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. …