Posted on 23 June, 2017

Front Row Seats in the Magnum Opus of Land and Sea

Front Row Seats in the Magnum Opus of Land and Sea

Photo: International Mother Language Day celebrated in Nhulunbuy with people of all ages from at least 5 clans.

Two women lean in closely to share the small speaker as it plays the voice of an old man. Gitjpapuy was the late husband of Ms G Djerrkura, who is sitting with her great-granddaughter, Wamuttjan. This is the first time that Wamuttjan has heard the voices of Gitjpapuy and other elders as they share a Djambarrpuyŋu and Marraŋu medley for a ceremony, more than 45 years ago. A researcher took these recordings in the early 1970’s, and Hannah was able to bring this recording home as part of recent project work in Gapuwiyak.

Gitjpapuy’s son, Gawura Wanambi, has been documenting the language and songs of Marraŋu families. Gawura is working alongside other ARDS staff members to record and promote heritage languages in northeast Arnhem Land. Gawura’s own mother, sister, and niece have been involved, and other kin from closely related clans. When Gawura reflected on his experience of the work in Gapuwiyak, he commented, “I am just so happy. I didn’t know it could be like this... I thank you for working with us.”

Front Row Seats in the Magnum Opus of Land and Sea

Photo:Recording milkarri (crying songs) in Galiwin'ku

The Ancient Languages, New Sounds project commenced 7 months ago when ARDS received funding from the Indigenous Languages and the Arts (ILA) program. At our first workshop, we celebrated International Mother Language Day in Nhulunbuy with people of all ages from at least 5 clans. Since the beginning of the dry season in the Top End, we visited Galiwin’ku and Gapuwiyak to work with 4 more clan groups. In each visit, we were able to return existing recordings to the families of storytellers and songmen. With our sound team Andrew Grimes and Gäyalŋa Gurruwiwi, we recorded stories and men’s and women’s traditional music. Aspiring Yolŋu language workers noted down interesting features and vocabulary as we all listened to the stories and songs.

This project is as deeply personal as family relationships, and as timeless as the histories of land and sea and tribe. After attending one of the recording sessions in a creek bed outside of Gapuwiyak, one young adult responded, “We are learning Yolŋu law. Our elders teach us how they lived traditionally, and how they are living now, and how they want us to keep going. Our culture is so important to us; this is our foundation - our languages, our songs, our designs. My elders help me by telling me the stories of our clan - where our songlines begin and end. We sing for the saltwater and the freshwater. I am living with both systems of knowledge - Yolŋu and Balanda. I am trying to find the connections and greater understanding.” (translated from Yolŋu Matha)

Front Row Seats in the Magnum Opus of Land and Sea

Photo: Field recordings of Guyula manikay at a funeral in Galiwin'ku

As this project progresses, young musicians will have the opportunity to develop and record new responses to the language, features and themes of these recordings. We are excited to see how the stories and songs - old and new - will enhance our everyday project work at ARDS. Stay tuned to Yolŋu Radio to hear some of the audio we have already recorded. We will organise two compilation albums and a performance next year.

Beyond 2018, we have high hopes that our work will strengthen the continuing memory and expression of life in northeast Arnhem Land for the great-grandchildren of tomorrow.

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