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"The Tide has Gone Out on Him": Wangga songs, walakandha dances, and the etermal ebb and flow of existence

In June 1988, Martin Warrigal, a Marritjevin songman, took me to a "burn-im rag" ceremony in his ancestral country at Nadirri. It was only the second Aboriginal ceremony I had attended in the Daly region of northwest Australia--the previous month I had witnessed a public circumcision ceremony at Port Keats--and I had only the sketchiest of ideas about the ceremony’s significance. I knew that its purpose was to conduct the spirit of a recently deceased young Marritjevin woman from the world of the Living to that of the Dead by ritually burning her belongings and performing the correct songs and dances. I also understood that the songs and dances performed at the core of the ceremony were not the wangga songs and dances associated with the girl’s patrilineal inherited country around Nadirri--the land of her fathers--but rather djanba songs and dances associated with the Murrinhpatha country of her maternal relatives, which lies to the south of Nadirri. On this occasion some wangga songs and dances (her father’s songs) were also performed toward the end of the ceremony, and I recorded the following in my notes:

The djanba dancing was very serious, and there were quite elaborate expressions of grief by a number of [Murrinhpatha] women who prostrated themselves and cut their heads with rocks and digging sticks on the edge of the hole out of which the flames and smoke consuming the dead person’s belongings belched. … After the flames had died away, the hole was filled in and djanba dancing continued on top of the filled-in hole. After this was finished, the wangga dancers started, and the contrast was … marked. The two principal dancers, Frank Dumoo and Ambrose Piarlum, clowned and competed with each other from the beginning.

With hindsight I see that my comments on the wangga dancers fell short of the mark. While there was a discernible lightening of mood once the central ritual acts associated with djanba had been completed, the performance of wangga was far more than a light-hearted "wind down" after more serious business. Through the generosity of the many people who have subsequently explained to me the cosmological significance of the performance, I have gained a deeper appreciation of the poetics of wangga songs and dances, and of the role they play in ensuring the continuity of human existence.

Some 13 years later, in 2001, I caught up with Frank Dumoo, one of the principal dancers at the 1988 "burn-im rag" and himself an important ritual leader. I asked him what he calls this ceremony in his language (Marritjevin), and he said that there was no proper name for it—that people simply referred to it by saying: "thawurr ngumbun nim-djeni" (we all [have to] burn those things now).

Together we watched the video I had made of the ceremony in 1988, which largely focused on the burning of the girl’s belongings in a pit and the associated djanba singing and dancing. Frank identified the main mourners as the deceased girl’s maternal grandmothers, who are owners of the djanba songs and dances. Seeing my footage of the wangga dancers painting up before the ceremony he said, "I wonder why we danced that day."

"I was hoping you might tell me that, Frank," I said.

After some thought, he replied, "It was like this. We, the countrymen of the dead girl, wanted to dance for her. We wanted her to feel us dancing and to hear the songs for that country. We wanted to make her free to walk around in her country all the time, and we wanted the people left behind to feel good." "Countryman" here meant all the people who have rights to Marritjevin country, including those, like Frank and the dead girl, who were born there, as well those associated with it through marriage, adoption, or political alliances.

Frank, the deceased girl’s paternal uncle, and other close male and female relatives performed that day to free her from existence as a living human, and to allow her to cross over to the realm of her deceased ancestors, the Walakandha. This closely-knit group of singers and dancers regularly perform together in ceremony.

The Poetics of Walakandha Wangga Song and Dance

The wangga songs performed at ceremonies like the "burn-im rag" ceremony are given to Marritjevin singers in dream by their deceased ancestors, whom the Marritjevin call Walakandha. They are performed in two main ceremonial contexts: in "burn-im rag" ceremonies and in circumcision ceremonies. They are also performed at less formal ceremonies--for the opening of new building, for example--and for entertainment.

Two or more singers, who also play wooden clapsticks, are accompanied by a single didjeridu. During the singing, male dancers perform the role of Walakandha, miming the everyday actions of these deceased ancestors--limping, brandishing spears and woomeras, and following tracks.

During the clapstick-accompanied instrumental section that follows each burst of singing, male dancers execute elaborate dance movements that reflect and embody both the ceremonial activities and the dance style of Walakandha. The gestures, performed at the end of the dance, can be highly elaborate and may involve dramatic leaps into the air.

Women also perform an important role in dance. They dance as female Walakandha, either at the same time as the men or alone, sometimes solo and sometimes en masse.

In the course of the dance, the ontological distance between living dancers and their Walakandha ancestors is decreased or even annihilated, and within the liminal space thus created, the spirit of a deceased person can cross over from world of the Living to that of the Dead.

Only three of the 20 or so Walakandha wangga songs available to the singers at the time were performed at the 1988 ceremony. "Yendili" was performed 11 times, "Truwu" five times, and "Walakandha" once.

When sung in ceremony, "Walakandha" is little more than a formalized call. The song consists of only one word, Walakandha!, the last syllable of which is set to an elaborate vocal melisma, the melody tracing an elaborate downward track to settle on the bedrock of the didjeridu drone. The word "Walakandha" is used reciprocally by the Living to refer to the Dead and by the Dead to refer to the Living. When first sung by a Walakandha to a songman in dream, the song is a call from the realm of the Dead. When sung in ceremony it is a call from the realm of the Living, though such is the liminality of both dream and ceremonial space that the song is always, to an extent, a call in both directions.

As is usually the case in Aboriginal music, melody itself carries meaning. This particular melody is shared with another song in the Walakandha wangga repertory that has the following text:

Brother Walakandha, the tide has gone out on him at Nadirri.1

Tide (and the salt-water ocean) is the central theme of the Walakandha wangga songs, and death is often (as in English poetry) referred to as the outgoing tide. Since all Marritjevin wangga texts emanate from Walakandha, and are therefore originally the utterances of Walakandha, this text could be interpreted as a lament sung by the Dead on the occasion of the death of one of their Marritjevin descendants. But once again, because of its reciprocity, the word "Walakandha," when sung for a relative at a "burn-im rag" ceremony by the living songmen, can also be interpreted as lament by the Living for the Dead.

When the melody of the song that celebrates death by reference to the outgoing tide is adopted for the simple call, "Walakandha," it brings with it a whole set of associations: Walakandha, birth, death, and reincarnation--the ebb and flow of life itself.

The metaphor of tide is pervasive in the song-poetry of the Marritjevin, who inhabit a region where tidal flows are powerful and dangerous. Before I met up with Frank Dumoo last year, I had been puzzling over the meaning of this metaphor. Over the years I had asked many people about the significance of tide, and they usually replied "oh, it’s just about the tide."

While we were watching the video of the 1988 "burn-im rag" ceremony, Frank and I discussed the way in which the ceremony had ensured the continuity of his niece’s existence, by allowing her to transform from a living human into a Walakandha and thus to begin a journey back to the life-center from which she had originally emerged as a baby-spirit. Like every Marritjevin, she traced her existence to an eternal center of live-giving power in her country, a kigatiya, at which seminal power had been deposited at the beginning of time by a Dreaming ancestor. After her death, the "burn-im rag" ceremony provided the means for her to cross over the barrier between life and death and become a Walakandha. Then--in a journey which mirrored that taken during life--she traveled backward from death, through adulthood to childhood, eventually to re-enter the life-center from which she originally emerged. Ceremony is thus a means of ensuring continuity of existence, since without it no Marritjevin person could make the transformation into Walakandha form that is necessary to begin the backward journey to the totemic well from which he or she originally sprang. And without the possibility of reabsorption into the kigatiya there is no possibility of reincarnation.

The night after my discussion with Frank, I suddenly awoke with the idea that the tide metaphor in wangga songs refers to this ebb and flow of life and death. I called on Frank again the next day and said,"Frank, I’ve been thinking about ‘tide’ in those songs. I woke up last night and I had this thought in my head."

"Oh, you’ve been thinking about the tide, have you," he said. "Well, go on."

I put to Frank my intuition that in wangga songs the image of tide stands for the cycle of reincarnation that we had discussed the previous day. Could it be, I asked, that the human journey from birth to death is expressed in the metaphor of the outgoing tide, weak at first as the high tide turns (just as a baby, recently sprung from its totemic birth-site, is weak), gathering strength as the tidal flow gains its greatest power (the child grows into its adult strength), and weakening as it approaches the turn at low tide (the adult’s strength weakens at the approach of old age)? Could the turn of the tide--he moment of stillness--be death itself? The incoming tide once again begins to flow and gain strength; could this stand for life as a Walakandha, who gains strength after death as she (or he) moves "backward" from old-age into adulthood? Does the Walakandha then lose strength once again as she weakens through childhood to babyhood? Was the opposite turn of the tide--the still moment when she returns to the totemic birth-site from which she originally sprang--the counterpart of the tide that turned at death?

Frank said simply, "Yes, you’ve got it."

The theme of tide is also evident in "Truwu," the second song sung at the Nadirri ceremony. The text of this song is:

Walakandha! The wave stands up and crashes on them at Truwu.
My Country! Walakandha!
Munggum! He stands behind a beach hibiscus
and peeps out at them at Truwu.
My Country! Walakandha!

Here a Walakandha, Munggum, is observed as he stands at Truwu beach (the beach close to the Nadirri outstation), peeping out from behind a beach hibiscus bush at his human descendants playing in the surf. The sea, this time in the form of a wave,2 has a wider significance--it represents the concerned Walakandha ancestor looking out for his living descendants as they are both battered and exhilarated by the exigencies of life. Munggum is playing his part in a pattern of reciprocity: he is looking after his descendants, just as the Living must look after the Dead and perform the appropriate ceremonies to ensure the continuity of ebb and flow.

The third song, "Yendili," does not use the tide metaphor, but refers directly to mutual obligations between the Living and the Dead. The text of "Yendili" is simply:

Look after Yendili,
my descendants/ancestors.

Yendili is an important Marritjevin inland site at which are clustered a number of life-giving springs, and this song represents both a call from the Dead to the Living and a call from the Living to the Dead, urging them to look after the sources of life common to them both.

In the context of the "burn-im rag" ceremony, songs are to be seen not as cultural artefacts but as dynamic agents in a process of reciprocal exchange between the complementary realms of life and death--a process that ensures both existential and cultural continuity. Here the nurturing of the sacred is enacted in ceremonies that play out the interdependency of the Living and the Dead--a process which in turn nourishes the sacred wellsprings of existence.



1. I wish to acknowledge the assistance of my linguistic collaborator Lysbeth Ford in the translation of these texts. Also that of the following Marritjevin and Marriammu speakers: Les Kundjil, Frank Dumoo, Ambrose Piarlum, Marie Long, and Maurice Ngulkur.

2. The concepts of tide, sea, and wave are all denoted by the same noun "purangang" (salt water), and the aspect that saltwater takes is denoted by the verb ("flowing" for tide, "standing up" for waves, etc.).


Allan Marett teaches in the Department of Music at the University of Sydney. He has been studying Aboriginal song and dance since 1986 and is currently completing a book on wangga. His other interests include Japanese music, in particular the history of togaku (the repertory of court music imported from China in the 7th-9th centuries) and the music and dance of the No theatre. He is a long-term practitioner of Zen Buddhism.

Suggested further reading and listening

Marett, A. (1993). Bunggridj Bunggridj: Wangga songs by Alan Maralung. Northern Australia. Sung by Alan Maralung, accompanied by Peter Manaberu (didjeridu). Recorded by Allan Marett, commentary by Allan Marett and Linda Barwick. Washington, DC: Traditional Music of the World 4, Smithsonian/Folkways CD SF 40430.

Marett, A. (2000). Ghostly voices: some observations on song-creation, ceremony and being in Northwest Australia. Oceania 71:1, pp. 18-29.

Marett, A. (2001). Australia, Aboriginal Music, Northern Australia. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. Macmillan: London and New York.

Marett, A., Barwick, L. & Ford, L. (2001). Rak Badjalarr: Wangga Songs by Bobby Lane. Northern Australia. Recordings by Allan Marett and Linda Barwick. Accompanying booklet by Allan Marett, Linda Barwick and Lysbeth Ford. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Marett, A. & Page, J. (1995). Interrelationships between Music and Dance in a Wangga from Northwest Australia. In The Essence of Singing and the Substance of Song; Recent Responses to the Aboriginal Performing Arts and Other Essays in Honour of Catherine Ellis. Barwick, L., Marett, A. & Tunstill, G., eds. Oceania Monograph 46. Sydney: University of Sydney. Pp 27-38.

Stanner, W.E.H. (1963 [1989]). On Aboriginal Religion. Oceania Monograph 11. Sydney: Oceania Publications.

von Sturmer, J. (1987). Aboriginal singing and notions of power. In Songs of Aboriginal Australia. Ross, M.C., Donaldson, T. & Wild, S., eds. Oceania Monograph 32. Sydney: Oceania Publications. Pp 63-76.

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