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Nurturing the Sacred through Yolngu Popular Song

As you said earlier, Aaron, … your people want to know about this music because it’s contemporary or rock ’n’ roll. Well, we mix things too. We can mix clapsticks [bilma] and didjeridu [yidaki], our main instruments, and the lyrics of our songs [manikay]. See, if we want to make an album or write songs, then we are able to bring our cultural things to the rock ’n’ roll world. We can do that. You listen to Yothu Yindi [formed at Yirrkala in 1986]. You can listen to the heavy-metal Sunrize Band [formed at Maningrida in 1966]. They got their lyrics from their own private beliefs [madayin, or hereditary sacra] too but, as you asked, ‘Why are these traditional things mixed with rock ’n’ roll?’ Well, we want it that way. We want to satisfy the crowd with a favourite song so that people enjoy our music. (Neparr-nga 1997)

When is a popular song not a popular song? When is an anthemic rock ballad not an anthemic rock ballad? How can a musical format so familiar to majority consumer audiences worldwide be reinvented through its synthesis with sacred themes and materials—themes drawn from hereditary bodies of esoteric knowledge and ceremonial practice held in perpetuity by the Yolngu owners of northeast Arnhem Land?

The answers to these questions speak to the ability of local peoples to enlist commercial styles, instruments, and technologies in the expression of traditional concepts, values, and identities. They also reveal the skill and commitment of Yolngu commentators who have fostered musical creativity as a medium through which traditional conceptualizations of the sacred can be maintained and extended for the immediate enjoyment of audiences in their own remote communities.

Soft Sands, formed at Galiwin’ku in 1970, is one of Arnhem Land’s earliest popular bands. Its founding members innovatively adapted earlier models of gospel composition—introduced through the influence of Methodist missionaries—to the setting of new popular songs with lyrics in Yolngu-Matha, and regularly performed at evening gospel rallies during the Galiwin’ku Christian Revival of 1979–81. Soft Sands performed at the National Aboriginal Country Music Festival in 1980 and, with its tour to North America in 1982, was the first band from Arnhem Land to perform outside Australia.

The band’s name is itself a translation from Yolngu-Matha of Munatha Yandhala. The name describes the fine soft sands (yandhala) that cover the ground (munatha) at Yandhala, a coastal site on the island estate of Lunggutja, which was founded by Wangarr (progenitorial ancestors) of the band’s Birrkili Gupapuyngu members. Joe Neparrnga Gumbula joined Soft Sands as teenaged drummer/guitarist in 1971 after relocating to Galiwin’ku from Milingimbi where he had been raised. As one of the most influential Yolngu leaders of his generation, Neparr-nga’s late father, Djäwa, led performances of Gupapuyngu liturgy before Queen Elizabeth II during her first visit to Australia in 1954 and, in 1963, was filmed leading a Djalumbu dupun (hollow-log reinterment) ceremony by a research team from the newly-established Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra. (Holmes, dir. 1964) Neparrnga now maintains his father’s legacy as a learned and senior Yolngu leader, and has innovatively expressed his commitment to upholding this Yolngu heritage through his personal oeuvre of popular songs.

The song composed by Neparrnga in 1997 following his first visit to Djiliwirri, the forest estate inherited from his father through the Gaykamangu yarrata (patriline) and bestowed on the Daygurrgurr Gupapuyngu through the metaphysical agency of Wangarr, stands as his most profound and sophisticated. Ostensibly an anthemic rock ballad, “Djiliwirri” (Neparrnga & Ngan.ganharralil, 1997) alludes to the veiled core of hereditary sacra held in perpetuity by the Daygurrgurr Gupapuyngu. The song’s first verse recounts how, in 1997, Neparrnga sat at Ganbirr—the foundation site on Djiliwirri consecrated by honey bee—and heard the sacred names called by this progenitorial ancestor in its metaphysical act of consecration.

My Wangarr is from the paperbark tree [mayku] for I am a honey bee [birrkuda]. Djiliwirri is like a home. That’s where we belonged in ancestral times before everything started. That is the main area for the Gaykamangu. (Neparrnga, 1997)

This song also recounts the deeds of Nuwa, the captain of an ancestral pre-Macassan vessel whose failure to interest honey bee and dingo in the virtues of development after landing at Djiliwirri highlights Yolngu independence from foreign influence. (Keen, 1978) The second verse describes Nuwa’s use of an elongated metal crowbar to prise open the entrance of Djiliwirri’s foundation site, and the fiery sparks that were thrown into the distance and now lie embedded in the ground at Bungu as termite mounds. To some extent, this pointed articulation of Nuwa’s essential origins in hereditary sacra was designed to counter persistent Christian claims that, due to perfunctory similarities, the identities of this ancestor and the biblical Noah are somehow linked:

People have to see that Nuwa was around before the Bible came to northeast Arnhem Land with the missionaries. He was there during the creation [Wangarr] as well, and he is also involved with the Warramiri and the Dhalwangu. The Warramiri do part of this song [manikay] too and Djiliwirri is actually the place where Nuwa landed. Djiliwirri was there before anyone came here and it has this ancestral story [madayin]. Although this story is similar to the Bible’s, when Noah was building his Ark, it was here before the missionaries came. (Neparrnga 1997)

The music video for “Djiliwirri” demonstrates Neparrnga’s ability to apply knowledge in ceremonial practice as well as the connection between his own creative practice and his late father’s commanding appearance in the film Djalumbu decades earlier. Current generations of the Daygurrgurr gathered to film the music video on the same site at Milingimbi where Djalumbu was shot in 1963, and recreated specific scenes from the original film to show continuity between their contemporary knowledge and practice and that of their forebears under Djäwa’s leadership.

That Djalumbu ceremony was filmed in 1963 with my father [Djäwa] who, during that time, was the leader of the Daygurrgurr Gupapuyngu people. I called the [AIATSIS] archives in Canberra where they dubbed it for me from 16-mm to betacam and then sent it over to Darwin where I was editing my video clip. I’ve got footage of the Djalumbu from this old film, and added it to new technologies to show that that was the old time of Djalumbu and that this is the new time of Djalumbu. All the people who were in the film from 1963 are all gone. They’re all dead. So we, the people of this generation, have made another Djalumbu film, which is also in the video.
The actions in the video and the lyrics of the song follow the main story. It’s the roots [luku] of the story and the beginning of the creation. It follows the story but shows other things like me singing and the guitar solo. It then moves around with the children and the women dancing [bunggul]. That is part of the spiritual experience.
‘Wa’ is the sound of birrkuda (honey bee) heading into the paperbark [mayku]. That’s not a modern thing. It’s a traditional thing. I’ve combined and mixed it with rock but, really, it’s like bunggul [liturgical performance]. We do that in bunggul every time you see that ceremony. (Neparrnga 1997)

In one prominent set of scenes, Neparrnga and Walarri are back-to-back in mayku (paperbark tree) stance—legs apart with arms outstretched horizontally, like young initiands preparing to undergo initiation by circumcision (dhapi)—while a row of men bearing elongated digging sticks (ganiny) advances on them. As prescribed by the ancestral mokuy (ghost), Murayana, for the harvesting of honey (guku), these men thrust their ganiny toward Neparrnga’s abdomen and then into the milky bark of a large mayku.

Ganiny are traditional objects that reopen the script of the mayku. There is thousands and thousands of years of knowledge in the script of the mayku. That particular object, we use in dance for big ceremonies. It went through the mayku, and opened and split the mayku. In that dancing on the video clip, there were ganiny. First, I was there with the other singer, Walarri, standing back to back arms and legs outstretched like the mayku. We were pretending to do it as it’s done when young boys come around to their circumcision business [dhapi]. You know, they would bow, turn this way until the old people are ready—the authorized people [dalkarramirri]—and then they turn to look at the sacred objects from inside the mayku. The dancers then shoved that ganiny like a spear toward us and then toward the main paperbark tree. These are all traditional things for Gaykamangu people. (Neparrnga 1997)

Fundamentally, “Djiliwirri,” in both its song and video formats, is a brilliantly conceived tribute to the countless generations of late forebears and the Wangarr from whom the Daygurrgurr trace their descent, their hereditary ownership of Djiliwirri, and their most valued sacred properties. Its creators demonstrate that essential ancestral identities and values can effectively be upheld through strategies that allow for Yolngu engagement with foreign media and technologies. They do not conform to mounting external pressures to bring their traditional economic, executive, and religious practices into line with those of Australia’s English-speaking majority. “Djiliwirri” has not as yet been released for commercial distribution. Yolngu leaders remain uncomfortable with the commercialization of creative works so deeply rooted in madayin even though the successful creation of a global market for their visual arts over recent decades indicates that the key to cultural and economic sustainability for their remote communities lies in this direction.

A transparent and ethically sound process through which master works like “Djiliwirri” were distributed and interpreted faithfully for audiences worldwide could yield similar benefits for their originators both in raw economic terms and in an increased appreciation for the beauty and integrity of their creative endeavors. But the most immediate value of works such as “Djiliwirri” and its forerunner Djalumbu is the effectiveness with which they sustain, champion, and extend local discourse into the sacred and essential ancestral foundations of human existence even in the face of social change, and provide future generations with authoritative conceptual and performative models for its expression.

Traditionally, the songs that we play, we get from our ground [munatha] and people should understand that. We are getting it from our traditional lands but we’re taking your balanda manikay [Europeanized songs] … and introducing these European instruments. That’s what I’m saying through my song here. It’s all part of the story. That’s what our old people are satisfied by nowadays. During their time, it was very strict. I could not have sung “Djiliwirri” with guitar. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have played this “Djiliwirri” but now those older people are gone. We’ve got a little bit of responsibility now and are authorized to sing because of the other influences coming here: too many radios and too many tape recorders. You don’t want to listen to them and their music. Their music is not teaching you. We’ll make your music. Listen to your traditional music so that this generation of children will learn something. That’s not an education but what we’re doing is an education. We’re giving it our own values so that our songs are educational. I wouldn’t have written this “Djiliwirri” twenty years ago; no. My father or my grandfather [father’s father] would have said, “No, this one will be done only on bilma [paired sticks] and yidaki [didjeridu], and it remains that way.” This new “Djiliwirri” happened because of new generations’ experiences with changing technologies. I had to do this one for my countrymen. Djiliwirri is my tradition and my belief is there. (Neparr-nga 1997)

Aaron Corn will soon complete a Ph.D. through the Faculty of Music at the University of Melbourne. He lectures in Australian Indigenous Studies for the School of Anthropology, Geography and Environmental Studies with Professor Marcia Langton (Chair). Aaron has researched the creative development of popular bands in Arnhem Land, has investigated male youth culture in the region's southeast, and annually escorts his classes to the Garma Festival of Traditional Culture at Gulkula in the far northeast. Neparrnga Gumbula was raised at Milingimbi, Arnhem Land where began his musical career as a drummer for local bands in 1970. He relocated to Galiwin'ku in 1971 and joined his close kin in Soft Sands. With their encouragement, he began composing his own repertoire of popular songs with lyrics in Yolngu-Matha and English in 1985. Neparrnga is currently a senior dalkarramirri (learned) leader of the Daygurrgurr Gupupuyngu Yolngu. He carries the proud tradition of his late father, Djäwa (d. 1986), who was a longstanding leader of the Yolngu community at Milingimbi, and has been active in promoting Yolngu cultural maintenance both locally and in wider for a.

References & further reading

Holmes, C., dir. (1964). Djalambu [sic Djalumbu]. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Film 001.

Keen, I. (1978). “One Ceremony, One Song: An Economy of Religious Knowledge among the Yolngu of Northeast Arnhem Land.” Ph.D. thesis. Australian National University.

Neparrnga Gumbula, J. (1997, November 11-13). Taped interview with Aaron Corn. Galiwin’ku, Northern Territory.

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