'Memories in the Landscape': The Role of Performance in Naming, Knowing, and Claiming Yanyuwa Country

By Mackinlay, Elizabeth | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2006 | Go to article overview

'Memories in the Landscape': The Role of Performance in Naming, Knowing, and Claiming Yanyuwa Country


Mackinlay, Elizabeth, Journal of Australian Studies


The small remote community of Borroloola in the southwest Gulf region of the Northern Territory, approximately 970 kilometres southeast of Darwin and 80 kilometres inland, is today home to Yanyuwa people. Yanyuwa people traditionally identify themselves as island or saltwater people, and often use the colourful phrase li-anthawirriyarra, or 'people whose spirit belongs to the sea' as a marker of their distinct spiritual and social identity. The sentiment expressed in this phrase is multivocalic and suggests, amongst many things, a deep emotional attachment to country and sea. In Yanyuwa culture, there is an important category of public unrestricted song performance which concerns the actions of human ancestors, relationships between people, and relationships between people and their environment. When composed by men, these songs are called walaba, and they are called a-kurija when composed by women. (1) My concern in this essay is to explore the ways in which this genre of newly-composed songs is used by Yanyuwa people as a mechanism to name and know their country through a musical expression that resonates with emotion and memory.

Central to this essay is the understanding that 'Musical performance is a way of knowing, and the performance arts are important means for reflection, of sensing order and ordering experience, and relating inner sensations to the life of feeling in one's society'. (2) Questions of how songs embody relationships to country, and how singing makes interactions and experiences of country reverberate with knowledge of that country and memories of a named place, underlie this discussion. As David Henderson suggests, 'The reality of music is wrapped up in thinking about and remembering music: music is affective because songs contain sensate memories of other songs, other selves, other moments. And if music lives and resounds through memory, it must live countless unique lives that overlap in myriad dimensions, and must resound time and time again in performance'. (3)

In Yanyuwa there is no generic term for song or music. Rather, each specific musical style has its own specific name, and sometimes subset of names. Categorisation of song into styles by Yanyuwa people is determined according to a complex set of interrelationships between the origins of songs, the purposes they serve, and the people who may participate in performance. As discussed elsewhere, the Yanyuwa have two terms, kurdukurdu and lhamarnda, that serve to categorise genres of performance. Kurdukurdu is often explained by Yanyuwa as a correlate to the Western terms 'secret' and 'sacred', and therefore refers to performance genres labeled as restricted business. Lhamarnda is described by Yanyuwa people as free, or not secret and sacred, and refers to performance genres that are considered to be unrestricted. As with many such words in Indigenous languages, however, the terms are open to many interpretations that are dependent upon time, place and the gender balance at any one moment.

The Yanyuwa loosely refer to those songs belonging to the broad category of kurdukurdu performance or restricted business as kujika, or 'big history', songs. Like the Yanyuwa people of today, the Spirit Ancestors lived their lives by travelling, marking and singing the landscape into being. This creative period is called Yijan by the Yanyuwa, a word generally and confusingly translated into English as 'Dreaming'. The sharpest concentrations of the Spirit Ancestors' powers are found in such marks: places where they created a land form, left an object behind, raised a tree, entered the ground and created a song verse. These are the powerful places where important knowledge is said to reside, and the kujika songs that encode this information have been described by senior Yanyuwa performers as maps that 'tell us about the country, they are maps which we carry in our heads'. (5) Thus this knowledge, much of it associated with music and performance, provides a rich soundscape that can still be used by the Yanyuwa to assist in maintaining the life-order. …

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