For the sake of a song

The Project


Why, a reader might ask, do we need another book on wangga? Surely Marett’s volume Songs, dreamings and ghosts published in 2005 has already covered this topic fairly exhaustively. The answer is that the present volume, For the sake of a song: wangga songmen and their repertories is a quite different type of book. Songs, dreamings and ghosts focused on showing how, in specific performative moments, performances of wangga enact important cosmological, political and personal themes. Insight into these enactments and articulations was sought, through analysis, in the very fabric of the music and dance. Marett showed precisely how singers manipulate performative conventions in order to enact a variety of ontological and cosmological themes, and in order to respond to the personal and political exigencies of the moment. For this reason Songs, dreamings and ghosts dealt with only a relatively small number of performances—around twenty—albeit in exhaustive detail. The interpretation of these rested, however, on an understanding of the conventions of music and dance, which in turn rested on the analysis of a much greater body of songs. The vast majority of this larger body of wangga songs never made their way into Songs, dreamings and ghosts.

By contrast, For the sake of a song presents this larger body of songs—more than 100 songs, recordings, transcription of texts, linguistic glosses, translation of texts and exegesis. The result of twenty years’ work by Marett, Barwick and Ford, it does not attempt the detailed musical analysis undertaken in Songs, Dreaming and Ghosts but rather presents at least one example of almost every wangga song recorded in the Daly region over the past 35 years or so and locates each within the broad context of wangga musical style [1] .

In addition, the repertories of two important singers, Jimmy Muluk and Billy Mandji, neither of whom were included in Songs, dreamings and ghosts, are examined here. On the other hand, recordings of wangga composed outside the Daly region—songs from the Beswick/Barunga area or the Kimberley—are not included here. since these more marginal songs that were composed in the wider diaspora were dealt with in some detail in Songs, dreamings and ghosts.

The recordings, texts, glosses and translations in For the sake of a song form the core of the volume. They are preceded by an outline of the broader historical and ceremonial contexts of wangga and a summary of its main musical and linguistic characteristics.

In the years since the publication of Songs, dreamings and ghosts, Marett’s relationship with the wangga tradition has changed in significant ways. Up until 2005, he had been invited to perform as a singer only in informal contexts and in minor celebration such as CD launches or the opening of the Belyuen sound archive. This changed in 2007 when he was invited by Kenny Burrenjuck to join him as the second singer at the funeral service for an important Marranungu elder, and two years later he was invited by the family to perform at her final rites with singers of the Walakandha wangga repertory. After only a year singing with Burrenjuck, Marett found himself performing and at times leading the singing for the final mortuary rites (kapuk or burn-im rag ceremony) for Kenny Burrenjuck himself, who had tragically passed away during the previous year (Barwick & Marett, 2011; Marett, 2010). This experience, of performing, rather than writing about, the ritual in which songs given by the dead are sung by the living in order to send the deceased into the company of the ancestors, was profound, and represents a major realignment with the tradition. While he has chosen not to write about this experience in any detail in the present volume, something of this experience will inevitably have flowed into these pages.

The loss of Kenny Barrenjuck in his late 50s underscores yet again the fragility of traditions such as wangga and the urgency of not only documenting them for future generations of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, but also positioning them as integral, but as yet unrecognised, treasures of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. Everything we know about the history of wangga suggests that it was always a tradition in which new songs were dreamt as others became forgotten; but in recent decades, songs that are lost are not replaced at anything like the same rate, so that over the period covered by this book whole repertories have been lost. But the loss of songs, and dances, of repertories and ceremonies, is more than just a cultural loss. It has practical implications for the health outcomes of Indigenous Australians and for closing the gap in life expectancy between the indigenous and nonindigenous population. Tragically, almost every voice that you will hear in this book is that of a ghost. These ghostly voices call on us to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the extraordinarily powerful and beautiful, but frighteningly endangered, traditions of Aboriginal song and dance are not lost to future generation. It is in this spirit that we dedicate our book, the second volume in the National Recording Project’s series, The Indigenous Music of Australia, to the wangga songmen, of the past, present and future.