Music: Music and Religion in Indigenous Australia

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In indigenous Australia music and religion are discussed with reference to the concept of the dreaming. The term dreaming is an English way of describing the era of creation in indigenous Australian belief when great ancestral beings walked the earth, experiencing, interacting and creating landscape and life. A senior Yanyuwa man from the Aboriginal community at Borroloola in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria of the Northern Territory explains the dreaming in the following way:

In our language, in Yanyuwa, we call the Dreaming Yijan. The Dreamings made our Law or narnu-Yuwa. This Law is the way we live, our rules. This Law is our ceremonies, our songs, our stories; all of these things come from the Dreaming. The Law was made by the Dreamings many, many years ago and given to our ancestors and they gave it to us. The Dreamings were the first to dance our ceremonies and sing our songs. Some of these songs are dangerous, they are secret and sacred, women and children are not allowed to see them. Others are not secret, everyone can look at them, but they are still sacred. The Dreamings named all of the country and the sea as they travelled, they named everything that they saw. The Dreamings gave us our songs. These songs are sacred and we call them kujika. These songs tell the story of the Dreaming as they travelled over the country, everything the Dreaming did is in the songs. These songs are like maps, they tell us about the country, they are maps which we carry in our heads. (Mussolini Harvey, in Bradley, 1988, p. xi)

His words clearly illustrate the integral relationship of song to Yijan, or the dreaming, of song to country and place, of music to religion and to an Aboriginal sense of spirit or spirituality in Yanyuwa culture. Indigenous Australian language and cultural groups show basic similarities in their understandings of the relationship between music and the dreaming, although each has its own unique and specific stories, language, and discourses of creation and ceremony linked to country and geographical region. For example, Pitjtantjatjara-speaking peoples of the Western Desert region in Australia refer to the dreaming as Tjukurrpa. The diversity of indigenous understandings and performance of music and religion is enormous. For the purposes of this article, examples will be drawn from Yanyuwa culture to illustrate broader concepts of performance practice and religious belief.

Indigenous Australia has no equivalent term for "spirituality" or "religion" as it is used in English. There are, for example, a number of generic and specific terms that translate as "spirit being," there are terms for the creative ancestral beings, and there are also terms that speak of one's spirit having a source; but none of these terms is used to create a term that speaks of the spirit as it is used in spirituality and as such must be used with trepidation (Rose, 1992, p. 59). The words spiritual and spirit are open to many interpretations. From a Western perspective such terms have their roots in Greek and Christian thought and imply a split between the secular material world and the realm of the spirit. This binary view subtly suggests that enactment of spirituality means leaving the everyday world of the body behind to enter into a separate and disembodied sacred or holy domain. For example, as we have discussed elsewhere (Bradley and Mackinlay, 2000, 2003), in the Yanyuwa context the boundaries between the sacred and the secular are necessarily blurred. For Yanyuwa there is only one world, one environment, one country that is simultaneously material and spiritual. The spiritual is tied to everyday lived reality and immersed in seemingly mundane pragmatic activities. Practices such as singing clearly establish an immutable relationship of what could be called the spirit of place to the spirit of people. Yanyuwa cosmology therefore allows the Western terms spirit and spirituality to be used in many circumstances but always tightly bound to the expression and performativity of people's relationship to kin and country.

In many indigenous Australian cultures, a distinction is made between those phenomena, experiences, and knowledges that are considered restricted and unrestricted. These terms delineate who can access the knowledge and information contained within performance through participation. The term "restricted" refers to performance that limits the participants on the basis of gender, age, and/or kinship affiliation. In contrast, the term "unrestricted" denotes performance that does not have any conditions attached on who may participate. The Yanyuwa have two terms, kurdukurdu and lhamarnda, that could be seen as synonymous with the above terms and by extension with the Western terms "sacred" and "secular." Yanyuwa people often explain kurdukurdu as a correlate to the terms "secret" and "sacred" and therefore restricted, while lhamarnda is described as "free," or not secret and sacred.

In many ways the Yanyuwa terms kurdukurdu and lhamarnda resonate with discussions of "inside" and "outside" knowledge in Yolngu culture by both Keen (1994) and Morphy (1991). While we do not want to suggest that Yanyuwa and Yolngu systems of knowledge are the same, it is useful to consider briefly the overlap between them and therefore contextualize Yanyuwa knowledge in relation to other indigenous Australian cultures. Morphy (1991, p. 78) asserts that the concepts of inside and outside in Yolngu culture operate as a continuum and are central to understanding the structure, rationale, and existence of levels of knowledge in Yolngu culture. He also describes "inside" sacred knowledge as "restricted" and "outside" mundane knowledge as "unrestricted" (1991, p. 79) and emphasizes that there is great fluidity between them insofar as "the ancestral world extends into the everyday world, the inside flows into the outside" (1991, p. 80).

Importantly, Morphy acknowledges that there is much interaction and interconnection between inside and outside realms and suggests that "outside forms are in a sense generated by inside forms and not separate from them." This can generate, as Keen (1994, p. 226) contends, the performance and realization of inside concepts in outside spaces or "secrecy in public." In such performances, the restricted esoteric "inside" knowledge has clear referents, but the subjects or their significance is not inferred discursively (1994, p. 227).

In most indigenous Australian cultures there is not one singular translatable word for music, and categorization of performance into styles and genres by 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 (Bradley and Mackinlay, 2000, p. 2). Conversations about categories of music often begin with a distinction being made on the basis of whether the creative source of the music resides in ancestral or human beings. For example, in Yanyuwa culture songs from ancestral beings are described as kujika, belong to kurdukurdu (restricted) forms of performance, and have their basis in the actions of the Spirit ancestors who lived their lives by traveling, marking, and singing the landscape into being during the creative period, which the Yanyuwa call Yijan (generally translated into English as "dreaming"). Songs made by human beings (when composed by men, these songs are called walaba; by women, a-kurija ) are lhamarnda (unrestricted) and contrast directly with the big history of the ancestral beings in that they document little history or individual and community memory of events within living recollection.

Knowledge of song, both restricted and unrestricted, is but one way people give order to their country and to their history of human and nonhuman kin. Such songs are ultimately concerned with attachment to place and contain many emotional dimensions. It is these emotional dimensions that become the means by which groups of people and individuals are in constant negotiation with each other, for songs are not just free to anyone. All song and music in indigenous Australian performance traditions are bound by negotiations. These negotiations include the legitimacy of claims to knowledge and connections to place and people, to the past, to the present, and also to the future. Thus, even in relation to songs life becomes much more than the pragmatics of singing and performing, or even the often alluded to mystical/religious and historical conceptions; rather, it is about the union of all these things.

The songs of the dreaming ancestors are said by indigenous people to hold and carry the knowledge of the ancestral beings as they walked across the country, and each song verse becomes one footprint in the songline of that Spirit ancestor. In Aboriginal ceremony and ritual, performers aim to recreate the actions of the ancestors by tapping into the power of the dreaming through correct presentation of all the elements of the song cycle, including song text, melodic line, rhythmic pattern, and other ritual behavior such as the painting of body designs, the use of ceremonial objects, the preparation of and performance on ceremony ground, and the actions of performers. In Yanyuwa, song cycles are called by the generic term kujika, a word that has widespread use throughout the Gulf region and even into northeast Arnhem Land (Avery, 1985; Merlan, 1987; Trigger, 1992; Keen, 1994), and by its cognate form in the Victoria River region of the Northern Territory (Wild, 1987, Rose, 1992). When people sing a song cycle, they are described as wandayarra (following) or yinbarraya (singing) the road.

There is no one term for kujika verse in Yanyuwa; people use the Kriol term "leg," a term also recorded by Merlan (1987). Singers or knowledgeable people reference the song verses by what the actual song verse is about; in many instances each song verse has a key word by which that verse is known. In addition, song verses are also tied to the landscape via named places. In Yanyuwa, kujika song texts are always described using the present participle form of the verb; thus, they are described as jiwini ki-awarala (constantly being in country), wulumantharra (running), wingkayarra (moving, going), or even in some instances as wujbantharra (flowing); when the singers near a place name or a particular species, it is described as rdumatharra (getting). The songs are also windirrinjarra (ascending) and lhankanbayarra (descending) and are always accompanied by a cardinal direction marker. When the song is nearing completion, it is then described as yibarrantharra (placing). There is a sense that these songlines are ever present on the country like flowing conduits of meaning. If the code is known, they can be tapped into and followed, and then voice is given to that which is always on or in the country and the sea.

Of importance to any understanding of music and religion in indigenous Australian cultures is the concept of "taste," "skin," or "essence." In Yanyuwa the term for essence is ngalki (Kirton and Timothy, 1977). Ngalki is best described as that thing which marks the individual identity or essence of something. It can refer to the taste or smell of food, one's own particular body smell, or the positioning of people, flora, fauna, and natural phenomena into the four semi-moieties that exist in Yanyuwa society. Broadly speaking, ngalki as a concept presents the Yanyuwa way of making sense of the complex relationship between the people who make music, the process of music making, and the sound that is music. In terms of musical structure, the ngalki of a particular song is often described by Yanyuwa people as the melody or voice. It also includes the type of beating accompaniment used, the particular types of rhythmic patterns attached to song text, the way these are fitted onto a specific melodic shape, and the way all three components are combined during the act of musical performance. Thus, the correct interlocking of all performance elements gives each Yanyuwa song style its unique identity, and it is through the act of performance that the embedded power within genres is given meaning, accessed, and utilized by performers.

When used in relation to song, the term ngalki is often prefixed by a descriptive marker that marks the perceived quality of the performance or a person's opinion of the tune that is associated with a song. Thus yabi ngalki (literally, "good essence") can refer to both a good performance or a song that is seen to have an enjoyable tune; wardi ngalki (literally, "bad essence"), to a song that is quite plainly not being well performed; jirda ngalki (literally, "bitter/bad-tasting essence"), to a song that is not being performed properly because the tune is incorrect or the singers are discordant; daburrdaburr ngalki (literally, "rough/troubled essence"), to the tune of a song that is considered hard to learn and requires a long time spent with older accomplished singers. This is a term often used by men to describe a number of songs associated with various ceremonies and ritual actions. The term has a special relevance to songs that are considered powerful enough to affect other human beings or impact upon the order of the natural world and where the correct tune is considered to be the conveyer of the song's inherent power or wirrimalaru.

Within a Yanyuwa understanding of good performance, especially of kujika, a person who is seen to be performing song cycles at a high level of emotional engagement and technical skill is often described as jarrilu-ngalkiwunjayarra, "he is drinking the essence of the road." It is felt that he has embodied the song to such an extent that it is if the country that is being sung is through him and sustaining him. It is interesting that song knowledge is described in terms of "food," where the ability to learn and acquire song knowledge, especially that relating to the sacred knowledge of the land, is something that ones needs, like food, in order to survive. This survival can be seen at both the level of the singer and the country itself; perhaps the inverse of this is that if one does not sing and refuses to "drink the essence," then both the individual and country will not be truly seen to live.

To know and to sing in Aboriginal culture is to also know and acknowledge kin and country, to be aware where one fits in the family, the history of the family, and the country and sea that one's family has moved across and also calls home. While kujika may speak of how one belongs to land in terms of a cosmological understanding, there are the other more intimate, humanly composed songs that speak of the totally human dimension to experience. These songs are an excellent example of what Fox (1997, pp. 67) terms "social knowledge," a kind of knowledge that allows people constantly to comprehend, interact, and interpret their place-world. These songs are an important part of connectivity between people and place, and in many respects these songs are the containers that hold memories that connect people and places. This genre of new or unrestricted songs in Yanyuwa culture, and more generally across indigenous Australia, includes the diversity of contemporary rock and popular musicsthese forms of performance too hold important individual, social, historical, emotional, and spiritual relationships, memories, and meanings. For example, the appearance of specific and nonspecific places, notions of place, and attachment to place (Dunbar-Hall, 1997, p. 62) within the song texts of these new songs plays an important role in naming, knowing, and remembering country in this unrestricted performance genre. This naming of places in unrestricted forms of Aboriginal performance resonates with the texts of restricted songs "[w]here singing about sites and events of the past associated with them are a means of affirming group and individual identity and of stating relationships to places. In this way, Aboriginal sites become songs" (Dunbar-Hall, 1997, p. 62). By specifically naming place in unrestricted singing, the composer reveals the personal, emotional, and spiritual significance implied in a particular locality.

Today, many indigenous Australian peoples and communities fight daily to survive against the contemporary realities of colonial and historical legacy, social upheaval, and cultural dispossession. Many indigenous communities suffer from high rates of family violence and alarmingly high alcohol and substance abuse statistics. Age expectancy is low for both men and women, and suicide among young people is increasing. Combined with increasingly poor health (for example, diabetes, renal failure, heart conditions, disease related to poor nutrition) and inadequate housing conditions, indigenous peoples are struggling to exist under the impact of dramatic social upheaval and change and Western systems of domination and oppression. Beneath these daily experiences of trauma, however, performance remains a powerful way to sustain a strong cultural and spiritual identity for Aboriginal people. Music is a religion in indigenous Australia in the sense that it is the central way to sing, know, and embody relationships to family, place, and spirituality. In the worldview of many indigenous Australian peoples, landscape and song are integrally related whereby knowledge and memories of landscape are named, encoded, and embodied in music performance. Through performance of place and country in restricted and unrestricted contexts, singers negotiate and evoke memory and emotion to continually create and re-create the knowledge associated with landscape and what it means to be an Aboriginal person in body, mind, and spirita unified, complete, and whole person. Understandings of sacred and secular, inside and outside knowledge, and restricted and unrestricted performance are integrally connected and the lines of distinction between them blurred. Lived experience of song, kin, and country enacts a performative memory and knowledge of time, space, and location that connect spirit of place to the spirit of indigenous Australian peoples.

See Also

Australian Indigenous Religions, overview article.


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Elizabeth Mackinlay (2005)

John Bradley (2005)

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Music: Music and Religion in Indigenous Australia

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