Dyirbal Song Poetry: The Oral Literature of an Australian Rainforest People

By Hardie, Richard | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Dyirbal Song Poetry: The Oral Literature of an Australian Rainforest People


Hardie, Richard, Canadian University Music Review


R.M.W. Dixon and Grace Koch. Dyirbal Song Poetry: The Oral Literature of an Australian Rainforest People. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1996. 367 pp. ISBN 0-7022-2593-2 (softcover).

Two hundred years ago few people could have envisaged the impact European expansion would have on a remote continent in the South Pacific. Indeed, in hindsight we might be quick to criticize the objectives of the British Empire in setting out to carry "civilization and humanity, peace and good government, and above all the knowledge of the true God, to the utter ends of the earth."1 Yet the conquest of distant lands by a dominant civilization is certainly not new and one must wonder how many cultures through the centuries have been assimilated by another society, preserving little recognizable trace of their former identity. We are fortunate that individuals such as R.M.W. Dixon and Grace Koch have taken the initiative to preserve some remnant of this culture in order that we might be able to appreciate a rich heritage that has almost disappeared. This book is the result of a joint effort by Dixon and Koch: Dixon is responsible for much of the biographic and analytic content while Koch worked on the presentation of the musical examples. A compact disc recording of some of the music identified in this study is available and may be obtained directly from the distributor by writing to the address given in the introductory notes (p. xiv).

The present study endeavours to capture the language, music, and traditions of the Dyirbal people of the Cairns rainforest region in North Queensland, Australia, before the last members of the tribe who are fully fluent in the culture pass on to meet their ancestors. Dixon notes that at the time of publication there were only two people left who were able to sing the traditional Dyirbal songs. This, then, is a timely publication which offers the reader a truly unique insight into the life of these people, as reflected in their music. Furthermore, the systematic and comprehensive research undertaken by the authors gives this book a value which extends its significance beyond simply recording an almost extinct tradition of music; studies in anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and philosophy will all benefit from this work.

The scope of this study is broad - Dixon and Koch present 174 songs collected between 1963 and 1993, from nineteen different singers - but such a work is necessary in the absence of any other extensive research into Dyirbal culture. A quick look at the Bibliography of Ausiralian Music reveals that a number of studies have been undertaken on the Aboriginal people of the Cape York area, where the Dyirbal people live.2 Yet Dixon informs us that although the Dyirbal people are located on the Eastern coast of this area only one other work, by W.E. Roth, acknowledges the distinctive language and music of this group (p. 48). While it is remarkable that such a unique culture and language (including the various dialects of different tribes) could have developed in an area of less than 120 square kilometres, it is more surprising that this group has been completely overlooked in previous literature. This does, however, suggest that one must be very careful when making sweeping generalizations about the cultural nature of the Australian Aboriginal people.

Dixon's prologue to this study provides a short overview of the history of the Dyirbal-speaking people from before the "white invasion," to the time he began collecting and recording songs in 1963, concluding with the state of the Dyirbal people when the last recording was made in 1993. The specialized nature of this book is here made evident by Dixon's almost exclusive focus on the Dyirbal people, to the point that his neglect of other Australian aboriginal groups is quite noticeable. For a reader well versed in the traditions and culture of the native people of Australia this might not be an issue, but for others the absence of comparative information could be potentially confusing or misleading; even the most cursory comparison between Dyirbal music and that of other tribes in the Cape York area is neglected. …

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