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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
and on Track 8,
gallant attempts are made at songs with more extended pitch
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
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).
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.
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.
Clan and Individual Songs
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Types of Songs
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
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.
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
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
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.
ASPECTS OF MUSICAL STYLE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
two didjeridu-accompanied styles are the most widely recognized
and the most commonly heard in north Australian music.
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.
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.