Australian Art Orchestra musicians collaborate with musicians from Arnhem Land Julien Wilson

On August 3rd 2006, five members of the Australian Art Orchestra from Melbourne and Sydney arrived in the dark at the Garma Festival of Traditional Culture and found the tents that would be our home for the next five days. Garma (a Yolngu word meaning “both ways learning”) is an annual event run by the Yothu Yindi Foundation for the Yolngu people of NE Arnhem Land. ‘We’re living in fluid times, trying to discover in more profound ways what it is to be Australian. I think the vast majority of Australians would agree that Aboriginal Australians have a special contribution to make to that. But there seems to be a problem. I think most non-Aboriginal Australians accept that there is a deep intellectual strength to Aboriginal knowledge, but they seem to think of it as a mystery. I hope we are less of a mystery now.’ Mandawuy Yunupingu The first line of Manduway’s quote, taken from the Garma program, in many ways sums up something that has been on the agenda of the Australian Art Orchestra since its inception in 1993. What does it mean to be Australian and, as performers, how can we access and channel that quality? Can we create a meaningful musical dialogue between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians that respectfully represents both cultures? The collaborative project between the AAO and traditional musicians is focused on developing and nurturing that understanding. We attended Garma as part of an ongoing musical collaboration with traditional Wagilak performers from Ngukurr. It is a unique collaboration in many ways that sees AAO musicians learning and interpreting traditional songs on western instruments. During our five days at Garma, camping side by side, we continued our study of the Wagilak song forms and culture, developed stronger personal connections, and presented the initial stages of our project to the Yolngu people. The trip was an unmitigated success, above and beyond all of our expectations. The connections we made were invaluable, the insights we gained, astounding, and the response to the music and the concept of the project, totally affirming. Before describing our experience at Garma in more depth, I should explain how we have arrived at this point. First Contact In 2004 Stephen Teakle called me looking for Paul Grabowsky’s phone number. Teakle and I had studied music together at the Victorian College of the Arts in the early 90’s and for the last five years he had been based in Darwin, working with the Music Outreach Program at Charles Darwin University. He had been working throughout the Northern Territory with school children and Senior Contemporary musicians, assisting in the recording, release and touring of indigenous bands. Steve was completing a Masters in Jazz Piano and wanted Grabowsky to be his teacher. Paul agreed on the condition that Teakle introduced him to an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land that would be interested in working with the AAO. In late 2004 Paul and Steve visited Ngukurr together. Ngukurr is the old Roper Mission settlement on the Roper River. 700kms from Darwin, it is accessible by road only in the dry season. Eight tribal groups moved to Ngukurr when the Anglican mission was established there early last century and it is seen as the birthplace of Contemporary Aboriginal music in South East Arnhem Land, having produced blues/rock bands such as Yugul and Broken English in the 60’s. Although the missionaries placed a ban on people speaking their own language and conducting traditional ceremonies, ceremonial music can still often be heard these days near sunset, especially during funeral times. The group in Ngukurr who have the strongest connection with their culture are the Wagilak, part of the Yolngu who are originally from central-east Arnhem on the Walker River. Shortly after their arrival, Grabowsky and Teakle were listening to Wagilak elders perform parts of their song cycle. Ruby’s Story at Ngukurr 2005 and our introduction to Manikay and Bunggul In July 2005 I had my first introduction to the community when Paul and Steve were invited to bring other members of the AAO to Ngukurr to perform Ruby’s Story, a series of songs that tell the story of Ruby Hunter’s life. Ruby and Archie Roach, together with nine AAO musicians plus our manager, sound designer, and photographer arrived at Ngukurr and set up a tent city in the centre of town for five days. Workshops were held in the Women’s Center where the AAO

members started learning Wagilak Manikay (songs). On our last night there we performed an outdoor concert on a stage we built on the back of a truck. The show started near sunset with Wagilak bunggul (dance) followed by Wagilak musicians and the AAO performing traditional Manikay together. The AAO then performed Ruby’s Story, and to finish the evening four popular local bands played, with various AAO musicians sitting in. We were all given the skin name Wamut, of the Mambali moiety and adopted as members of the Wagilak tribe. Each night near sunset, bunggul was performed on a sand roll and the ‘White Wagilak’ were encouraged to join in and learn the dances. Many of the elders were impressed with our efforts, and felt that seeing outsiders come to the community to learn about their culture rather than teach about the outside world had helped generate a greater interest of their own traditions amongst their children. In a society where rock music and hip-hop is often more enticing to the younger generation than the traditional culture of their ancestors, the public spectacle of white folks from the other end of the country participating (however ineptly) with Manikay and Bunggul at sunset each night had a profound effect. Kevin Rogers and Benjamin Wilfred Kevin Rogers is Paul Grabowsky’s counterpart in Ngukurr. Kevin is Vice President of the Ngukurr Council and the lead singer of Yugul band. He is a strong community leader, former school principal, and holds degrees in linguistics. Kevin introduced us to Benjamin Wilfred, a young Wagilak man who is leader of the dancers for Wagilak bunggul. Benjamin comes from a family of great artists, musicians and dancers. No ceremony, town meeting or official business could start in Ngukurr until his grandfather arrived to open proceedings in the traditional manner. Benjamin has had experience with contemporary music as a bass player in Yugul band, but made a decision a few years ago to concentrate his energies on the study and performance of traditional song and dance. He is acutely aware that there is a limited amount of time available to learn the traditional ways of his ancestors from his elders before they pass on, and he fears that unless a concerted effort is made, there is a danger of much of that knowledge being lost. In October 2005, Benjamin and Kevin were hosted to Melbourne by the AAO and stayed at Orchestra members’ homes. Five members of the AAO and Benjamin spent an afternoon in the recording studio. Benjamin wanted to record some traditional songs, overdubbing himself playing didjeridu, clapsticks, and up to five vocal tracks, so that we would have some recordings to learn from. These recordings have proven invaluable for translating the meanings of the songs. We also wanted to get Benjamin accustomed to what we do, so we recorded some extended group improvisations with him singing. The reaction of people in Melbourne watching Benjamin teach a young Melbourne musician traditional dances at a night club is something I will never forget. In November, members of the AAO returned to Ngukurr to continue our learning and consolidate friendships. We played the Melbourne recordings to some older Ngukurr musicians and much to our relief, they approved. We learned some songs this time written about contemporary events but performed in traditional style, and were honoured to be invited to get painted and dance in a Wagilak funeral ceremony at sunset. Since the start of 2006, three of the Wagilak elders are no longer with us, Benjamin’s grandfather, father and eldest brother, all important songmen, strong cultural leaders and teachers. Benjamin’s awareness of the importance of learning as much as he could from these men, as quickly as possible, holds a somber new reality. Observations of Manikay and Bunggul My first impression was that the songs all seemed very similar. They are all very short, with a long one being close to one minute. The pitches and melodic shape stay the same for many songs. Most of the songs are performed about eight times in succession with small gaps between them, before moving on to the next Manikay. Each repetition of the song has slight variations. The Yidaki (didjeridu) and Bilma (paired sticks) change with the dance, while the melody remains similar. There are three different melodies that are interchangeable for any song. The lyrics for each song are set, but their order is not. The words are descriptive rather than narrative. They are about places (in this world or the next) objects (animals, spears, woomera) and actions (throwing the spear, making string bags, looking for food). The order of the words is up to the singer, and different singers sing different words, but ones with the same meaning, or the same words, but in a different order. The overall structure of the melody remains the same, but the singers use personal interpretations and inflections of the pitches within the structure. The Bilma pattern alters for different versions of the song, and the dance always correlates to this rhythm. The Yidaki signals the end of the song, most commonly with a series of overblown pitches that is individual to the particular song. While the singing has an improvised ‘sameness’ to many songs, the Yidaki has an incredibly long and complex series of rhythms and pitches that are quite particular to each song and are rarely (if ever) altered, except perhaps by the subtle virtuosic variations of an individual player.

The songs all have the same form: ABA’ A: a softly sung or hummed statement by one singer B: a full rendition of the lyrics sung by a number of singers with Yidaki and Bilma accompaniment A’: an unaccompanied coda sung by one or more singers Either A section can be omitted, and the coda can be as long or short as the singer desires. The dance occurs during B and each dancer has a particular song that he features in as a soloist. The dancers also have a musical counterpoint to the core musicians. A complex succession of shouts, yells and chanting forms another layer that acts in a similar way to how a horn or percussion section would work in a popular setting to support and complement the singers and core band. Watching Benjamin lead his dancers that first time in Ngukurr was like watching a general talk to his troops before taking them in to battle. On the last night in Ngukurr, before our final performance, I listened to Benjamin talk to the dancers before the Bunggul. In completing his motivational speech he threatened to cripple anyone who messed up. Bunggul is taken very seriously. Although my initial response was that all the songs sounded the same, and we have been told that each song has remained unchanged forever and is never altered, the songs are never performed exactly the same way twice. There is a large amount of personal interpretation, variation and improvisation within the structure. The Garma Experience Two thousand people are camped in tents in a stringybark forest on the edge of an escarpment that looks out over miles of natural bush to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Gulkala is the homeland of the Gumatj people and it is a sacred ceremony place for the Yolngu. The ridge we are camped on is the backbone of the Kangaroo ancestor, Ganbulabula who brought the Yidaki into existence, and special ceremonies have been held here for many centuries. On the first night Benjamin asks me to introduce him to a Gumatj elder, Witiyana Marika, (a dancer with the Yothu Yindi band) whom I have never met. I felt awkward introducing a Yolngu man to a Yolngu elder but realised that Benjamin was no more at ease than me. Although he’s been to Melbourne and New York, it was his first time at Garma and he had never met these people. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but some Yolngu look down on the people from Ngukurr, because the Gumatj fought for and stayed on their own land, and as they see it, the tribes that moved to Ngukurr traded their culture for Christianity. It was a great joy for us all to see Benjamin’s confidence growing during the week as the Yolngu acknowledged his importance and the immense responsibility he is carrying. A Performance Symposium is a feature of Garma. The symposium is led by Dr Aaron Corn from the Department of Music at the University of Sydney. Our collaboration was the subject of one of these symposiums. After a brief introduction we performed two songs, Wata (wind), and Birribirri (billabong bird), then invited the symposium participants to ask questions. The performers were Benjamin Wilfred (vocals), Kerwin Murrungun (Didj, from Numbulwar), Scott Tinkler (trumpet), Simon Barker (drums), Carl Dewhurst (guitar) and Julien Wilson (saxophone). The response from many people was astoundingly positive, but the standout comments for me were by Neparrnga ‘Joe’ Gumbula who is a Gumatj elder and holds the Liya-Naarra'mirri Visiting Fellowship at the University of Melbourne. Gumbula and Dr Corn are both project leaders of the National Recording Project for Indigenous Music in Australia. ( When Gumbula heard Benjamin singing, he dropped what he was doing and ran to where we were performing. The song was one Gumbula had never heard before, even though Wagilak country is only a few hundred miles form Gumatj country. He was overcome with emotion when he heard it, and told me later that he had to choose his words carefully when he spoke at the symposium so he didn’t upset Benjamin. Considering the recent loss of Wagilak elders, he believes Benjamin is one of the last Wagilak songmen and it is imperative that his songs are recorded and archived ‘on Wagilak country’. The Wagilak appear to be the missing link of a songline that runs from the North-East to South-East corners of Arnhem Land. Gumbula believes that the AAO working with the Wagilak is infinitely more important than if we were working with other Yolngu such as the Gumatj, who have a large number of people carrying on their culture and have already established a wide awareness of their music and dance through bands such as Yothu Yindi. Yolngu music has been paired with rock and pop music before but this is the first time that Yolngu Manikay’s will be presented in the ‘Art World’, which is seen as a very important step in increasing awareness of their music.

The question was raised at the Symposium whether our collaboration ran a risk of watering down or obscuring the Wagilak tradition. On the contrary, Gumbula, Dr Corn and Benjamin all believe the process of Wagilak bungle and AAO combining will enhance and strengthen their culture. At the end of the symposium we performed Wata again. The words, Garramidi Wata Nitjuri Bruno relate to a calm cool wind blowing from the east to carry spirits to the next world. A large group of elders had gathered at the back of the shelter by this stage and as we played the song the wind blew over the escarpment and we could all feel the spirit of Benjamin’s grandfather. Wagilak Bunggul and Yothu Yindi We attended Garma to rehearse, learn from each other, and present the initial stages of our project to a small symposium audience. However, we found ourselves on a set list preceding Yothu Yindi's performance at the final concert. A prestigious spot that provoked some lengthy philosophical discussions. Benjamin was keen to perform and the Wilfred women (Dolly Wilfred, Margarite Wilfred & Julie Nelson) wanted an opportunity to dance in front of the other Yolngu people. It was great that the Yolngu wanted to hear Wagilak Manikay again and supported our involvement and it was decided that Benjamin, Kerwin and the women would start and then the AAO musicians would join in. Before we went on stage the women and Benjamin wanted to find some white ochre to paint themselves with. Witiyana and the Yunupingu family were preparing backstage for the Yothu Yindi performance and let us use theirs. It was an invaluable opportunity for the Wilfreds to connect with the traditional owners of the country, and it was a much more graceful connection with Witiyana than we had the first night. Postscript A performance is planned for the 2007 Queensland Music Festival that will feature 16 musicians and dancers. The show will then go to Garma and around Western Australia. These are the first steps toward developing works that will involve the entire AAO (20 members) and many other musicians, dancers and artists. When I first got involved in this project I hoped that it may bring some awareness to the wider Australian community of the richness and depth of this incredibly unique culture. To know that our involvement has assisted in bringing awareness of lost Yolngu songs to Yolngu people has made me realise how much more could easily be achieved with the right will and enough resources. By working with The National Recording Project it should be possible to record the entire Wagilak repertoire, while providing the AAO with invaluable musical resources and strengthened personal bonds to aid in our collaboration. I am honoured to have had the opportunity to meet and work with these people and I remain humbled by the knowledge they have shared with us and the way in which they have welcomed us into their family. Links: and

Julien Wilson is a Melbourne tenor saxophone player who is the 2006 Music Council of Australia Freedman Jazz Fellow. He leads his own jazz groups and also is a member of the Australian Art Orchestra.

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