THE AFFAIRS OF MUSIC
National indigenous recording project
                            by Aaron Corn

                                                                                                    Voices of Eternity
    Why we need a national recording project for                                                    The creek-side glade in which we sit is humid
                                                                                                    yet cooled by a light breeze. It shelters us from
    Indigenous performance in Australia                                                             the early afternoon sun as the pure glassy
                                                                                                    water of the creek flows peacefully behind the
                                                                                                    musicians before me and the towering sacred
                                                                                                    mayku (paperbark tree) behind them. Their
                                                                                                    ensemble is clear, deliberate and beautifully
                                                                                                    nuanced as it reverberates through my
                                                                                                    headphones. Seconds stretch into hours on
                                                                                                    the display of my digital audio recorder. My
                                                                                                    own awareness of time stretches with them
                                                                                                    and I lose myself in the delicately-intertwined
                                                                                                    voices of the singers. Their melismatic lines
                                                                                                    gracefully permute around the ideal of a
                                                                                                    singular melody above the anchoring rhythms
                                                                                                    of their unison bilma (paired sticks) and yidaki
                                                                                                    (didjeridu) accompanist.
                                                                                                        The performance that reaches me through
                                                                                                    microphone, recorder and headphones
                                                                                                    resonates with the environment surrounding
                                                                                                    us. The birds, the wind, the insects and the
                                                                                                    water are as much a part of the living ensemble
                                                                                                    I hear as the musicians themselves. The songs
                                                                                                    they perform are not just songs from any place
                                                                                                    or time. They are manikay (songs) from this
                                                                                                    place: from the glade in which we sit, from the
                                                                                                    creek that runs by it, and from the forest, hills,
                                                                                                    lagoons and wetlands that surround it.
                                                                                                        The musicians’ songs are their own—
                                                                                                    passed in unbroken inheritance from the
                                                                                                    original ancestors who shaped, observed,
                                                                                                    named and populated the Yolngu homelands
                                                                                                    of NE Arnhem Land in northern Australia; yet
                                                                                                    the music I hear echoes with every generation
                                                                                                    of people who have ever sat here. The
                                                                                                    musicians would later tell me that they could
                                                                                                    feel the hairs of their napes standing as the
                                                                                                    ancestors who remain eternally present and
                                                                                                    sentient in country observed their performance
                                                                                                    from the creek behind. Following ancestral
                                                                                                    precedent in this way is not only a way of
                                                                                                    communing with these eternal ancestors and
                                                                                                    sharing in their intelligence but of upholding
                                                                                                    their law through the ceremonial performance
                                                                                                    of manikay.
                                                                                                        The country in which we sit is called
                                                                                                    Djiliwirri and it is the sacred capital of the
                                                                                                    Gupapuyngu: the Yolngu clan into which I am
                                                                                                    adopted. The four singers are my adoptive
                                                                                                    fathers—Baltha Gaykamangu, Neparrnga
                                                                                                    Gumbula, Munggula Gaykamangu and
                                                                                                    Dhamanydji Gaykamangu—and their yidaki
                                                                                                    accompanist, Gutayi Dhamarrandji, is a son
    Djangbirrkpuy Yunupingu, Neparrnga Gumbula, Munggulla Gaykamangu, Baltha Gaykamangu and Mong-   of their sister. We have been drawn here by
    gunu Gumbula recording at Djiliwirri [Photograph, Aaron Corn, 2004]                             these Elders to explore and record fine details

     MCA Music Forum Feb - April 2007      22
                                                                                                           THE AFFAIRS OF MUSIC
                                                                                                           National indigenous recording project
                                                                                                           by Aaron Corn

of the holistic relationships between language,      they can draw in this endeavour. Also joining        law is exercised and the human experience
songs, dances, designs, ceremonies, people           us are colleagues from Museum Victoria and           is sanctified. Their efforts to sustain these
and country held by the Gupapuyngu Yolngu            the Australian National University who remind        unique traditions amid the underlying fiscal
using cutting-edge digital audio, video,             us of the family’s past with records made by         poverty of remote Australia, economic and
photography, GPS-mapping and data-storage            Thomson in the 1930s and Ian Keen in the             political pressures from without, and personal
technologies.                                        1970s. Our own records of our time at Djiliwirri     pressures from within are nothing short of
    Inspiration for this family initiative, called   will contribute to this material legacy. From        heroic. In Arnhem Land alone, the density
the Gupapuyngu Legacy, comes from the                the earliest photograph by Thomson to the            of discrete performance traditions and
singers’ prolific father, Djäwa, who passed          youngest person at Djiliwirri, the entire material   repertoires within them remains very high and
away in 1983 having served as leader of              record encompassed by this excursion spans           the effort required to comprehensively record,
the Yolngu community at Milinginbi for four          eight decades and six generations.                   document and archive them all can seem
decades. Having been photographed by W.                                                                   insurmountable.
Lloyd Warner and T. T. Webb in 1926, Djäwa           Challenges and Strategies                                It was in response to such challenges that
features in the earliest archived records of         Djiliwirri is but one country amid thousands         the National Recording Project for Indigenous
Yolngu culture following the establishment of        across remote Australia worthy of this               Performance in Australia (NRPIPA) was
the first mission to the Yolngu at Milinginbi in     treatment. The Gupapuyngu are but one of             conceived during the first Symposium on
1922. He was later photographed by Donald            sixty-odd Yolngu clans while the Yolngu of           Indigenous Performance at Gunyangara in
Thomson in 1937, recorded singing manikay            NE Arnhem Land are themselves but one of             NE Arnhem Land in August 2002. Convened
by Alice Moyle in 1962 and filmed leading            dozens of Indigenous peoples who continue            by Mandawuy Yunupingu, Allan Marett and
a ceremony by Cecil Holmes in 1963. Yet,             to speak traditional Australian languages.           Marcia Langton, the Symposium was funded
despite his prominence in the archived record        With not one of these languages spoken by            by the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and
of Arnhem Land, only a small fraction of the         more than 10,000 people, all are considered          Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and
law that he spent his entire life upholding was      endangered by international standards.               hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation (YYF) as
recorded.                                            The various song and dance traditions such           part of the fourth Garma Festival of Traditional
    Those records that Djäwa did leave behind        as manikay that continue to be practised             Culture. It was attended by Indigenous Elders
for his descendants are highly valued. His           alongside these languages are similarly              and performers from throughout northern
children, now Elders themselves, have been           challenged. The traditional economies that           Australia and Papua New Guinea as well as
inspired by his paintings to re-introduce            sustained these traditions throughout most           scholars with interests in their performance
forgotten elements of hereditary design to           of Australia a century ago are now all but           traditions.
their own ceremonial and commercial work.            gone through mission, state and commercial               Through our gathering at Gunyangara,
The delicate nuances of manikay recorded             interventions making it increasingly difficult       we explored an array of possibilities for
by Moyle and passages of ceremony filmed             and expensive, in monetary terms, for many           understanding, recording and disseminating
by Holmes have been similarly re-integrated          families to access remote homelands.                 Indigenous performance traditions including
into routine ceremonial practice as well as              The repeated threat of state funding cuts to     live performance and analysis, transcribing
professional performances at premier events          remote Indigenous communities makes this             and translating song lyrics, re-setting
such as the Garma Festival of Traditional            situation seem even more dire. Among the             traditional materials in new media, learning
Culture and WOMADelaide.                             numerous Elders from across Arnhem Land              and performing and traditional dance, and
    The        contemporary        Gupapuyngu        with whom I work, there are genuine concerns         archival solutions. At the symposium’s end,
ambition is to build on this legacy to create        that it is becoming increasingly difficult to        we unanimously resolved that a National
a comprehensive record of all hereditary             sustain those song and dance traditions that         Recording Project for Indigenous Performance
names, songs, dances and designs and                 remain current. The final attrition of these         in Australia should be established to:
their relationships to ceremonies, people and        traditions is something that none of them               ensure that the performance traditions of as
country. Here at Djiliwirri in August 2005, we       wish to witness in their lifetimes. Their loss       many Indigenous performers as possible are
work towards this ambition. We make the first        would herald the disappearance of some of            held for future generations;
comprehensive recordings of Gupapuyngu               the finest esoteric performance traditions in            support the establishment of community
manikay, plot the country’s sacred sites using       the world and render vast bodies of living           archives with storage and retrieval systems
GPS technology for the very first time, and film     classical knowledge about the Australian             that will facilitate the repatriation of digital
Elders’ interpretations of these sites and their     continent, not to mention the human condition        materials to Indigenous communities;
sacred links to hereditary law.                      itself, forever inaccessible. All that would               publish well-documented and readily-
    We are joined in these endeavours by             remain would be the transnational cult of the        accessible      recordings    of     Indigenous
family young and old who flocked to Djiliwirri       singerless didjeridu: a fetishised simulacrum        performance repertoires; and
to share in the experience of rediscovering this     of Australian ‘Indigeneity’ that is ubiquitous            create new education and employment
deeply remote pristine homeland. For some,           to commercials, souvenir stands, busking             opportunities for Indigenous Australians.
and especially the young, it is their very first     precincts and concert halls worldwide yet            (Marett, Langton & Yunupingu 2002)
visit and the records we make here will travel       exists nowhere amid the diverse regionalised             The NRPIPA was officially launched by
with them through life as lasting reminders          performance traditions that once flourished          Mandawuy Yunupingu and Jack Thompson
of their forebears’ knowledge. These young           throughout Australia.                                at the sixth Garma Festival of Traditional
people will one day inherit the heavy burden of          To the Elders with whom I work, such             Culture following the third Symposium on
sustaining their traditions into the future. Their   losses—such breaches of their ancestral              Indigenous Performance in August 2004. Its
direct personal connections to the records           covenant—are unconscionable. To lose                 guiding aims are detailed in the Statement on
made here by their Elders will be a ready            their living performance traditions is to lose       Indigenous Performance which begins with
source of strength and sustenance on which           the functional logic through which ancestral         this preamble.

                                                                                                            23     MCA Music Forum Feb - April 2007
               THE AFFAIRS OF MUSIC
National indigenous recording project
                              by Aaron Corn

                                                                                                           developing a national archiving infrastructure
                                                                                                           for the NRPIPA. The NTL and Charles Darwin
                                                                                                           University (CDU) also committed to working
                                                                                                           together with Indigenous communities in
                                                                                                           tailoring training programs to meet the
                                                                                                           project’s overarching recording, documenting
                                                                                                           and archiving aims (Marett et al. 2006: 86–
                                                                                                                The second pilot study conducted towards
                                                                                                           the NRPIPA in 2005 was Documenting the
                                                                                                           Realisation of Indigenous Performance
                                                                                                           Traditions on Country. It was funded with
                                                                                                           a University of Sydney Research and
                                                                                                           Development Grant secured by Allan Marett
                                                                                                           and myself, and entailed a series of excursions
                                                                                                           to remote homelands across Arnhem Land
                                                                                                           to trial, under harsh field conditions, digital
                                                                                                           recording and documentation processes for
                                                                                                           potential use in the NRPIPA. In addition to
                                                                                                           the invaluable insights that we gained to the
                                                                                                           new possibilities for best practice using digital
                                                                                                           technologies in the field, these excursions
                                                                                                           facilitated comprehensive recordings of
                                                                                                           previously-unrecorded         song    series     of
                                                                                                           the manikay and kunborrk traditions in
                                                                                                           collaboration with local Elders and performers
                                                                                                           (Marett et al. 2006: 87).
       Songs,       dances      and     ceremonial     during our three initial Symposia on Indigenous          Given the vast scope of the many living
       performances form the core of Yolngu and        Performance in 2002, 2003 and 2004. The first,      Indigenous performance repertoires in
       other Indigenous cultures in Australia. It      Planning for Sustainability, was in the form of     Australia yet to be recorded, other studies that
       is through song, dance and associated           a Linkage Project funded by the Australian          have become affiliated with the NRPIPA since
       ceremony that Indigenous people sustain         Research Council (ARC) between our core             its inception include:
       their cultures and maintain the Law and a       research team—Allan Marett, Marcia Langton,                  Preserving Australia’s Endangered
       sense of self within the world. Performance     Linda Barwick and myself—and Mandawuy               Heritages: Murrinhpatha Song at Wadeye,
       traditions are the foundation of social and     Yunupingu, Witiyana Marika and Alan James of        an ARC Discovery–Project involving Linda
       personal well-being, and with the ever-         YYF. The series of consultative meetings with       Barwick, Allan Marett, and linguists Michael
       increasing loss of these traditions, the        Indigenous stakeholders and potential partner       Walsh, Nicholas Reid, Lysbeth Ford and Joe
       toll grows every year. The preservation of      organisations convened through this study           Blythe;
       performance traditions is therefore one         determined that the NRPIPA should:                      When the Waters Will Be One: Indigenous
       of the highest priorities for Indigenous           be informed by international best practice;      Performance Traditions at the New Frontier
       people.                                              draw on new technologies in ways that          of Inter-Cultural Discourse in Arnhem Land,
       Indigenous songs should also be a               invert conventional relationships between           an ARC Discovery Project led by myself in
       deeply valued part of the Australian            performers, researchers and archivists;             conjunction with Marcia Langton;
       cultural heritage. They represent the great       be driven by local priorities within Indigenous          Yiwarruj, Yinyman, Radbiyi Ida Mali:
       classical music of this land. These ancient     communities rather than the agendas of              Iwaidja and Other Endangered Languages
       musical traditions were once everywhere         visiting researchers; and                           of the Cobourg Peninsula (Australia) in Their
       in Australia, and now survive as living             aim to empower Indigenous communities           Cultural Context, a Volkswagen Endangered
       traditions only in several regions. Many        by providing new leadership opportunities           Languages Project led by linguists Nicholas
       of these are now in danger of being lost        through its field-recording and documentation       Evans and Hans-Jürgen Sasse in conjunction
       forever. Indigenous performances are            operations. (Marett et al. 2006: 86)                with Linda Barwick, Bruce Birch and Joy
       one of our most rich and beautiful forms            It was also determined that primary             Williams;
       of artistic expression, and yet they remain     responsibility for the management of all                  Jaminjungan and Eastern Ngumpin: A
       unheard and invisible within the national       archived data and rights information collected      Documentation of the Linguistic and Cultural
       cultural heritage. Without immediate            under the project’s auspices should reside          Knowledge of Speakers in a Multilingual Setting
       action many Indigenous music and dance          with local agencies such as the recently-           in the Victoria River District, Northern Australia,
       traditions are in danger of extinction with     established Indigenous Knowledge Centres            a Volkswagen Endangered Languages
       potentially destructive consequences for        of the Northern Territory with support from key     Project led by linguists Eva Schultze-Berndt
       the fabric of Indigenous society and culture.   partner organisations such as the Northern          and Patrick McConvell in conjunction with
       (Marett, Langton & Yunupingu 2002)              Territory Library (NTL). Undertakings were          Allan Marett and Linda Barwick; and
       In 2005, two NRPIPA pilot studies were          made by the NTL, AIATSIS and the National                The Place of Song in Warlpiri Culture, an
    conducted to test and refine strategies devised    Library of Australia (NLA) to collaborate in        ARC Linkage Project led by anthropologist

     MCA Music Forum Feb - April 2007         24
                                                      and the generation of new appreciation
Nicolas Peterson and linguist Mary Laughren
(Marett et al. 2006: 87–88);                          networks for these traditions in their own right
                                                                                                          Unfinished Business
                                                                                                          I am drawn back to the creek-side glade at
  Birrkili Dalkarra: Knowledge Mapping of Birrkili    (Australian Art Orchestra 2006. See Music
                                                                                                          Djiliwirri where I sit with my adoptive kin. The
Performance Traditions and the Yingapungapu           Forum Vol. 13 No. 1). Although professional
                                                                                                          sacred mayku (paperbark tree) there towers
Public Ceremonial Complex in the Revitalisation       performance opportunities for traditional
                                                                                                          over us as their mesmerising ensemble floods
of Birrkili Yolngu Law, a University of Sydney        Indigenous performers outside their remote
                                                                                                          my headphone-clad ears. As I lose all sense
Research and Development Project led                  regions of origin remain extremely limited,
                                                                                                          of time, I wonder how I came to be here: how
by myself and Yolngu Elder Djangirrawuy               there is growing evidence that international
                                                                                                          someone with an unexceptional suburban
Garawirrtja; and                                      audiences are hungry to experience them
                                                                                                          upbringing and a conservatorium training in
      Elder Assessments of Early Material             firsthand.
                                                                                                          music could have made this unpredictable
Culture Collections from Arnhem Land and                  In 2005, I collaborated with the Aboriginal
                                                                                                          journey. The thought fades with the realisation
Contemporary Access Needs to Them among               Artists’ Agency in touring the Yalakun Dancers
                                                                                                          that I am here in the midst of eternity. Its voices
Their Source Communities, an ARC Discovery            from Gapuwiyak to Malaysia and France
                                                                                                          emanate from the lips of the four brothers,
Project led by Yolngu Elder Neparrnga                 where their performances filled theatres in
                                                                                                          their living descendants, who sing before me
Gumbula in conjunction with myself.                   Kuala Lumpur and at the Cité de la Musique
                                                                                                          with their backs to the mayku and the creek
                                                      in Paris. At WOMADelaide in 2006, I joined the
                                                                                                          flowing behind it. Could their lips be the last
Finding Ways Forward                                  Gupapuyngu Dancers from Milinginbi, led by
                                                      Neparrnga Gumbula, in presenting audiences
                                                                                                          through which these songs, these ancestral
A truly robust NRPIPA will require longer-                                                                inheritances, pass? I can no more entertain
                                                      with immersive opportunities to dance that
term development of essential infrastructural                                                             this eventuality than the musicians before me
                                                      blurred the line between spectacle and
needs. National and regional advisory boards                                                              or the ancestors who observe us from the
                                                      spectator in a way that paralleled traditional
are required to coordinate the planning and                                                               creek behind.
                                                      ceremonial settings. These immensely popular
prioritisation of individual recording and                                                                    All the while, the seconds glide by silently
                                                      performances enjoyed high participation and,
documentation operations while a national                                                                 with every sound captured. The sun hangs
                                                      by all accounts, left audiences with a very
and regionalised infrastructure for archiving                                                             low as we finish recording the manikay series
                                                      real sense of the vitality to be experienced
collected materials is essential to their                                                                 of the day. Copying, mastering, transcription,
                                                      through Australia’s Indigenous song and
ongoing access among source communities                                                                   translation and archiving are all to follow
                                                      dance traditions. Neparrnga Gumbula’s
and other potential users. However, on a                                                                  but my focus lies elsewhere. I think about
                                                      leadership in such cultural survival initiatives,
more fundamental level, the NRPIPA will                                                                   the dozen or so other Elders, some of them
                                                      and lasting impact on the interpretation and
wither completely without continuing input                                                                very old, who have approached me about
                                                      management of world heritage collections of
from healthy, cohesive and economically                                                                   recording their own repertoires. I have already
                                                      Yolngu material culture will be recognised with
stable Indigenous communities throughout                                                                  been away from home on fieldwork more
                                                      his honorary receipt of the Doctor of Music
remote Australia where the transmission of                                                                weeks of this year than not but, still, there is
                                                      from the University of Sydney in 2007.
traditional knowledge across generations can                                                              so much work to be done. Both demand and
                                                          While the Yalakun and Gupapuyngu
continue organically with reinforcement from                                                              the stakes are inescapably high.
                                                      Dancers deliberately capitalise on the
the archival records that are generated.
                                                      stunning pageantry of traditional dance,
     A growing factor in such bids for                                                                    References
                                                      broader appreciation and critical acclaim for       Australian Art Orchestra. 2006. ‘Crossing Roper Bar’.
cultural survival among remote Indigenous                                                        the pipeline/breaking the sound barrier.
                                                      the musicians who lead them is also gaining
communities is outreach to new audiences,                                                                 Allan Marett. 2005. Songs, Dreamings and Ghosts: The
                                                      momentum. In 2005, Jurtbirrk Love Songs             Wangga of North Australia. Middletown: Wesleyan University
patrons and support networks for their
                                                      of Northwestern Arnhem Land (Minyimak et            Press.
song and dance traditions. Among the key                                                                  Allan Marett, Marcia Langton and Mandawuy Yunupingu.
                                                      al. 2005), compiled by Linda Barwick, Bruce
successes of the Garma Festival of Traditional                                                            2002. ‘Garma Statement on Indigenous Performance.’
                                                      Birch and Joy Williams, won prizes for Best        statement.
Culture has been to draw international
                                                      Traditional Album and Best Album Design             pdf.
attention to the Indigenous performance                                                                   Allan Marett, Mandawuy Yunupingu, Marcia Langton,
                                                      at the Northern Territory Music Awards.
traditions of remote Australia through its                                                                Neparrnga Gumbula, Linda Barwick and Aaron Corn. 2006.
                                                      This album includes extensive performer             ‘The National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance
focal programme of daily ceremony as well
                                                      biographies, community histories, linguistic        in Australia: Year One in Review’. Backing Our Creativity-
as its parallel support for the Symposium on                                                              Research, Policy, Practice: National Education and the Arts
                                                      and musical analyses, musical transcriptions
Indigenous Performance and the NRPIPA (YYF                                                                Symposium Proceedings. 84-90.
                                                      and song translations to explore the beauty         David Minyimak, et al. 2005. Jurtbirrk Love Songs of
2006). This premier event has also spawned a                                                              Northwestern Arnhem Land. Comp. Linda Barwick, Bruce
                                                      and artistry of the jurtbirrk tradition. In 2005,
new wave of family-operated micro-tourism                                                                 Birch and Joy Williams. Batchelor: Batchelor Press.
                                                      Songs, Dreamings and Ghosts: The Wangga of          Yothu Yindi Foundation. 2006. Garma Festival. www.garma.
initiatives on deeply-remote homeland centres
                                                      North Australia by Allan Marett, the first book
such as Bawaka and Nyinyikay where visitors
                                                      in history to offer a detailed exploration of any
are offered immersive cultural experiences in
                                                      single Indigenous Australian song tradition,        Dr Aaron Corn is an ARC Australian Post-
which traditional Yolngu song and dance are
                                                      was met with widespread critical acclaim and,       Doctoral Fellow in Music at the University of
                                                      in 2006, was awarded the prestigious Stanner        Sydney. He contributes to numerous research
     Creative exchanges between prolific
                                                      Award by AIATSIS. As products of rigorous           projects on Indigenous Australian performance
Australian musicians and gifted traditional
                                                      scholarship and technical standards, both           and digital archiving including the National
performers such as the Australian Art
                                                      works offer models for outcomes from the            Recording Project for Indigenous Performance
Orchestra’s current collaborative work with the
                                                      NRPIPA that will continue to raise international    in Australia. He has worked closely on cultural
Ngukurr community in SE Arnhem Land also
                                                      awareness about Australia’s Indigenous              survival initiatives with Indigenous communities
contributes to raising the international profile of
                                                      performance traditions.                             in Arnhem Land for a decade.
Australia’s Indigenous performance traditions

To top