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May 11, 2006

Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

Didjeridu & Traditional Music of the Top End
The content of this page was originally created by Peter Lister

Song Types in the Top End

Please note that this is a brief introduction only.

To gain greater insight and understanding of song structure and application it is recommended the reader consult some of the references listed - such as that of Keen, 1994.

Songs across the Top End are richly varied and strikingly contrasting in their content. Moyle identifies three main categories of song: Cult, Clan and Individually-owned songs.

Cult songs are those which relate the activities of particular ancestral creators and the paths they undertook in their travels and creative acts. The performance of the songs is a means by which ancestral power may be manifest, and so cult songs are often performed during cermony/ritual of a secret or "inside" nature where only individiuals of a particular status may be privy. Such music will not be discussed here. It should be noted that the didjeridu is not used in much of this music.

Clan songs are usually owned and performed by a particular clan group. The songs are associated with clan estates and mythology, the subject matter associated with ancestral events in that tract of land. Closely related clans may share such songs and share the performance on certain occasions. In northeastern Arnhem Land, clan songs are known as manikay, on Groote Eylandt, as emeba. Clan songs may also relate to recent historical events associated with clan land. Songs relating everyday events may include topics such as boats, aircraft, bulldozers or film characters - events that are a part of the recent history of an area, or historical events of an earlier era, such as makassan contact eg: knives, tobacco, alcohol and flags. Such songs may also encompass topics of a social nature, such as love and illicit relationships. Good examples of these song subjects abound in the Djatpangarri (djedbangari) style of music from northeastern Arnhem Land, specifically the Yirrkala region. According to Moyle, this music and dance style are relatively recent and are attributed to a well-known, now deceased, Gumatj clansman. This style of song characteristically lacks the Unaccompanied Vocal Termination (UVT) common to many of the songs in northeastern Arnhem Land. Often the same words appear in each djatpangarri song but are interpreted differently by the same songman at different times. "The musical content and form are the significant factor; the dances and onlookers put the interpretation into them" (Elkin, 1979, p.292).

Individually-owned songs appear to be more common in the western Arnhem Land where particular songmen may be held in high esteem for their ability to "dream" such songs as a result of sleeping upon or near the grave of the deceased. Often such songs are inherited from ones fathers' line or older male relatives.

Music in ceremony - form and content...
As mentioned above, some songs are of an "inside" nature, that is, the content is of an esoteric nature and is restricted to those individuals of a particular social/religious status. In Top End songs, the boundaries between these categories are not always well defined, and what may be "outside" on one occasion, may become "inside" at some later time. Context is an important component in this regard and plays a large role in determing the content of a performance. But of course, like most things in life, it's usually more complex than that. The content and form of ceremony determines the establishment and maintenance of differences between groups, or serves to deny differences between groups that share common ancestral elements (Keen, 1994). The same song may be performed for both an "inside" ceremony and an "outside" ceremony, but the actual content of each may differ in each of these performances, yet the subject matter, name and underlying structure may be apparently the same. Particular song words can be changed to reflect the appropriateness of the piece, or to add to it with a particular intent in mind.

Ian Keen gives an excellent example of clan song in Eastern Arnhem Land:

"What was it, though, that was owned or shared? It would be a formidable task to try to specify just what made a performance a song of Honeybee group rather than Black Duck. But briefly, whether they were shared or not, equivalent to other groups or separate, certain attributes of a group's songs were relatively invariant; these included the contour of a tune, clapstick rhythm, topic, the repertoire of song words and phrases on which singers drew, and proper names. However, the ability of individuals to innovate and improvise implies the generation of new forms.

Yolngu emphasized tradition and the need to follow (dhudakthun) both immediate ancestral and wangarr [totemic ancestor] precedent, yet ceremonies were inherently improvisatory and contextually determined. Moreover, Yolngu effected a nice compromise between individual autonomy and group co-operation, and between group identity and inter-group collaboration. Co-performers of garma [public] songs beat clapsticks in unison and roughly followed the same melodic outline or a variant of it, yet each improvised from an encyclopaedia of appropriate expressions. Members of different groups who shared identical melodies and clapstick rhythms would sit and sing together the part they shared, diverging for other series, or sing snatches with each other's tunes. Or singers of one language would pause while a singer of a different tongue would insert part of his own equivalent series. Here similarity of song amounted to a common name (translated from one language to another) or equivalent names (such as varieties of catfish) together with the kinds of things sung."

In Western Arnhem Land songs tend to be of a longer duration, but the lyrical content quite different;

" In western Arnhem Land, on the other hand, they are usually very short, consisting of four or five words which provide a key to the meaning, or rather meanings, for these may be both patent and latent." Elkin (1979, p. 291).

The Songman

Here I quote Clunies Ross & Mundrugmundrug (1988), describing Goyulan clan songs, as they provide a concise description of the songman's role in Arnhem Land song;

" this part of Australia and in practice only a few men in any generation are recognised singers. These performers are specialists. First they have to keep in mind all the customary song words and melodic phrases appropriate to about thirty different song subjects. Then they must be able to perform them, often for quite long stretches of time, improvising the combination of customary phrases, rather like a jazz singer does, in short verses of set structure. Another skill the singer has to master is the performance of continuous and variable rhythmic patterns to accompany each song subject, which he beats out on a pair of hardwood clapsticks. Then he has to work cooperatively with a didjeridu player, whom he directs and who provides him with a steady drone on the pipe plus a series of rhythmic hoots on the overtone. Finally, the singer (or singers) must be able to direct and work cooperatively with groups of dancers and have knowledge of the whole repertoire of rituals that clans songs accompany."

The "UVT"
Characteristic of some northeast Arnhem Land songs is an Unaccompanied Vocal Termination (UVT) This is a term used by Moyle to refer to the leading songmen's termination of the song by sustained singing following the cessation of both sticks and didjeridu. Jones (1956) refers to this as a "unaccompanied recitative" and Elkin (1979, pp.291, 292) as a "final recitative' or "concluding recitative". Excellent examples of this are demonstrated on Moyles' Songs from the Northern Territory Vol 3, Track 11 and Vol. 4 track 1.




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