musical styles/genres of the region
This is a summary of the major traditional musical
styles (genres, if you like) within the Top End. Within these
major genres, there are smaller divisions that relate to music
of a ceremonial nature. It is neither my place nor my intention
to discuss any of these. My comments here are based upon my
own observations and drawn from a range of other materials,
most of which are listed in the References
& Discography, and discuss
mainly the technical and structural differences between/within
genres. I do not discuss the music of the Tiwi of Bathurst
and Melville Islands.
society is purely oral, written song texts and notation are
non-existent and so music is learnt in an informal fashion
(mostly experiential) and passed on. Depending upon the type
of music, the content may vary over time, though sometimes
it's surprising how similar pieces are despite the reliance
upon memory. Variation is allowed, in fact, in some styles
of music improvisation is the norm, but always around a set
of underlying parameters. Different songs and different contexts
allow for differing degrees of variation from this strict
base. Only in more esoteric/inside music are the rules not
to be broken (Stubington,
To quote West
(1963) in reference to traditional performers in Arnhem land,
"Western songmen and didjeridu pullers are complimented
for strong, penetrating tonal production, accurate memory
and smooth transitions. Eastern songmen are complimented for
poetic feeling and both they and the didjeridu pullers for
overall musical sense and coherent rhythmic structure. Usually
both western and eastern Arnhem Landers sing with a slightly
forced voice and half-closed throat. An appreciative listener
will say of a western virtuoso, "He has a good throat!" but
of the easterner, "He has a good head!"".
and Elkin (1979,
and dance the significance of the individual is not blurred.
He transmits, modifies and produces. The songman, in particular,
is a symbol od individuality and originality. But didjeridu
players and dancers are also valued for their individual skills
and virtuosity, and have opportunities to exhibit their powers.
We can therefore speak of a tradition of individual gifts,
skill and ownership."
A typical performance
will consist of one or more singers (one of whom is the lead
songman), each with a pair of sticks
or something else percussive (at times makeshift) and one
didjeriduist. Some genres of music
do not use didjeridu, but where used, only one is ever
played at a time. If for some reason a didjeriduist is unavailable,
the piece can still be performed.
3. Traditional music styles/genres
in the Top End of the Northern Territory
= Darwin) and red dots
match those of Map 2.
Base maps; LM West, (1963), Arnhem Land Popular Classics
notes and Morphy,
H. (1991) Ancestral Connections.
your cursor over the map - wherever the cursor appears
- clicking this symbol will allow
you to hear a sample of the style of music from that
- clicking this symbol will allow
you to hear a solo didjeridu sample from that region
sound files are Real Audio files (*.ram format) - if
you have trouble
playing them, you can download the free Real One Player
Map 3. summarises
the appoximate distribution of the three major music styles
(genres) within the region, viz; Wangga (often spelt
Wongga, esp. in older texts), Kun-borrk (often spelt
Gunborg, esp. in older texts) and Bunggul (or Bungurl,
Bunggal, or Bungle). 'A-type' and 'B-type' (see
Variations in didjeridu style and playing) refer to the type of didjeridu accompaniment within
each music style. As is readily seen 'A-type' accompaniments
occur over much of the area from the Kimberley east through
western and central Arnhem Land and southeast into the Gulf
country. 'B-type' didjeridu accompaniments are restricted
to central and eastern Arnhem Land and Groote Eylandt. The
black, sinuous line marks the northeastern portion of Arnhem
Land and in this case defines the eastern and southern boundaries
of the Yolngu cultural bloc. In
central Arnhem Land, both 'A-type' and 'B-type' accompaniments
are used. Please note that since Wests' original study, these
boundaries may have shifted with the movement of people between
settlements and the exchange of songs/music/ceremony.
Wangga style music
traditionally occurred southwest of a line running from the
mouth of the South Alligator River southeast towards Ngukurr,
south as far as the Katherine region and west into the Kimberley.
Elkin (1979, p. 290) describes
the characteristic long, high sung note at the beginning after
which the 'song' commences with stick beats and didjeridu,
typical of many Wangga pieces, and he says "...starts as
a sudden high note, then descends in regular intervals to
a low pitch, after which the songman just beats his sticks
to the accompaniment of the didjeridu. Twenty seconds or more
later, the melody is sung as before and so on...". 'Lyrics'
for these songs often consist largely of syllables.
As a general rule,
Wangga songs start with didjeridu, are followed by the vocals
and sticks, sometimes the sticks entering last. In the Kimberley,
the order may be quite different; sticks, then voice and finally
didjeridu. When the song finishes, it's usually the didjeridu
or vocals that cease first, sometimes they cease simultaneously,
but most commonly the vocals and sticks finish later and in
that order. The stick beating never finishes first. The didjeridu
never starts last or finishes last.
from the Northern Territory, Vol. 1, tracks 7, 12, 13(b)
music occurs east of a line running from the Adelaide River
southeast towards Katherine. Its' eastern boundary is just
east of the Mann River and southeast almost to Rose River,
then along the Gulf coastline beyond Borroloola. Kun-borrk
music contains actual song words. Often there are designated
breaks in songs where all the performers stop briefly, then
almost always (with the exception of a particular regional
variant) start with the didjeridu and are soon followed by
sticks and vocals in that order. There are songs where didjeridu
and voice or didjeridu and sticks start together, followed
by sticks and voice respectively. Kun-borrk songs from Kunbarllanjnja
(Gunbalanya) almost always follow the order of didjeridu,
voice then sticks. Kun-borrk songs terminate most commonly
with the didjeridu first, often in conjunction with vocals.
Sometimes the vocals finish first, then the didjeridu finishes
and finally the sticks. On rare occasions the didjeridu and
sticks finish and the vocals finish a short time after - similar
to an unaccompanied vocal termination (UVT).
The didjeridu never starts last or finishes last.
from the Northern Territory, Vol. 1, tracks 2, 4, 6(a)
Bunggul style music
is performed east of the Mann River almost as far south as
Mainoru and southeast through the Rose River region to Numbulwar.
Bunggul also contains specific song words and structure, and
often there is a "final recitative" - where lyrics are sung
in a prolonged manner well after the didjeridu and stick beating
has ceased. Moyle refers to this as an Unaccompanied Vocal
Termination (UVT). Some songs
tell of epic journeys of individuals during the ancestral
past (dreaming) - for example, one song series from NE Arnhem
Land consists of 188 songs totalling some 90 printed pages
(Elkin, 1979, p 304.).
Others, such as those belonging to the Djatpangarri
style, are of everyday events. The lyrics of Bunggul music
are fundamentally different and can vary from performance
to performance - the songman and didjeriduist improvise within
a variable structure of patterns. The dance leader, or more
correctly the ritual leader, choreographs not only the dancers,
but also the music, rather than the lead songman (as is often
the case in western Arnhem Land).
from the Northern Territory, Vol. 3, tracks 9, 11, 12