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Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

Songs From the Northern Territory 4: Aboriginal Music From North-Eastern Arnhem Land Including Groote Eylandt
Alice Moyle
Label Information:
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS): AIAS 4 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 at Milingimbi and Yirrkala in the north-eastern sector and at Angurugu and Umbakumba on Groote Eylandt.

The Aboriginal communities at Milingimbi and Yirrkala, together with the people at Galiwin'ku (previously known as Elcho Island) have been referred to in the anthropological literature as the Murngin (WL Warner) and Wulamba (RM Berndt). More recently, they have become known as the Yolngu, from a local word meaning 'people'.

The people on Groote Eylandt were known by mainland groups as the Wayingurra and their language, Ingurra. In the absence of a name for the Groote Eylandters, Warnindilyakwa, a name formerly given to one of the larger clans on the island, is sometimes used. Anindilyakwa is the name of the island language.

Item characteristics of Eastern Arnhem Land clan songs performed and recorded in the 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 this disc (Track 1) and disc 3 (Track 11).

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.

On Groote Eylandt (tracks 7-13), only the first three of the above characteristics are to be heard. There is no occurrence of the UVT in these items but the following additional characteristics distinguish emeba (Groote Eylandt clan songs) from manikay (north-eastern Arnhem Land clan songs):

  1. the shaky voice, a deliberate manner of vocal ornamentation used by some emeba singers;
  2. the break or brief cessation of the vocal part of a Groote Eylandt clan song which is signalled by certain words the singer chooses to sing (the song subject at this point may fall, swoop down, or change abruptly in some way-it was said that the break gives the singer time to decide which words to sing next);
  3. a short, patterned interplay between sticks and didjeridu during the break; and
  4. the general clatter of stick-beating percussion arising from several different sources at the same time.

Further comparison of emeba and manikay reveals that, whereas the durations of the latter are usually about one minute or less, emeba items may last for more than two minutes each.

Track Number Track Title Track Time Notes
(a) Clouds (i-ii); (b) North Wind (i-ii); (c) White Cockatoo (i-ii); (d) Brown Hawk (i-ii); (e) Emu sung by Djawa with Dhalnganda (didjeridu) (Milingimbi 1963) 0:07:10 Didjeridu by: Dhalnganda. The song session performed by Djawa (b. 1905) has been reproduced here almost in its entirety. The singer was also a leading dancer and bark-painter. His clear enunciation and authorative singing style will be noted. Dhalnganda (b. 1927), a GaIpu man of the opposite moiety (Dhuwa) was his didjeridu accompanist. Items in this series would be sung during a Hollow Log ceremony, Djalambu, one of the final acts in Yirritja mourning rites. Some of the Warramiri words in Djawa's items for Clouds (mangan) and North Wind (dirrmala), are similar to those in the North Wind song by the woman Bambay (disc 3, Track 3a). The clouds which send the north wind rise from the water full of rain. The screeching White Cockatoo (dan-gi) is 'not afraid of anything', and Brown Hawk (wopulu) hunts in 'white man's country' looking for fish offal. In the Emu (wurrpan) song, reference is made to the bird as the maker of spears, 'because he walks on spears'.
(a) White Cockatoo; (b) White Stork (i-ii) sung by Bongawuy with Darringguwuy (didjeridu) (Milingimbi 1962) 0:01:00 Didjeridu by: Darringguwuy. At the time these recordings were made, Bongawuy (b. 1922), a leading clan singer, performed frequently at Milingimbi during song ceremonies connected with the Gupapuyngu (Yirritja moiety) group. Despite differences in the song words there can be little doubt that, compared with Djawa's items (Track 1c), Bongawuy's White Cockatoo is intended to be melodically similar. According to the words of the first item in this second track, White Cockatoo (dan-gi) likes the south wind because it 'ruffles his feathers and blows his comb over'. White Stork (gananhdharr) is about the Yirritja stork (white) and the Dhuwa stork (black) who stood together in the water looking for fish. It will be noted that the style adopted by his didjeridu accompanist, Darringguwuy (b. 1925), changes markedly in Track 2b where the upfigure, a quick slur from lower tone to upper, is liberally used.
(a) Nalpa (i-iii); (b) Wilata (i-ii) sung by Mutpu, Buramin and Bunbatjiwuy with Durmarriny (didjeridu) (Milingimbi 1962) 0:05:05 Didjeridu by: Durmarriny. This Dhuwa sequence of three Nalpa (black sea bird or plover) items, performed by a small group of men, was led by Mutpu (b. 1924) who sang the first item alone. Song representations of bird chatter are among the repeated words in these items; also the call of the Melville Island friar-bird (wilata), as it dances to the sounds (ye-e-e gitja). Successive vocal entries into these song items produce a polyphonic effect.
Song Words For Track 1c White Cockatoo and 1e Emu Song spoken by Gungupun (Milingimbi 1963) 0:01:01  
(a) Seagull (i-iv) sung by Mathaman with Milirrpum (b) Didjeridu only, played by Milirrpum (Yirrkala 1962) 0:04:14 Didjeridu by: Milirrpum. Track 5a: Recorded at Yirrkala in 1962, Mathaman (b. 1920) of the Rirratjingu-speaking clan sang four items associated with his clan's territory and with Seagull (djarrak). Numerous place names in the region are among the song words for these items. In the third item, where there are more than 10 place names, the significance of this is musically apparent. The singer adopts here a recitative style, beating his song sticks at a faster rate, while the didjeridu player, Milirrpum (b. 1927), produces slow, uniform sounds like the tolling of a bell (compare this with the didjeridu in discs 1 (Track 8) and 3 Track 2). The singer then proceeds-without a break-into the contrasting tune of the fourth item in which the names of both Seagull and East Wind (compare this with Mawalan's songs, disc 3, tracks 6-13) are enunciated. Track 5b: The finger tapping against the wooden tube in Milirrpum's didjeridu demonstration is clearly audible in this track.
(a) 'Makassan' song words spoken by Mawalan (Yirrkala 1962); (b) Djatpangarri: Butterfly sung by Galarrwuy with Mulung; (c) Djatpangarri: Cora sung by Galarrwuy with Mulung; (d) Wandjuk talks about the ship, Cora (Yirrkala 1963) 0:03:22 Didjeridu by: Wandjuk Marika. Track 6a: Heard here is the speaker's recollection of an incantation believed to have been chanted or recited by Makassan fishermen prior to their annual departure from north Australian shores many years ago. These words were interpreted as having been sung by the Makassans 'as they pulled the mast from the boat and put it on the deck'. They then took up the anchor in readiness for their homeward voyage. Track 6b and 6c: Galarrwuy (b. 1948) sings here two samples of Djatpangarri, a type of dance song popular with young Yolngu men. (See also disc 3, Track 12.) The first item which consists only of formalised dance words, was called Butterfly (bonba). The second which refers to the Cora, the delayed supply boat, is explained in Track 6d below by Wandjuk (b. 1927) who was Galarrwuy's didjeridu accompanist for this recording. Track 6d: Wandjuk talks about the song, Cora as follows: That song is Cora. The same man, Dambijawa, made that song because we were waiting for such a long time for our cargo to bring in from Brisbane to Melville Bay. And that why he worry. And then he made up song.
Eagle (i-ii) sung by Nanggabirrima with Bayema (didjeridu) (Angurugu, Groote Eylandt 1962) 0:03:41 Didjeridu by: Bayema. Many emeba singers used the shaky voice style at the time these recordings were made. It was said that this can make the throat itchy and that younger singers sometimes had difficulty in maintaining it. Nanggabirrima (b. 1910), singer of Sea Eagle (yinungwakarda), was singled out as one capable of 'doing that mamura (voice) all the time'. The break in this item occurs just after Nanggabirrima sings of this bird's swoop down to the sea for a catch. The didjeridu player, Bayema (b. 1929), changes his drone-style at this point and performs, in combination with the singer's stick beats, a short interlude in which the upper tone is heard in the item for the first time. Notable in Nanggabirrima's second Eagle item is the gradual rise in vocal pitch, an idiosyncrasy observed in other performances by this same singer. See notes below.
(a) Stingray sung by Nanggalilya with Negabanda (didjeridu); (b) Curlew sung by Nagulabena (Gula) with Nanigila (didjeridu) (Angurugu, Groote Eylandt 1962) 0:04:33 Didjeridu by: Negabanda & Nanigila. Track 8a: Round Stingray (yimaduwaya) was recorded at the Bagot Reserve near Darwin where the Groote Eylandt singer Nanggalilya (b. 1937) was temporarily living. The slow, gliding tune with its unusually wide compass was known on the island as New Stingray. It was composed by Nagulabena (Gula), leading singer of the Warnungwamadada clan to which Nanggalilya also belonged. The fathers of the two men were brothers. The words of the continuing refrain nawerruwerrukwayinamurra kwija Arrindingmanja yangi ('see them pass one another at Arrinding' (JS)) refer to a place on the Angurugu River shared by the stingrays with Sawfish who carved out the river. Track 8b: Like the Stingray song, Curlew (duwalya), sung by its owner Gula (b. 1925), has a repetitious verbal refrain. Its stylised melody had been previously used, it was said, for a song in the Nunggubuyu language. A leaping didjeridu accompaniment continues throughout and the break occurs after the words ngarningka numerrumungkwada waruma ('the tops of their wings are twisted again' (JS)). See notes below.
(a) Dugong sung by Nangarunga with Muganga (didjeridu); (b) Night sung by Man-gwida with India (didjeridu) (Umbakumba, Groote Eylandt 1962) 0:03:19 Didjeridu by: Muganga & India. Track 9a: Nangarunga (b. 1933) sings Dugong (dfinungkwulangwa) to a tune composed by Wanaya (see Track 10). The words are about Dugong following the tide and making the water muddy as he feeds in the shallows. Track 9b: Night (marringa) is sung here by Man-gwida (b. 1924). His song refers to the coming of Night which gradually spreads and 'covers us like a blanket'. The tune was made by Man-gwida's brother. The singer's 'shaky voice' style is pronounced. It will be noticed that the didjeridu accompaniment continues for some time after the voice has stopped. At the conclusion of the original recording, the player laughed saying he 'didn't know how to make it stop'. See notes below.
(a) Seaweed sung by Wanaya with Nanigila (didjeridu); (b) West Wind sung by Wanaya with Nanigila (didjeridu); (c) Didjeridu only by Nanigila; (d) Aeroplane sung by Murrbuda with Nanbungwa; (e) Didjeridu only by Nanbungwa (Angurugu, Groote Eylandt 1963) 0:04:40 Didjeridu by: Nanigila & Nanbungwa. Track 10a: Unlike the majority of Groote Eylandt singers, who sang with their heads down, Wanaya (b. 1916) sang with his head up, turning it from side to side, his 'shaky voice' sounding well above the rest. The words of Seaweed (marrakwa) contain a description of a piece of black tree coral dragging backwards and forwards in the tide, the midsong break occurring when it becomes buried in the sand. Track 10b: The subject of this song is West Wind (yinungkwura), the monsoonal wind which brings the clouds and ushers in the wet season. During Wanaya's singing of this item, percussive beats came from four different sources: two men with paired sticks seated near the singer, the leading singer himself and the didjeridu player beating a small stick against the tube of his instrument. On this occasion the distal end of the didjeridu (yiraga) was placed in a wooden box. Occasionally a bucket was used. Formerly a bailer shell served the purpose. Track 10c: The didjeridu accompaniment played by Nanigila (b. 1934) demonstrates a pattern with three stick beats to each duple swing of the didjeridu rhythm. The instrumental change brought about by the song's break is also heard here. Track 10d: Aeroplane is sung by Murrbuda (b. 1934) to his own tune. The song tells of an aeroplane climbing in the sky and travelling fast. Two aeroplanes are seen. They separate and fly off and these words signal the formal break by the singer. It should be noted here that the refrain word gabala (kabala) occurs in a Yolngu song, Ship (disc 3, Track 10), where it has also been translated as 'boat'. Track 10e: In the short didjeridu demonstration which concludes this group, Nanbungwa (b. 1947) chooses to omit the slurred upfigures used in his accompaniment to Aeroplane. See notes below.
(a) Dove sung by Barenggwa with Murrbuda (didjeridu); (b) East Wind sung by Bugwanda with Bayema (didjeridu); (c) Caterpillar sung by Budjura (Angurugu, Groote Eylandt 1963) 0:03:28 Didjeridu by: Murrbuda & Bayema. Track 11a: Believed to have created parts of Groote Eylandt, the Ancestral Dove (darrawurukukwa)-who could be one or manywas also a maker of string. In this song by Barrenggwa (b. 1906), the reference to 'short lengths of string' (see song words below) suggests a connection with the north-eastern Arnhem Land myth about the morning star (barnumbirr). Morning Star was attached to a string and flown like a kite as far east as Burralku, the (Dhuwa) Island of the Dead. Short, supplementary lengths of string were joined to smaller replicas of the star allowing these to shine at the same time over less distant clan territories of the Dhuwa moiety. In this performance, Murrbuda's didjeridu accompaniment appears to be imitating the cooing sounds of a dove. Track 11b: The singer of East Wind (mamarika) is Bugwanda (b. 1910). The song refers to the wind which comes from a place in the east and covers the land with dust. Each line in this song is sung twice. The singer's rapid intakes of breath are clearly distinguishable and the accompaniment of stick beating and didjeridu displays the much-favoured composite rhythm of three-against-two. Track 11c: Caterpillar (yinikarrbiyama) sung by Badjura (b. 1904), eldest of the three senior singers, was judged to be 'a tricky song'. This caterpillar, the 'hairy one that stings', is associated with spears made from the hibiscus tree. See notes below.
(a) Seven Sisters; (b) Shark sung by Malkarri with Bayema (didjeridu) (Angurugu, Groote Eylandt 1963) 0:01:58 Didjeridu by: Bayema. Track 12a: Malkarri (b. 1910) was one of the singers CP Mountford recorded at Umbakumba, Groote Eylandt, during the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948. According to the song's story, the Seven Sisters (wurribirrimba) are rowing as these stars (the Pleiades) move up in the sky. They leave a silvery track behind them and make the east wind blow. Track 12b: In Shark (bankwuja), an account is given of the smooth, gliding movements of several sharks, their fins, their teeth and their steering tails. A comparison of Malkarri's Shark as he sang it in the 1960s with the earlier recording by CP Mountford, mentioned above, reveals that while his choice of song words tends to change from one performance to the next, the Shark tune and its refrain have remained constant. A reliable didjeridu accompanist, Bayema was often in demand at this time by clan singers of both moieties. See notes below.
Song Words For Track 10d Aeroplane and 11a Dove spoken by Nabilya (Angurugu, Groote Eylandt 1963) 0:01:10 Some of the words for Aeroplane (Track 10d) and Dove (Track 11a) are here spoken by Nabilya in the Anindilyakwa language. See notes below.

Tracks 7-13

The Groote Eylandt clan songs (emeba) selected for these tracks belong to seven of the fourteen clans in the region. The names of the clans to which they belong are listed below according to the two 'sides' or (unnamed) moieties:

Moiety 1 Songs
(West Wind 'side') Clans
Moiety 2 Songs
(East Wind 'side') Clans
West Wind Warnungwadarrbulangwa East Wind Warnindilyakwa
Seaweed Warnungwadarrbulangwa    
Dugong Warnungwadarrbulangwa    
Stingray Warnungwamadada Caterpillar Warnungwamakwula
Curlew Warnungwamadada Seven Sisters Warnungwamakwula
    Shark Warnungwamakwula
Eagle Warnungawerrikba Dove Warungwamakarjirrakba
Night Warnungawerrikba Aeroplane Wurraliliyanga

Songs about Aeroplane and Boat (mijiyanga) are shared by several Moiety 2 clans. These include the Warnungangurrkwurrikba, also called Durila or Durilyi, whose territory is on the north-eastern mainland near Caledon Bay and on Woodah Island.

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