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27 March 2009

Living Songs: Music, Law and Culture in Aboriginal Australia

Living Songs: Music, Law and Culture in Aboriginal Australia

Originally printed in: Australia - Exploring the Musical Landscape. A joint project of the Australian Music Centre and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1998.

A strong, starkly haunting note vibrates through the air, slipping amongst those gathered with gravity and majesty. It is the opening note of a welcome song, a song which resonates through the years and the earth to evoke a warm welcome onto land which is proudly and resolutely owned by the Munyarryun Clan. The music provides a link right back to the beginning of time and through to the core of the Earth, revealing the bright spectra and molten heart they possess. Whereas white Australians might prepare a few words-a suitable representative knocks off a quick speech-indigenous Australians have a song for the occasion, made ready in the Dreaming and still alive despite impossible odds.

Hearing an Aboriginal song from the Dreaming consistently evokes a strong response from its listeners, regardless of whether the audience is Australian or from further afield. At the Edinburgh International Festival of the Arts in August 1997, Bangarra Dance Theatre premiered its new work, Fish. After the well-received performance, the British Council hosted supper for the company. When the meal was over and the wine was drunk, Djakapurra Munyarryun-principal dancer and cultural consultant with Bangarra-called everyone out to the back garden. There, he proceeded to perform a song and dance of thanks. The atmosphere was electric, with both company members and English and Scottish hosts completely transfixed. As one, the gathering was completely overwhelmed by Djakapurra's performance. The Scots could do no more than break into an almost embarrassed rendition of 'Auld Lang Syne'. With Aboriginal song, as the music permeates, one gets a sense of timelessness, of connectedness, of a collective spirituality encompassing both humanity and nature-a powerful religiosity that incorporates humanity into nature. Like the chants of the yogi from India, the strength of traditional song in Aboriginal ceremony flows into and draws from the power of nature, meshing human song with the world around it. In contemporary life, many are eager to develop a greater or higher understanding of their place within the natural world, and often it is through creativity that people feel closest with their environments. This is particularly true of musical expression: people 'get' it when they hear it, even if they can't say why.

Just as hymns and prayer are ritualised expressions of spirituality in the Christian faith, music and dance in Aboriginal Australia are key means of communicating and experiencing spirituality. Their performance becomes a form of collective self-actualisation-it is in and through the singing of ancient, sacred songs and the performance of the dance that accompanies them that deference and respect to the land and country is demonstrated and lived out, and one's own place within them and as part of them acknowledged and joyfully experienced.

In Aboriginal society, there is no strict demarcation between the law and culture, between religious and legal institutions. Whereas in white Australian society, the separation of powers is constitutionally entrenched, the system of governance in Aboriginal communities concentrates spiritual wisdom in the hands of the Elders, who become the custodians of law. An Elder knows the laws one must observe, where they come from, why they are important, and how they are to be followed. Each legal system has jurisdiction over its own familiar territory, and it is expected that the laws of each territory will be respected by visiting outsiders. Law is enshrined and observed because it is respectful of culture and tradition, not because of any additional or external values deemed important. These laws have built up over thousands of years: they are traced back to the Dreamtime, that temporal and actual world before time began when the land was formed and the spirits roamed free. All are orally passed down from generation to generation, often through performance. Thus, in Aboriginal culture, song and dance become the means of the transmission of history, allowing a complex system of laws and identities to be passed through generations, and thus to survive.

Aboriginal communities contain hierarchies of knowledge and access to knowledge that are governed by strict protocols. Elders from a community are custodians of both secret and sacred knowledge. This knowledge will be passed on to the next generation of a clan's leaders at an appropriate time; it is often only as an Elder feels death approaching that he or she may communicate all the songs or stories which their predecessors entrusted to them. Knowledge must be earned-it is accumulated and passed on over a lifetime. It is this reality white Australia found so difficult to grasp during the debate over the Hindmarsh Island bridge. Trying to play a numbers game, supporters of the bridge believed that if they could muster a critical mass of Ngarrindjeri women who had not heard of the Secret Women's Business associated with Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island, the Elders who spoke of the area's critical importance to female fertility matters must be lying. It is quite normal for pivotal information on sacred issues such as reproduction to be restricted to the leading women of a clan. To think otherwise is analogous to believing a Cabinet-in-Confidence document or other highly classified information would be known by a local parliamentary member, or even a city councillor.

Djakapurra Munyarryun is a member of the Munyarryun Clan based in Dhulinbouy, Arnhemland. The Munyarryuns are one of the strongest families in the area, in a region which has produced many of Aboriginal Australia's artistic and political leaders. Yothu Yindi was formed in Arnhemland; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) Chair Gatjil Djerkerra is also from the area. Djakapurra himself is a principal dancer with Bangarra Dance Theatre, and it is his family who provide the traditional injection which Bangarra has fused with contemporary dance and music with such success. He has been chosen to be a Song-Man with his community, which charges him with the responsibility of acting as custodian of the songs, dances, and country that have been part of his clan since the Dreaming began.

The songs that are part of any particular clan's culture form a kind of musical landscape-they are part of, inform and describe the surrounding country, just as the great works from the Aboriginal visual artist Emily Kngwarreye are monuments to her beloved country in Alhalkere, Utopia, all portraying the same small area where she grew up and lived out her life. As an individual learns more of his or her landscape, they are undergoing a process of acquiring ritual knowledge, extending the song-map. Despite being in the middle of Bangarra's touring programme, Djakapurra is to return to Arnhemland in June, to take part in a learning session at which more secret knowledge is to be passed to him and his brothers. His father and uncle are growing old and tired, and thus Djakapurra's generation of Elders' learning processes-their acquisition of ritual knowledge-is being accelerated. Djakapurra and his brothers will be taken to one of their clan's sacred sites and learn more of the songs and the stories that have ruled their extended family since the days of the Dreaming.

These songs form the 'songlines' of a community-songs as title to land. At the various sites that dot a landscape, a particular community will have songs to describe them and their natural inhabitants. Djakapurra has a song for the crane and the kingfisher, both totems of his clan. A song will tell the story of a place, and why it has a position of cultural importance in the life of the clan. The meaning with which the place is then imbued provides the impetus and the responsibility to protect the country. The land lives with the Dreaming, it coexists. It must be preserved and respected, not allowed to be destroyed out of greed, or the ability and desire of a few very rich people to make a lot of money out of it. The quiet resistance presented by people such as Yvonne Maragula, the acknowledged senior Elder of the Mirrar people, traditional owners of Jabiluka, in the face of the Federal Government and CRA's determination to proceed with mining of uranium is born not only of a personal desire to save her country, but because she is the custodian of it for all future generations, and for all generations past.

Despite their significance, selections of a particular clan's songs can be sung all over Australia in front of large, diverse audiences. Members of another clan can only perform such songs with the strict permission of the owner-clan as a whole. Because of personal creative partnerships between the Artistic Director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, Stephen Page, and his creative collaborator (and brother), David Page, much of Bangarra's recent work has derived its traditional cultural identity from the Munyarryun Clan. Bangarra has entered into a contractual arrangement with the Munyarryun Clan, allowing the company to use traditional song and dance from the Clan's areas in Arnhemland in its contemporary performances, which are then performed all over the world. Djakapurra and his sister Guypunura taught the other Bangarra dancers the Munyarryun songs and dances, monitoring the integrity and accuracy of the contexts and standards of presentation. Bangarra pays a fee and royalties for the continuing permission to perform Munyarryun songs. This is a unique and ground-breaking arrangement within the performing arts, which is seeking to avoid the visual arts' experience of ad hoc development of intellectual property law spawned from conflict and the common law, and instead construct frameworks in which companies and communities can negotiate amicably and equitably.

Other songs remain completely exclusive, and cannot be sung even with permission from a clan member. Still others can only be sung 'on-site'. The Song of the Caterpillar, for example, might be sung only at the site of the rock formation made when the Caterpillar left his earthly body, and then be performed only by those initiated into Caterpillar Dreaming. Clan members who allow illegal performances of sacred songs are targeted for some form of 'payback' on their return to their country. Punishments range in their degree of seriousness, and payback is more often levied through the use of black magic and aimed at unsettling or dislocating an individual than anything so direct as a spear through the leg.

Djakapurra's family is a coming-together of the Munyarryun Clan on his father's side, and the Doya Clan on his mother's. Neither may sing the other's songs, although they do dance alongside as the other sings. Often there will be significant ritualised occasions when the families come together. Sometimes it is more than two families, and at such times great celebrations or ceremonies are held, involving clans who all find a particular area of significance. These areas can be places of great beauty, or regions that to the ignorant eye appear as barren or hostile terrain. Like the intersection of a Venn diagram, families and/or communities converge on the sacred sites and each demonstrates their connection to the land through unique melodic links: they will sing their songs of identification and celebration.
The integral part the on-site ceremonies play in the maintenance and the rejuvenation of Aboriginal society explains the great threat posed by the communities' enforced removal from their land by white Australia. Communities were herded onto missions, and fences erected to keep trespassers off the vast areas of land now claimed by pastoralists. These past practices have been part of the ongoing debate surrounding native title. Under the terms of the Native Title Act, Aboriginal people are required to demonstrate they have a continuing connection with the land they are claiming. Many Aboriginal people argue that they are unable to meet this requirement as they were literally locked off their land.

The complete disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people from land they occupied for thousands of years so traumatised communities that many were unable to continue to sing their songs of celebration: they had nowhere to sing them. More than this, in areas of high contact between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, there were active efforts to eradicate all vestiges of Aboriginal culture by both law and force.

The strength of the communities from which Djakapurra comes is in no small part due to their success at preserving their traditional culture. They still practice the old ways. The remote area which his people inhabit, the vast tracts of often inhospitable land acted as a moat over which white invaders could and dared not pass. This is in stark contrast to many communities who lived in coastal or other accessible regions. Singer Archie Roach describes how deliberate policies of eradicating customs and culture were pursued by sometimes misguided, sometimes malicious white people: 'The songs, the stories, were all lost, even before I was taken, because when they rounded us up and put us on reserves the old people weren't allowed to speak the language, it was against the law. The old fellas used to take the kids into the bush secretly, behind the overseer's back, and teach them secretly language and dance and everything, but when they got wind of it that was when they started taking the children away, so they couldn't be taught.'(note 1)

These policies and practices have been rendered infamous by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Stolen Generation Report. Less attention has been devoted to those who remained behind, but who have been in environments characterised by hopelessness and despair. In his report on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Commissioner Elliot Johnston wrote of a 'culture of malaise' present within many Aboriginal communities; there is a poisoned generation who cannot try to heal. It is a tragic irony that today's technology, allowing easy access to all corners of the country, threatens to destroy the morale and the magic of communities that have remained intact for many years. In the Environmental Assessment that took place before the Jabiluka mine was given the go-ahead, Pat Dodson spoke of the way the Ranger mine had both degraded the natural environment in which the local Aboriginal people lived, and-with the huge influx of mining capital infrastructure-caused cultural dislocation, division between communities and ultimately great dependencies on drugs and alcohol.

Djakapurra speaks of the strength and discipline his father instilled in him and his brothers to enable them to resist the temptation of the 'white man's poisons' of alcohol, petrol and drugs. 'After getting caught out being violent to other kids and sometimes the teacher at school, my dad was furious, and tied me to a tree for a night.' The sometimes brutal punishments caused Djakapurra to reflect upon the locus of power, and from where strength was derived. The pride and power he experienced in and through his own culture inspired him to serve it and preserve it as best he could. Aware there are many Aboriginal people who have not had ongoing access to their own culture and people, he is proud to be able to give such a high-profile insight into his own clan's strength through the medium of Bangarra. 'It's called sharing', he says simply.

The protection of cultural practice impacts on Aboriginal people in two separate and critical ways, as do the attempts to destroy it. Firstly, the culture of Aboriginal communities acts as an important source of strength and pride-a deep wellspring of identity on which community members draw. The destruction of it was therefore a crippling blow to Aboriginal people; it broke the Dreaming. Secondly, the dance and song themselves contain the stories, teachings and laws of a particular community. They are both the maps and the ordinances governing a clan's country, and the practices the country demands of them. Celebration and legislation in one artistic form. Losing them, then, evokes chaos-anarchistic confusion in which people literally lose their way, spiritually, culturally, physically.

Despite their importance in capturing history, the songs and dances in Aboriginal societies are not static. Aboriginal culture is not frozen but evolves constantly, and today's leaders develop new songs to tell the contemporary stories of our time. Art-forms are not demarcated in the same way as in Western society. Clans forge their own creative links: the Story-Teller dreams in the night, tells his stories to the dancer, who paints up, and dances to the music created by the Song-Man. The resilience, the strength of Aboriginal people can be heard in their music. It communicates the deep energy of the earth, and as the hot wind and musical calls blow across our land, resonating to its very core, it shows that core to be Aboriginal.


1 Quoted in S Rintoul (ed.), The Wailing: A National Black Oral History, Heinemann, Port Melbourne, 1993, p. 64.

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