Home | Albums | Films | Didjeridu | Library

Traditional Aboriginal
Arnhem Land Music
Discography Search

Search term:
Search in:
Sort by Artist or Collector
(Uncheck to sort by Album Title)
Search Within
Exact Word Match

Database was last updated on:
May 11, 2006

Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

North Australian Aboriginal Music
(Originally published as: Stubington, J. (1979), North Australian Aboriginal Music, in:
Isaacs, J. (ed) Australian Aboriginal Music, Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd., Australia)
This article has been reprinted with permission from the author.

Traditionally, many of the Australian Aboriginal people living in the northern part of the continent were "affluent hunters with high gastronomic standards" (Meehan, 1977: 527). The rich sea-coast environment, offering fish, shellfish, turtles as well as birds, animals, wild fruit, vegetables and honey, allowed a much greater density of population than in less hospitable parts of the continent with a correspondingly greater diversity in culture, language and consequently, musical styles. The northern year is marked by two distinct climatic periods, a wet season and a dry season. The monsoon season, when winds and cyclones come in force from the north-west, lasts approximately from November to April. High tides bring the seas flooding inland and cyclonic rains inundate the mangrove swamps and coastal plains. During the dry season, the winds swing round to the south-east; the water recedes and the land gradually dries out.

Before European settlement of Australia, the north coast was the main area of contact with people from other countries. Macassarese trepang fishermen regularly visited the coast, bringing their high sturdy vessels with their great rectangular sails in with the north-west winds and out a few months later when the winds turned. Although these visits were discontinued early this century, their impact on Arnhem Land Aboriginal societies is still felt. In Cape York societies, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands continue as the most influential source of contact.

The climatic duality is reflected in Aboriginal social organization. Australian Aboriginal people assign almost all living and natural phenomena into one or other of two classes or moieties, differently named in different areas, but found throughout the continent. The moiety division is validated by religious beliefs and implicated in social and ritual life. Aboriginal intellects have delighted in the further refinement of social organization, and have produced in different areas patrilineal and matrilineal clans, section and sub-section systems and various patterns of kinship. The moiety classification and the clan, especially where it is a patrilineal land-owning group, are the two social groupings which are especially significant for musical performances.

Many Aboriginals in north Australia are now living on or close to European settlements. Cattle stations, government settlements - many of them formerly mission settlements - and small towns have gradually extended Aboriginal contact with larger Australian society during the last hundred years. In the last decade this contact has escalated with the discovery and exploitation of valuable minerals, among them uranium, bauxite and manganese. These activities have caused great disruption to both the physical and social environment of Aboriginal people and partly in response to this, some groups have recently moved out of areas where they had previously clustered around small white settlements and settled again on their own traditional land. Here, they are working out their own compromises in life style. In controlled degrees, Western housing, schooling, medicine and diet are permitted to supplement their old ways.

Traditional Aboriginal culture survives in varying degrees throughout the north. In many areas, children learn Aboriginal languages as their first languages. Songs and ceremonies are still being performed, and Aboriginal medicine, education and diet exist, not always happily, alongside those of the introduced culture. In some areas, such as Cape York, the renewed interest in traditional cultures which occurred in the last decade just caught areas of knowledge, particularly of songs and ceremonies, which had been almost lost. The current revival, with festivals, touring groups and exchanging of song material, suggests that though the old nomadic life has gone, a new era has arrived.

Musical Styles

Australian Aboriginal music consists of songs, accompanied by various, mainly percussive, instruments. The musical style and to some extent the type of accompaniment varies with area and genre. Embedded in a purely oral tradition, the music is learnt by imitation and passed on without reference to any written notations. Performances are never precisely the same, but different degrees of variation are allowed with different songs and in different contexts. In those associated with cults and secret rituals, the beneficial effects of the ceremony may be threatened if the structure of the music, the texts, and the order of the songs are not carefully preserved.

Below. Map of places mentioned in North Australian Aboriginal Music by Jill Stubington.
Map of Northern Australia - click to enlarge
Click on map for enlargement

A musical ensemble usually consists of one or two singers, or a group of singers, each with a percussion instrument, commonly a pair of sticks, or a pair of boomerang clapsticks and, where appropriate, one didjeridu player. A typical song session consists of a number of short items, sung one after the other. A casual evening's entertainment provided by such a song session and accompanied by dancing may be referred to as a "corroboree", a word taken into English from one of the Aboriginal languages of eastern Australia no longer spoken. Local languages, of course, have their own names for such an event. More formal sessions associated with particular ceremonies are called by the name of the ceremony.

Although there is considerable diversity in musical style across the north of Australia, it has been found possible to characterize and contrast northern Australian and central Australian musical styles (Moyle, 1974). Central Australian songs, she found, have texts which consist largely of a short phrase repeated over and over. They are accompanied by instruments of the idiophonic type only and the melodic lines consist of a series of descending patterns. To this class belong, for example, the songs with boomerang clapstick accompaniment that are associated with many of the travelling cults. Originating presumably in central desert areas, these cults have spread across the continent and their songs are heard throughout northern and central Australia. But the percentage of such songs in the total repertoire decreases as one moves north. In northern coastal areas, the large majority of songs have texts consisting of a number of different phrases; they may be accompanied by instruments of the idiophonic, aerophonic or membranophonic types, often more than one, and the vocal line may be interrupted by breaks, giving a distinctly sectional form. To this class belong, for example, the didjeridu-accompanied clan songs of north-east Arnhem Land.

Throughout north Australia there is a consistent segregation in most aspects of life, according to age and sex. Food gathering parties, for example, consist almost exclusively of one sex. Similarly, with music, children, women, and men of different ages have their own songs, which are performed in their own proper contexts.

Children's Songs

Children sing both songs of their own making and imitations of the adult repertoire. Songs they make up themselves are often short, repetitive, limited in vocal range and are sometimes chanted, or even shouted, rather than sung. The play-groups where these songs flourish have been described at Yirrkala as the "most prolific song-creating group in the society" (Waterman, 1955: 42). Children's songs from this area, some non-Aboriginal in structure, may be heard on Songs from the Northern Territory, disc 3A. In north-west Arnhem Land, Berndt notes that children's songs describe the creatures and plants in the local environment with such useful comments as "where you see chickenhawk, there you find kangaroo" (R.M. & C.H. Berndt, 1970: 33). Examples of children imitating the adult repertoire may be heard on Songs by Young Aborigines. The rhythmic intricacies of the adult music are handled with apparent ease in, for example, the Wongga on Side A Track 1b, and on Track 8, gallant attempts are made at songs with more extended pitch ranges.

Women's Songs

Compared with the constant performances and extensive repertoires of men's music, women's musical activities are very restricted in scope and frequency. Djarada, love-magic song ceremonies which also have wider fertility significance are sung separately by men and women in southern Arnhem Land and in the Kimberleys. One such performance by women, announced as Galwangara, may be heard on Songs from the Northern Territory, Disc 5A, Band 6. The singer is expressing her sorrow at her husband's absence from home.

Women have songs for particular occasions of importance in their lives such as the special "crying songs" for mourning. In north-east Arnhem Land, these are called ngathi, and the women use the words of the men's clan songs in a series of long, melismatic phrases. From Cape York, too, women's crying songs "embellished and extended melodic figures" and "hummed at a relatively high pitch" have been reported (Moyle, 1968-69: 11).

In some areas, especially where the culture is strongly threatened and where traditional performance settings are no longer available, women now assist with songs which were once the exclusive domain of the men. On the disc Aboriginal Sound Instruments there is a recording in which a woman at Borroloola plays some didjeridu demonstrations. The art of didjeridu playing is not in danger of being lost, but it is a new accomplishment in this area on the Gulf of Carpentaria where much of the local traditional music has been forgotten.

Men's Songs

It is the men's songs, however, in the great diversity of styles and genres, that the abundance of musical talent and creativity are displayed. As with the linguistic map of Aboriginal Australia, a map of musical styles would show that, compared with the centre and the south, the north of the continent supports a large number of styles concentrated in a relatively much smaller area. Distinct musical cultures may be found in the Kimberley area of Western Australia, Bathurst and Melville Islands, west Arnhem Land, north-east Arnhem Land, the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape York.

Cult, Clan and Individual Songs

A useful categorization of north Australian music has been made referring to cult, clan and individuallyowned songs (Moyle, 1974, 1968-9) and the bulk of the north Australian repertoire fails into one of these classes. Performance situations provide another classificatory dimension; some are "closed" and others are "open". Closed performances are subject to restrictions of a social and ritual basis over who may perform and who may attend. The ritual power released during such a performance is said to be too strong, and therefore physically dangerous for the uninitiated.

The cults are great complexes of myth and associated ritual which spread like religious movements across the country. Learnt by one group from a neighbouring one, they are in turn taught to another neighbour. They are usually associated with one or two central figures, usually creator ancestor heroes, who existed during the Dreamtime, before the world and its creatures took on their present fixed shape and mortal form. The myths often relate incidents occurring during a journey across the country and resulting in the forming of the contemporary landscape. The figures are celebrated in ceremonies in which their activities are re-enacted and their travels and deeds are described in songs. Partly closed to women and children, these ceremonies sometimes provide age-grading mechanisms for male participants, with further revelations made at successive attendances. As these cults move from area to area they alter with a new environment. They become absorbed into or rationalized with local myths. New names may be given to the heroes, and while their common origin and essential identity with neighbouring forms are recognized, many local variations in myth and ritual occur. In a study of song texts of north-east Arnhem Land, Berndt (1976) exposes the complexity of the relationship between various song series and the interweaving of myths in the area.

Often the central mimetic dances and imitative actions of the ceremonies associated with these cults are performed without singing, but with calls and cries from the actors concerned and rhythmic accompaniment by percussive instruments - a stick hitting a shield or a pair of boomerang clapsticks. In some cases, particular musical instruments are identified with particular beings and therefore particular cults.

The Kunapipi is one such complex now known in many areas. In the 1920's Warner found that it had come into northeast Arnhem Land from the south (Warner 1937/69: 444). The Wawilak myth which describes the travels of the two Wawilak sisters and their eventual meeting with Y********r, the rainbow snake, forms the basis of four age-grading rituals, Djungguwan, Ulmark, Marndiella and Kunapipi (Warner 1937/69: 234). Y********r is represented in the ceremony by a very large trumpet. Jones (1973: 269) gives the dimensions of one such instrument as eight feet long and four inches wide inside. Played lying down, it produces a series of short bursts of sound at a very low pitch. In the late forties, R.M. & C.H. Berndt reported Kunapipi as newly arrived in west Arnhem Land, and noted that performances were prompted and directed by southern visitors (R.M. & C.H. Berndt, 1970: 139). Meggitt (1966: 88) discusses a central Australian myth/ritual complex called Gadjari which he links with Kunapipi in Arnhem Land and Kurangara in the Kimberley area.

Openly performed songs connected with Kunapipi and described by the singers as Wandimulungu, Djarrkun and Yarangindjiri may be heard on Songs from the Northern Territory, Disc 5A. These were recorded at Rose River and Roper River, the area which Meggitt gives (1966: 88) as the origin of the Gadjari and Kurangara cults, and Berndt suggests (1951: 86) as the source of northly rituals. Accompanied by boomerang clapsticks and consisting of a series of vocal descents, they belong with central Australian styles rather than with the stylistically diverse open songs of the north coast areas.

In west Arnhem Land, the three major ritual sequences are Ubar, similar to the Ulmark of the east, Kunapipi and Maraiin (R.M. & C.H. Berndt, 1970: 117). In the Ubar ritual, the focus of the rites is the "hollow log drum", a percussion tube beaten with a stick. It represents a hiding place for Yirawadbad, the venomous snake who tricked two sisters into putting their hands in the log and bit them fatally. An account of a 1949 performance of a Maraian ceremony in central Arnhem Land is given by Elkin (1961). Songs recorded at this ceremony, together with some re-recordings made in 1951 are described and analysed by Elkin and Jones (1958). Some of them may be heard on the disc Arnhem Land - Authentic Australian Aboriginal Songs and Dances, Volume 3, Side 2. The gentle rise and fail of the singer's voice accompanied by slow single clapstick beats has prompted Jones to call these "the most beautiful and adventurous melodies in Arnhem Land music" (Elkin/Jones, 1958: 342).

Another central Arnhem Land ceremony, the Yabaduruwa, provides the only Australian example of a set of percussion sticks. It consists of three of four pieces of wood of varying lengths, and therefore giving various pitches, but about three feet long and four inches thick. Each is balanced on the shoulder of a player who strikes it with another stick. The resonating quality of the sound produced has resulted in their labelling as "gongs". These interlocking pitch patterns are not found anywhere else in Australia.

The Kimberley area is distinguished by travelling routes along which cults such as the Kurangara, which has been linked with the Kunapipi, and Djanba, are passed. The songs associated with them are usually accompanied by boomerang clapsticks and exhibit the characteristics of central Australian styles.

In Cape York, traditional ceremonial songs were remembered by only a few people when Moyle visited several centres in 1966 (1968-69: 6). Since her description of Bora songs, Laade's material, recorded in 1963, has been made available on the disc The Bora of the Pascoe River. In the disc notes, Laade points out that "the ceremonies have largely disintegrated", but the story of l'wai the Crocodile Hero is told and the appropriate songs are sung. A photograph of a singer with a single-headed hourglass-shaped drum is also provided. This is the only area of Australia where membranophones are found and their occurrence in a ceremony connected with a crocodile hero is a reminder of the nearness of Papua New Guinea to this part of Australia.

Clan Songs

Clan songs, or moiety songs, are usually tied to particular areas of land, and through this association, to particular family groups who have a special relationship with those areas. Performance rights in these songs are said to be passed down in the family concerned. The songs are often related to local myths which justify the use and occupation of that land by that group.

Although their supporting social structures have largely disappeared, the rhythmically complex, narrow-ranged songs on the disc Songs from Yarrabah may once have been songs of this class. With their sectional structure and melodic undulations they clearly fall into the northern rather than central style.

The most dramatic and most extensive repertoire of songs in this class, however, are the manikay of north-east Arnhem Land. Associated primarily with mortuary ceremonies and some initiation ceremonies, they may also be performed on any "open" occasion when music is required. Sometimes they are accompanied by dancing, in which case the performance will be referred to as a bunggul. They are performed by one or two singers, each holding a pair of clapsticks, and another musician playing a didjeridu, the wooden end-blown conical trumpet.

Theoretically, manikay are organized into series, sometimes named, each series being owned by a particular clan or language group. The words of the songs may be understood on many levels, and deeper levels of meaning are revealed to a man as he grows older. In actual performance, song subjects may describe a cluster rather than a lineal series. Musically, the performances are improvised, musicians drawing from a repertoire of musical and textual motives to build a unified structure both within each individual item and within the whole song session, which may last for several hours.

Several manikay song items about dan-gi (white cockatoo) performed by different singers from the Yirritja moiety may be heard, with other manikay, on Songs from the Northern Territory, Discs 3 and 4. The lovely banumbirr (morning star) myth, with its Dhuwa moiety ceremony is a bountiful source of songs and paintings from this area. Recordings may be heard on the disc bearing its name: Land of the Morning Star. Disc 2 and Disc 4 of Songs from the Northern Territory contain recordings of songs, similar in style and function, sung by the Nunggubuyu and Anindilyaugwa people who live to the south of the north-east Arnhem Land area. The brilliance of this form is clearly demonstrated here, both in the lively, crowded corroboree recording and in the quiet flourishes of the individual recordings.

Individual Songs

In west Arnhem Land, individually-owned songs usually form the basis of an open camp performance. The untranslatable "Wild Onion" songs heard on Songs from the Northern Territory, Disc 1A were made up by Nim Djimonggur. The "finding" of this series gave him special "songman" status at Oenpelli. Wongga songs, with their long descending melodic lines, and gossip songs, full of sexual inuendoes, also belong to the individually-owned category. Since their first recording of a Gunborg, one of the dance song types, on Arnhem Land Popular Classics, recorded by LaMont West in 1961-62, Djoli Laiwanga and David Blanasi have become well-known performers of west Arnhem Land styles. In recent years, these song styles have been spreading out from their area of origin to the southeast and the west. Didjeridu accompaniments in the Gulf area often use the forms and techniques of west Arnhem Land rather than the closer, but more difficult eastern Arnhem Land patterns. These appealing styles have also been adopted in the Kimberley area of Western Australia.

The Kimberley area is also the home of Tabi, or Djabi, songs. Individually found, owned and sung, these songs give a very personal flavour to Kimberley repertoires. A collection of texts "only a few of the thousands which exist" published by C.G. von Brandenstein and A.P. Thomas (1974) shows a wide range of topics, covering incidents of every-day contemporary life, aeroplanes, trucks, loading cattle, as well as the more traditional concerns, natural phenomena such as cloud activity and personal relationships involving women. Musically, Tabi are distinguished by their accompanying instrument which is a rasp: a notched stick is held upright and scraped by a second stick. Two Tabis, "Windmill" and "Goodbye Mandabulu" are to be heard on Aboriginal Sound Instruments.

Other Types of Songs

A few song types fall outside the tri-partite categorization of cult, clan and individually-owned. "Island style" singing on Cape York is one. Songs in parts with drum and rattle, and sometimes guitar, accompaniment, and associated with dancers wearing grass skirts in the Pacific Island style have swept through this area. On Songs from Yarrabah, a comparison between this and the older style may be made. Contrasts in musical style, the old one with narrow vocal range and handclapping or stick accompaniment, and the new one in two or three part harmony with drum and rattle, are matched by contrasting vocal quality, the one restricted and tense, and the other open-throated and relaxed. The singer may be heard explaining that the old people were deliberately re-arranging their traditional songs in this way, hoping to interest the young people in traditional ways.

Bathurst and Melville Islands are the home of the Tiwi, a group somewhat cut off and correspondingly different from mainland groups. Their important Pukamani, although a mortuary ceremony, is also used for initiation. The dramatic, high "mosquito" calls lasting for as long as five minutes (Goodale 1971: 284) are a feature of this ceremony. Some examples may be heard on the disc Songs of the Tiwi, together with the heavily accented single tone melodies of their songs.

The casual djatpangarri or djedbangari of north-east Arnhem Land are fun songs sung by the men of the young bachelors' camp for entertainment. The texts are mostly meaningless, but they are usually accompanied by mimetic and often highly amusing dances. The characteristically north-eastern style of didjeridu playing is used with these songs. Some examples, including one allegedly about Donald Duck may be heard on Songs from the Northern Territory, Disc 3B.

Special purpose songs, such as curing songs, birth and delivery songs, rain-making songs and rain-preventing songs, and songs associated with sorcery have also been reported from various areas, but recordings are few and not generally available.

Individual Creativity

In traditional northern Australian Aboriginal societies, musical talent and ability are channelled into forms appropriate to the sex and age of the musician. In areas where individually-owned genres are accepted, such as in the Kimberley area, where Tabi songs are sung, and in western Arnhem Land, where the institution of a "songman" requires that an aspirant for this status first creates his own series, creativity in composition is applauded and rewarded. In areas such as north-east Arnhem Land, clan song series are not thought to have been the creation of a particular person in the same way. Each performance is a spontaneous fusion of elements of the musical repertoire and each session therefore develops its own unique form and character. Individual musical expression has a slightly different vehicle here. Cult songs are found in all areas, but their performance in ritual is linked much more closely with affairs of deep religious and social significance and music here takes its place as one of the main supports as well as one of the major artistic expressions of Aboriginal societies.


The voice is the primary sound-producing instrument of the Australian Aboriginals. A clear, piercing nasal quality which will carry well outdoors is the one widely admired. Considerable breath control is also required and a damning comment sometimes made about incompetent singers is that they have insufficient breath. A good knowledge of song material is the other major requirement for a singer. Apart from his musical ability and imagination, his progress in musical arts is to some extent dependent on his family affiliations and his progression through the age-grading rituals.

In the absence of instruments of fixed pitch, Aboriginal melodic organization is not determined by established scales. The set of pitches used in any one item, which may of course be extracted and written down in such a form that it looks like a scale, will not necessarily recur, even in the very next item, even though it may be sung by the same performers and described by them as the "same song". The great diversity of scalic forms used throughout Australia may be seen in Jones (1965) and Moyle (1973) where information of this kind is listed. Complex rhythmic patterns are common and two sound components often play conflicting rhythms.

Melodic movement in north Australian songs is mainly undulating and descending, and often sectional in form. Melodic contour is of course dependent on the range of the song. Those with a very narrow range, consisting perhaps of only two notes, will of necessity have a contour which is either fairly straight or gently undulating. Song items with a very narrow range may be heard in may northern areas. The Tiwi style, heard on Songs of the Tiwi, provides examples, but others may be found in the traditional Cape York songs - the two-note tune of "Cross Shark", for example, notated by Moyle (1968-69: 19). This example also shows sectional structure where the vocal melody is interrupted by a call. "Kwara", on the other hand, (Moyle 1968-69: 18), has a vocal range of over an octave.

In north-east Arnhem Land manikay, Aboriginal organization of pitch and melodic contour can be accurately seen as a descending succession of pitch areas. A pitch area consists of one or two notes within a range of about a second. The singer uses the pitch areas discretely, singing the note or notes within an area for one phrase, or several phrases, and then leaving this area and moving to another, usually lower, one. Song items with only one pitch area will present undulating melodic contours, but others which have been found to have up to five areas (Stubington, 1978) will contain a series of vocal descents. Pitch areas are used in descending order, with a leap from the lowest one back to the highest one if this is required by the length of the item. In this way, some manikay have a range of only a second, while others extend well over an octave.

The styles of the north-east Arnhem Land manikay, together with the western Arnhem Land dance song styles, including the Wongga and Gunborg types, which are now heard also in the Kimberley and Gulf areas, present the greatest stylistic subtleties in north Australian Aboriginal music. Both have singer(s), sticks and didjeridu as sound components, but there are many formal differences between songs from these two areas.

North-east Arnhem Land manikay are improvised in performance. Song items are mainly short, of about thirty seconds duration, but at particular points of heightened musical tension in a song session, items of two or three minutes may be introduced. The voice or sticks usually commence each item with a short introduction. The didjeridu enters, and three sound components gradually establish pitch, tempo and rhythmic patterns to be used. In the song proper, voice, sticks and didjeridu are closely coordinated and this section of an item has its own often intricate form and balance. Typically, the sticks and didjeridu finish first and the singer continues with a vocal coda repeating the main musical ideas of the song proper.

If there is more than one singer, they are usually in unison, at least in so far as they use the same pitch areas at the same time. The order and duration of notes within the pitch area is often different and the words may also be different. In some north-east Arnhem Land recordings, a canonic effect specific to this area may be heard between two or more singers, where the first voice moves on to a second pitch area before the second enters.

The didjeridu uses the fundamental and an upper note at the first harmonic to provide a rhythmic accompaniment for the song. The vocal pitches are chosen by the singer without reference to the pitch of the didjeridu and are quite independent of it.

Western Arnhem Land songs, on the other hand, are set pieces, often with a range of an octave or more and almost always consisting of a series of vocal descents. The Wongga is noted for long melismatic descending phrases or "cries". Here the instruments usually begin and end each item, and the didjeridu appears to be used as a pitch referent by the singer, giving a tonal coherence to each item. These songs usually last for one or two minutes or more and the final item in a session may be quite different from the previous ones. In "Wild Onion", for example, Moyle notes (1967/74: 1) that the last item, known as the manbadjan (mother, or big one), although different in form, serves to identify the whole series. The texts too, provide another contrast. Manikay are always transferable, whereas western Arnhem Land songs often use nonsense syllables.

Didjeridu accompaniments in western Arnhem Land do not use the upper note, but rely much more on hummed notes in conjunction with blown notes to produce a gentler, harmonically rich chordal effect.

These two didjeridu-accompanied styles are the most widely recognized and the most commonly heard in north Australian music.


In constructing their sound instruments, Aboriginal people in north Australia use the resources at hand. If the appropriate materials are not readily available, they are adept at contriving some workable substitutes.

Most of their instruments fall into the idiophone class, where instruments consist of two separate parts which are struck together to give a percussive sound. Throughout Australia, this kind of instrument takes many different forms. Of the membraphones, or drum-types, there is only one example. Apart from the European guitar in Island style songs, no chordophones, or string instruments, are found, but in the aerophone, or wind instrument class, one example provides an outstanding exhibition of musical ingenuity. Some of the common instruments are listed below.


    Each singer holds a pair of wooden sticks, one in each hand. In Arnhem Land they are made of hardwood and provide a very bright, almost metallic ring. One, long and slightly flattened, is grasped in the middle and held flat. The other, more rounded and held towards the end, is brought sharply and cleanly on to the first. Paired sticks vary considerably in shape. Rectangular shaped sticks have been seen in Cape York, and in other areas, cigar-shaped sticks are common.
    Usually heard with southern styles, the boomerang clapsticks are held by the singer, one in each hand. They are grasped in the middle, so that the ends of the boomerang clatter together. At times they may be shaken so as to provide a continuous rattle. Demonstrations may be heard on Aboriginal Sound Instruments.
    Handclapping and slapping various parts of the body are used by singers of both sexes, sometimes as a substitute for a pair of sticks.
    Sometimes referred to as "gongs", the set of three or four variously-lengthed wooden sticks hit with a stick are used only in Yabaduruwa ceremonies.
    A percussion tube, the "hollow log drum", is used with the Ubar ceremonies.
    Other percussive idiophones include a stick beaten on a shield, a stick beaten on another stick lying on the ground, and the women's bark bundle hit on the ground.
  • RASP
    The Kimberley Tabi songs are accompanied by a rasp. A notched stick, or the side of a spear thrower is scraped by a second, smaller stick. Moyle has noted the use of two axe heads rubbed together as a substitute (Moyle, 1974: 152).
    Island style songs on Cape York are accompanied by bunches of seed pods held in the hand.


    A single-headed hourglass-shaped drum, whose head is made from lizard or goanna skin, or on at least one occasion the rubber from a tyre inner tube, is heard in Cape York, with both traditional song types and island dance. The open end is sometimes shaped like the mouth of a crocodile.


    The most common aerophone of the Aboriginals is the end-blown wooden slightly conical trumpet from Arnhem Land. Its larger relation, the Y********r trumpet is used only in ceremonies. Traditionally found only in Arnhem Land, with some very early reports from Cape York, the use of the didjeridu has spread in recent times to the Kimberleys and Gulf areas. There are two distinct styles, that originating in west Arnhem Land and the other from north-east Arnhem Land.

    The instrument is usually formed when a branch of a tree, naturally hollow, is further hollowed out by nesting termites. Aboriginals cut these branches to a suitable length, sometimes smooth the mouthpiece with gum and hollow out both ends a little more. Recently, an exaggerated bell shape is sometimes fashioned at the end. After stripping and painting, the instrument is complete.

    Blown with vibrating lips, it gives a fundamental note with a rich and complex harmonic series. In north-east Arnhem Land, the first overtone, at about a tenth above, is also used. Constant air pressure is maintained by simultaneously blowing out through the mouth and breathing in through the nose, using the cheeks as a reservoir. Considerable stamina is required for this technique and didjeridu players are usually young men. Eastern Arnhem Land didjeridu styles use the second pitch, as well as a variety of techniques using manipulations of tongue, lips and breath to create fast energetic rhythmic patterns. Quieter, less complicated patterns are also used. West Arnhem Land styles involve the use of hummed notes in conjunction with blown notes to produce slower, more "lazy" patterns. In many areas the didjeridu is used to produce imitations of bird and animal cries, both in the context of a song, and as special effects without a singer.

    As substitutes, an instrument which consists of the tail-shaft of a truck may be heard on Songs by Young Aborigines, Side 1, Track 12 ; and Elkin (1958: 14) describes one made from three lengths of plastic piping.

Berndt, R. M. 1951 Kunapipi: A study of an Australian Aboriginal Religious Cult. Melbourne: F.W. Cheshire.
  1976 Love songs of Arnhem Land. Melbourne: Nelson.
Berndt, R. M. and C.H. Berndt 1970 Man, land and myth in north Australia: the Gunwinggu people. Sydney: Ure Smith.
Brandenstein, C.G. von and A.P. Thomas 1974 Taruru: Aboriginal song poetry from the Pilbara. Adelaide: Rigby.
Elkin, A. P. 1961 Maraian at Mainoru, 1949. Oceania, 31 (4): 259-293: 32 (l): 1-15.
Elkin, A. P. and T.A. Jones 1958 Arnhem Land Music (North Australia), The Oceania Monographs No. 9. Sydney: The University of Sydney.
Goodale, J. C. 1971 Tiwi Wives. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Jones, T.A. 1973 The Yiraki (Didjeridu) in North-Eastern Arnhern Land: Techniques and Styles. In The Australian Aboriginal Heritage: An Introduction through the Arts, (R. M. Berndt and E. S. Phillips, eds.) Sydney: Australian Society for Education through the Arts in association with Ure Smith: 269-274.
Meehan, B. 1977 Man does not live by calories alone: the role of shellfish in a coastal cuisine. In Sunda and Sahul: Prehistoric Studies in Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Australia, J. Alien, J. Goldsen and R. Jones, eds. London: Academic Press.
Meggitt, M. J. 1966 Gadjari among the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia, The Oceania Monographs No. 14. Sydney: The University of Sydney.
Moyle, A.M. 1967/
Songs from the Northern Territory, Companion Booklet for Five 12 inch L.P. discs (Cat. No. IAS M-001/5). Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. First edition 1967, Revised edition 1974.
Moyle, A.M. 1968/
Aboriginal music on Cape York. Musicology III (Journal of the Musicological Society of Australia), 3-20.
Moyle, A.M. 1973 Songs by Young Aborigines: an introduction to North Australian Aboriginal Music. In The Australian Aboriginal Heritage: An Introduction through the Arts, (R. M. Berndt and E. S. Phillips, eds.) Sydney: Australian Society for Education through the Arts in association with Ure Smith: 238-268.
Moyle, A.M. 1974 North Australian Music: A Taxonomic Approach to the Study of Aboriginal Song Performances. Ph. D. Thesis, Music Department, Monash University.
Stubington, G.J. 1978 Yolngu manikay: modem performances of Australian Aboriginal clan songs. Ph.D. Thesis, Music Department, Monash University.
Warner, W.L. 1958/
A Black Civilization: a Social Study of and Australian Tribe. Revised edition. Gloucester: Peter Smith.
Waterman, R. A. 1955/
Music in Australian Aboriginal Culture - Some Sociological and Psychological Implications. Music Therapy, 5: 40-49. Reprinted in Readings in Ethnomusicology, (D. P. McAllester, ed.) New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation 1971: 167174.


  • Aboriginal Sound Instruments. One 12" LP 33 1/3 r.p.m. Recorded and edited by Alice M. Moyle. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Cat. No. AIAS/14.
  • Arnhem Land Popular Classics. Aboriginal Dance Songs with Didjeridu Accompaniment. One 12" LP 33 1/3 r.p.m. Collected by L. M. West, 1961-62. Wattle Ethnic Series No. 3.
  • The Australian Aboriginal Heritage. An Introduction through the Arts. Two 12" LP 33 1/3 r.p.m. The Australian Society for Education through the Arts. Record 1, Side 1: Learning Aboriginal Music. Recorded by C. J. and A. M, Ellis. Record 1, Side 2: Yiraki (Didjeridu) playing in North-Eastern Anthem Land. Recorded and and edited by Trevor A. Jones. Six Aboriginal Songs. Recorded and edited by Ronald M. Berndt. Record 2: Songs by Young Aborigines. Recorded and edited by Alice M. Moyle.
  • Arnhem Land - Authentic Australian Aboriginal Songs and Dances (Vols. 1, 2, and 3). Three 12" LP 33 1/3 r.p.m. Recorded by Professor A. P. Elkin. HMV OALP 7504, 7505, 7516.
  • The Bora of the Pascoe River, Cape York Peninsula, Northeast Australia. One 17' LP 33 1/3 r.p.m. Recorded and annotated by Wolfgang Laade. Ethnic Folkways Records FE 4211.
  • The Land of the Morning Star. Songs and Music of Arnhem Land. One 12" LP 33 113 Recorded by Sandra Le Brun Holmes. HMV OCLP 7610.
  • Songs from Arnhem Land. One 12" LP 33 1/3 r.p.m. Recorded and edited by Lester R. Hiatt. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Cat. No. AIAS/6.
  • Songs from the Northern Territory. (Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) Five 12" LP 33 1/3 r.p.m. Recorded and edited by Alice M. Moyle. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Cat. No. IAS M-00 115.
  • Songs from Yarrabah. One 12" LP 33 1/3 r.p.m. Recorded by Alice M. Moyle and P, C. Griffin. Edited by Alice M. Moyle. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Cat. No. AIAS/7.
  • Songs of the Tiwi. Traditional Aboriginal Music of Australia. One 7" EP 45 r.p.m. Aboriginal Artists Agency AAA-01.



Copyright 2002-2006 J.H. Burrows and Peter Lister