( xxi and xxii), voices can be heard calling out that the performance had finished. In answer to my inquiry, after the corroboree was over, I was told that there was 'no special song to finish; they just leave it'. This remark is to be contrasted with the information given to me concerning the last item or manbadjan in the Western Arnhem Land Blue Tongue corroboree. See disc 1, Track 2.

The three men who sang for the Brolga corroboree (Tracks 1-5) are heard to better advantage as soloists in tracks 6, 7 and 9.

Among these New Brolga 'finders' there appeared to be a free exchange of songs. On Groote Eylandt in 1962 Arrama performed some of Ngardhangi's songs. The following year at Numbulwar, Gulundu sang Brolga songs composed or 'found' by Ngardhangi, Arrama and another singer, Dabulu.

Track Number Track Title Track Time Notes
Brolga i-v (Numbulwar 1963) 0:06:03 Brolga corroboree sung by Gulundu, Ngardhangi and Arrama with Rimili (didjeridu), items i-v (Brolga items alternate with Fish and Feathered Strings items sung by Larangana and Djingudi with Rimili)
Brolga vi-x (Numbulwar 1963) 0:05:58 Didjeridu by: Rimili
Brolga xi-xv (Numbulwar 1963) 0:06:02 Didjeridu by: Rimili
Brolga xvi-xix (Numbulwar 1963) 0:04:39 Didjeridu by: Rimili
Brolga xx-xxii (Numbulwar 1963) 0:03:37 Didjeridu by: Rimili
Brolga i-ii sung by Arrama with Mungayana (didjeridu) (Groote Eylandt 1962) 0:03:33 Didjeridu by: Mungayana. Arrama, who was the finder of these two Brolga items, happened to be visiting Groote Eylandt at the time this recording was made. His performance drew a large crowd of young Groote Eylandters some of whom were heard singing Brolga songs the following day as they splashed about in the Angurugu River. Arrama usually commenced the Brolga 'cry' at a high volume, producing a piercing nasal quality. The two main sections of the melody, each punctuated with bird-like trills of long, then shorter duration, span only a fifth, but the opening 'cry' well exceeds an octave. The question as to the connection between this Eastern Arnhem Land innovation and the descending vocal glides of some Western Arnhem Land singers is easier to pose than to answer with certainty. Like those of the other Brolga singers, Arrama's items are about these grey cranes flying in the hot sun from Karangarri, their ancestral home. Their calls are to be heard as they fly to and fro. The contrast in these Brolga songs between wordless vocalising and rapidly enunciated syllables has no known Australian parallel. The didjeridu accompaniment played by Mungayana (b. 1946) commences with a shortllong metrical pattern which may be in deliberate imitation of the bird's gait. The same type of patterning is to be heard in the Balamumu (Yolngu) Brolga song (Track 12). It should be noted here that, unlike other Eastern Arnhem Land items, the New Brolga samples sung by Arrama and Ngardhangi (see below) commence with the didjeridu (compare Western Arnhem Land items on disc 1).
Brolga i-ii sung by Gulundu with Magun (didjeridu) (Numbulwar 1963) 0:02:23 Didjeridu by: Magain. Gulundu's large song repertoire included not only Brolga and other clan songs, but also Madayin or special ritual songs performed with stickbeating accompaniment only. As heard here, his voice is strident, though controlled, and his enunciation of song words clear and precise. Some of the words in Gulundu's Brolga songs are to be heard spoken in Track 13a (see below). It will be noted that the spoken version does not follow the sung order which, except in the case of a refrain, is likely to change with each performance. The first item, Gulundu's own find, was said by others to be in the 'old Brolga' style, a comment clearly borne out by the singer's obvious preference for a more conventional musical style, especially his continued singing after the accompanying instruments had stopped (UVT). The absence of a vocalised introduction in these items is in keeping with this style.
(a)Brolga i-ii Didjeridu Only (b)Mouth Sounds by Magun (Numbulwar 1963) 0:01:08 Didjeridu by: Magun. The didjeridu Ihambilbig demonstration recorded here was in answer to a request to reproduce the previous Brolga accompaniment but without the singer's collaboration. During his playing, Magun (b. 1943) may be heard tapping his fingernail against the tube of his instrument. In a song performance, these taps would have been in time with the singer's stick beats. As a demonstrator of didjeridu-talk (mouth-sounds), Magun also showed admirable rhythmic control; and, unlike many others, managed to complete his first attempt without laughing.
(a) Brolga sung by Ngardhangi with Mungayana. (didjeridu) (b) Didjeridu only (c) Mouth sounds (Numbulwar 1963) 0:03:55 Didjeridu by: Mungayana. According to more than one Nunggubuyu singer at that time, Ngardhangi was the best performer of Brolga songs. And although a certain uniformity persists throughout all contemporary or 'new Brolga' performances, Ngardhangi's contributions carry the mark of an individual musician. His timing of the 'cry', after a very long didjeridu introduction, is notable. The bird-like trills are delicately executed and there is less of a contrast between the 'cry' and the singing.
(a) Feathered Strings sung by Larangana with Mungayana. (didjeridu) (b) Didjeridu only (c) Mouth sounds by Mungayana (d) Mouth sounds by Larangana (Numbulwar 1963) 0:01:24 Didjeridu by: Mungayana. The Dhambul (Feathered String) sample belongs to a Murungun clan series. According to the story, a string, entwined with feathers, was held by two ancestral birds underneath which the others passed. Larangana's items (10a and 10d) are similar in style to those he contributed to the corroboree series (tracks 1-5). In his separate didjeridu demonstration, Mungayana gives a brilliant display of musically appropriate accompanying patterns. These are followed by a short demonstration by each performer of the mouth techniques employed (10c and 10d). Larangana's mouth sound demonstration indicates clearly that clan singers are not only well-practised in words and tunes, but in the techniques of associated didjeridu accompaniments as well.
(a) Morning Star sung by Gabuyingi with Dagdag (didjeridu); (b) Pigeon (i) Gabuyingi with Dagdag; (c) Pigeon (ii) Gabuyingi with Dagdag; (d) Didjeridu only by Dagdag (Numbulwar 1963) 0:04:05 Didjeridu by: Dagdag. The contributors tracks 11 &12 belong to a group of Yolngu people, known in the east as the Balamumu. As previously mentioned they were living at the time at Numbulwar in a camp adjacent to the Nunggubuyu folk. According to the words of the Barnumbirr (Morning Star) item (Track 11a), sung by the Djapu singer, Gabuyingi (b. 1933), the star is seen passing over a number of familiar places. In the refrain, the words birrirri birrirri birrirri indicate the twinkling of the star. Pigeon (nhapalawul or gukuk) (Tracks 11b and 11c) is about the mother bird teaching her young to talk and fly. A change in the didjeridu's pitch (and therefore in instrument) occurs between the first and second Pigeon items. The substitution of another didjeridu here has not noticeably affected the pitch of the singer's voice. For the solo demonstration (Track 11d), the player reverts to the first instrument. This switch from one accompanying instrument to another would have not occurred in Western Arnhem Land where the didjeridu is selected primarily to match the pitch range of the singer's song (in Eastern Arnhem Land, another instrument may be substituted if its blowing end fits more comfortably round the player's mouth). The Yolngu word for didjeridu is yidaki.
(a) Brolga (i) by Gabuyingi with Dagdag (didjeridu); (b) Brolga (ii) by Gabuyingi with Dagdag (didjeridu); (c) Didjeridu and mouth sounds 0:03:33 Didjeridu by: Dagdag. Gabuyingi's Brolga items (wuraywuray) bear little melodic resemblance to the Nunggubuyu Brolga songs of tracks 6-9. The didjeridu part, which is played in the classic walking rhythm (also known to Nunggubuyu Brolga accompanists) is here executed with the poise and spring of a lively dance step. Didjeridu accompanist, Jimmy Dagdag (b. 1938), an exuberant musician with a talent for showmanship, complied with the mouth sounds request with enthusiasm, winning riotous appreciation from the children.
Song words spoken by Gamargadada for Track 7 Brolga i-ii; by Bagalangai for Track 12a Morning Star 0:01:25 Some of the words from songs recorded at Numbulwar (Tracks 7 and 12) are here spoken by two men representing each group. Gamargadada, a Nunggubuyu speaker, knew many of the local Brolga songs. Bagalangai was a clan singer from further north.

Copyright 2002-2006 J.H. Burrows and Peter Lister