Traditional Tribal Music - a Sort of Oral History in Song - Finds New Listeners

By Ron Scherer, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 1990 | Go to article overview
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Traditional Tribal Music - a Sort of Oral History in Song - Finds New Listeners


Ron Scherer, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


BILLY MUNGIE remembers the first song he learned when he was three years old, an Aboriginal lad growing up in the desert of central Australia. Called "Nyiinyii," it is about a family of zebra finches that leave their home on the country's far south coastal Nullarbor Plain and wander north across the desert.

It is an epic journey with danger lurking behind the many sandhills, and at times the bird family becomes a metaphor for a human family and the distinctions become blurred. The trip may, in fact, be similar to one taken by Mr. Mungie's tribe generations ago.

"Very few know the traditional songs," says Mungie, a Pitjantjatjara man teaching the song to students at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music at the University of Adelaide.

But today that is changing. An increasing number of young Aborigines are interested in learning the songs they only vaguely remember or never learned at all - songs that are essential to the understanding of traditional Aboriginal music.

Public performances of traditional songs are also becoming more common. And an increasing number of people are traveling to festivals in Barunga, near Katherine in the Northern Territory, and Yuendumu, northwest of Alice Springs, to hear Aboriginal music.

Starting in mid-October, the Sydney Tower Restaurants and Centrepoint will present a one hour show called "Dreamtime in the Sky." Four performers from Arnhem Land, which is at the very top of Australia, will dance the cockatoo dance, the wild-wind dance, the devil dance, and the Brolga dance (named for a large silver-gray crane), accompanied by taped music performed on club sticks and the didgeridoo, a wind instrument.

Chris May, a consultant to the restaurants, says surveys have indicated almost half the visitors to Australia are interested in learning about Aboriginal art and culture.

The Barunga festival occurs in June, during the dry season, and the Yuendumu festival in September, at the start of Australia's spring. "It's a good opportunity to see different styles of dance and music and how they relate to different groupings of people," says Ray Scanlan, general manager of the Northern Territory Arts Council in Darwin.

It is unlikely that a casual festivalgoer will understand much of what is sung, however, since all the music is in the tribal dialect. Even researchers who speak Aboriginal dialects find it difficult to understand everything in the songs.

"The basics of (the Aboriginal) musical system is really a song system," explains Guy Tunstill, director of the University of Adelaide's Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music.

The role of the songs is to preserve the sacred literature of Aboriginal culture, its religious beliefs and codes of behavior. Many of the songs are about `The Dreaming,' which is when the universe was created.

Stephen Wild, a research officer at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, says The Dreaming "is spoken of as the past but with a continuing presence.

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