Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Morrdjdjanjno Ngan-Marnbom Story Nakka, 'Songs That Turn Me into a Story Teller': The Morrdjdjanjno of Western Arnhem Land

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Morrdjdjanjno Ngan-Marnbom Story Nakka, 'Songs That Turn Me into a Story Teller': The Morrdjdjanjno of Western Arnhem Land

Article excerpt

Abstract: Morrdjdjanjno is the name of a song genre from the Arnhem Land plateau in the Top End of the Northern Territory and this paper is a first description of this previously undocumented song tradition. Morrdjdjanjno are songs owned neither by individuals or clans, but are handed down as "open domain" songs with some singers having knowledge of certain songs unknown to others. Many morrdjdjanjno were once performed as part of animal increase rituals and each song is associated with a particular animal species, especially macropods. Sung only by men, they can be accompanied by clap sticks alone or both clap sticks and didjeridu. First investigations reveal that the song texts are not in everyday speech but include, among other things, totemic referential terms for animals which are exclusive to morrdjdjanjno. Translations from song language into ordinary register speech can often be "worked up" when the song texts are discussed in their cultural and performance context. The transmission of these songs is severely endangered at present as there are only two known singers remaining both of whom are elderly.

In 1999 I was conducting a cultural site survey of country on the Arnhem Land plateau in the upper Mann River district near Kamarrkawarn outstation. This is country for the people who speak the Kundedjnjenghmi dialect of Bininj Kunwok (Evans 2003). The sandstone plateau country is extraordinarily rugged, dissected by water courses, spectacular gorges and long fault lines, escarpments and river valleys with dramatic waterfalls. Within the Madjdjulum clan estate we recorded place names around a bowl-shaped feature in the landscape, delineated by hills and falling spurs spreading out like fingers of a hand that separated numerous gullies leading down to the grassy plains below. The senior Aboriginal man working with me, Jimmy Kalarriya, told me that this amphitheatre-shaped region was called Djorlok, which translates as 'hole/depression'. After recording a score or so place names in the hills and the plains below at Djorlok, our helicopter landed and Kalarriya sat down near the Mann River in the shade. He then started singing a series of short songs he called morrdjdjanjno, accompanying himself by tapping his smoking pipe against the tobacco tin. At the end of each song, he started telling me stories about kangaroos and the annual fire drives that used to take place here at Djorlok. These cooperative hunting expeditions involved large numbers of hunters who came to chase kangaroos with strategically lit fires, forcing kangaroos up into the dead end gullies. Here the kangaroos would hopefully get burnt, unable to go any further up the gullies and, while they stood licking their wounds, the hunters would spear them. As well as large Antilopine Kangaroos (Macropus antilopinus), the surrounding rock country was home to the Black Wallaroo (Macropus bernadus), the Short-eared Rock Wallaby (Petrogale brachyotis), and the Nabarlek (Peradorcus concinna). Djorlok was a site rich in associations with macropods, and morrdjdjanjno songs had always been sung at this place. Morrdjdjanjno associated with kangaroos are said by Kalarriya to have placed themselves at sites which have kangaroo hunting significance:

(1) JK: Kamarrkawarn morrdjdjanjno Namirlewohwo. Djorlok yiman mak ngaye Wurralele morrdjdjanjno kurrmerrinj kunj. Yaymini morrdjdjanjno kurrmerrinj Birba kurrmerrinj morrdjdjanjno.

At Kamarrkawarn and Namirlewohwo [these are places associated with] morrdjdjanjno. At Djorlok and in my country in the Wurrlele estate, kangaroo morrdjdjanjno songs placed themselves there. [Also at] Yaymini there are morrdjdjanjno which placed themselves and at Birba.

While we sat there overlooking the river, I recorded Kalarriya singing several macropod morrdjdjanjno and our following conversation:

(2) MG: Morrdjdjanjno man-dule?

Morrdjdjanjno [is the name of] a kind of song?

JK: Yoh man-dule, yiman ka-yime kunj yi-bengkan. …

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