For the sake of a song

Characteristics of the rhythmic modes


1. Characteristics of the rhythmic modes

In this appendix we give more detail on the conventions surrounding each group of rhythmic modes, in particular as regards the accompanying dance. Because of tempo variability between repertories we first discuss the rhythmic modes in relative terms, without ascribing specific tempi (see discussion of tempo below).

Rhythmic mode 1

In Marri Tjavin this rhythmic mode is termed ambi tittel ‘without clapsticks’, while in Mendhe the equivalent term is piya-therr nangga ‘without clapsticks’. We have already encountered an example of rhythmic mode 1 in our earlier analysis of ‘Tjerri’. Songs in this rhythmic mode occur in all repertories (see cross-repertory analysis below), but are particularly prominent in the Walakandha wangga repertory (chapter 8). Together with the absence of stick beating, a key feature of rhythmic mode 1 is the delivery of the text in somewhat metrically irregular speech rhythm. The rhythm of the didjeridu is similarly irregular: indeed the absence of a regular didjeridu pulse is one of the strongest features of rhythmic mode 1. The degree of co-ordination between the metrically irregular delivery of the singer and of the didjeridu varies from performer to performer: in cases where the didjeridu player knows the songs well, the rhythm of the didjeridu part may closely follow that of the song; in other cases, there is little co-ordination. As mentioned above, the dancing executed during vocal sections in rhythmic mode 1 is also metrically unstructured.

Slow rhythmic modes

The majority of slow tempo songs (rhythmic mode 2, known as derela ‘slow’ in Mendhe) use the same clapstick beating pattern throughout. Rarely, it may also occur within an item in two contrasting forms: the usual slow even stick beating (in this case designated rhythmic mode 2a) and a rarer form (rhythmic mode 2b), in which the stick beating is suspended while the slow even pulse is maintained by the didjeridu and voice. [165] The maintenance of a regular coordinated slow pulse by the didjeridu and voice clearly distinguishes rhythmic mode 2b from the other mode that lacks clapstick beating, namely the unmeasured rhythmic mode 1. Sometimes the audience will reinforce the beat by continuing hand clapping even after the stick beating has stopped. For example, in Jimmy Muluk’s ‘Puliki’ (chapter 5, track 1) the first six vocal sections are sung with slow even beating (rhythmic mode 2a) in melodic section 1 of each vocal section, while in melodic section 2 the beating is suspended (rhythmic mode 2b). Another example of suspended slow even beating occurs in Barrtjap’s ‘Yagarra Delhi Nye-bindja-ng Barra Ngarrka’ (chapter 4, track 24). In both these cases, the didjeridu pulse continues to clearly articulate a regular duple subdivision of the beat during the suspension of the clapstick beating.

At Belyuen, dancing to rhythmic mode 2a is slow, with regular foot movements cued to the slow clapstick beat. Only one or two dancers perform, representing the ancestral ghosts wunymalang—the effect can be eerie and almost menacing. Since clapstick beating refers to the movements of the ancestral beings the songs celebrate, songs with regular slow beating indicate a slow gait, such as the ancestral buffalo swimming (as in Billy Mandji’s performance of Muluks song ‘Puliki’, chapter 5, track 2). At Wadeye, where only a few older men remember how to dance rhythmically and slowly to rhythmic mode 2, most dancers nowadays simply perform for rhythmic mode 2 as they would for the unmeasured rhythmic mode 1, that is, with unstructured and unmeasured movements.

Moderate rhythmic modes (tempo bands 3 and 4)

Moderate rhythmic modes are used relatively infrequently, and are found in two tempo bands: slow moderate (rhythmic modes 3a and 3b) and moderate (rhythmic modes 4a, b, c, d, e).

The slow moderate tempo band occurs only in the repertory of Bobby Lambudju Lane, and comprises two rhythmic modes, each used in only one song.

  • Rhythmic mode 3a (slow moderate even) is used for ‘Tjerrendet’ (chapter 7, track 15).
  • Rhythmic mode 3b (slow moderate uneven (triple) (qqQ) is used for ‘Walingave’ (chapter 7, track 18).

We have never seen dancing for these slow moderate songs, so are unable to comment on any distinguishing characteristics.

There are four rhythmic modes in the moderate tempo band.

  • Rhythmic mode 4a (moderate even). For an example, see the Ma-yawa wangga song ‘Watjen-danggi’ (chapter 9, tracks 14 and 15). While all repertories use this mode sparingly, if at all, for vocal sections, it is used quite extensively by Jimmy Muluk (chapter 5) in his instrumental sections. In the performance of ‘Tjerri’ discussed above (chapter 9, track 13) it is used for the first instrumental section.
  • Rhythmic mode 4b (moderate uneven quadruple) (qqqQ) is used in only two songs: Lambudju’s ‘Bangany-nyung Nye-bindja-ng’ (chapter 7, track 17) and Billy Mandji’s ‘Song from Anson Bay’ (chapter 6, tracks 9 and 10).
  • Rhythmic mode 4c (moderate uneven triple) (qqQ) is also used in only two songs: Lambudju’s ‘Karra ve Kan-ya Verver’ (chapter 7, tracks 11-12), and Billy Mandji’s ‘Happy Song No. 4’ (chapter 6, track 12) (vocal and instrumental section 1 only).
  • Rhythmic mode 4d (moderate uneven quintuple) (qqQqQ) is used only by Barrtjap and for only three of his songs, ‘Yagarra Nga-bindja-ng Nga-mi Ngayi’ (chapter 4, track 2), ‘Yagarra Tjüt Balk-nga-me Ngami’ (chapter 4, track 22) and, ‘Ya Rembe Ngaya Lima Ngaya’ (chapter 4, track 21), where it is used only in the coda.
  • Rhythmic mode 4e (moderate doubled) is used in the Jimmy Muluk songs ‘Puliki’ (chapter 5, tracks 1-6) and in the final instrumental section of ‘Rtadi-thawara’ (chapter 5, tracks 15-18).
  • Rhythmic mode 4*, used only in internal melodic sections of the slow versions of Muluk’s songs ‘Lame Fella’ and ‘Lerri’ (chapter 5, tracks 13 and 19) consists of a sequence of doubled beating followed by even beating in the moderate tempo band (rhythmic mode 4e followed by rhythmic mode 4a). It is comparable in morphology and use to rhythmic mode 5* in the fast tempo band (see further below).

Rhythmic mode 4a also occurs in a variant form, written ‘rhythmic mode 4a (var)’, which is perhaps analogous to rhythmic mode 2b (suspended slow beating). In rhythmic mode 4a (var), which is only used to accompany vocal sections, the beating is very quiet or even absent for most of a text phrase or melodic section, and is typically reintroduced strongly as the vocal part finishes. Examples of this occur in Muluk’s ‘’ (chapter 5, tracks 10-12) as well as in the early Walakandha wangga, in ‘Walakandha No. 9a’ (chapter 8, track 8). In the latter case, the reintroduction of the beating is done partway through a line without any gradation of volume. Rhythmic mode 4b is given similar treatment in the first vocal section of Mandji’s ‘Song for Anson Bay’ (chapter 6, track 9) (where the variant form is designated as rhythmic mode 4b (var)).

The dancing used for the moderate tempo band is cued to the clapstick beating and includes similar movements and organization of the dance space as found for fast rhythmic modes. Moderate tempo songs may indicate a walking motion of the relevant ancestral being.

Fast rhythmic modes (tempo band 5)

Four rhythmic modes (5a-5d) may be distinguished in the fast tempo band, the first three of which are widely used, particularly in instrumental sections, where the most vigorous dancing occurs. In Marri Tjavin these modes are known as tarsi verri (literally, ‘quick foot’).

  • Rhythmic mode 5a (fast even). In Mendhe this type of clapstick beating is called merrguda. This rhythmic mode is used far more frequently in instrumental sections than in vocal sections. Most singers have only one or two songs that use this rhythmic mode for the vocal section—the exception is Billy Mandji, five of whose six fast songs use this mode—and in such cases, the fast even beating is sustained throughout both the vocal and instrumental sections. In two songs Mandji also performs a suspended version of this rhythmic mode (5a (var)) for the first text phrase or two of a vocal section (the pulse being maintained by the didjeridu). Male dancers typically perform stamping movements on alternate legs, synchronising their footsteps with the clapstick beats. [166] This marking of the beat is typically less emphatic in the vocal sections than in instrumental sections, where male dancers perform a highly structured sequence of approaches and stamping movements, with final flourishes performed to synchronise with the clapstick patterns that signal the end of the instrumental section.
  • Rhythmic mode 5b (fast doubled) is beating at twice the rate of rhythmic mode 5a. It often includes further interlocking beats inserted by the second singer (as seen, for example, in the version of ‘Tjerri’ discussed above). The steps of the dancers follow the crotchet beat, so that they effectively perform the same movements for this mode as for rhythmic mode 5a. This mode is used extensively for vocal sections by only one songman, Tommy Barrtjap, who uses it for six songs, in five of which vocal sections in rhythmic mode 5b are followed by vocal sections in rhythmic mode 5c (fast uneven quadruple), [167] and in another by rhythmic mode 5a (fast even) (see further below). By far the most extensive use of rhythmic mode 5b is in the final instrumental sections of songs that have vocal sections in rhythmic modes 1 or 2.
  • Rhythmic mode 5c (fast uneven quadruple) (qqqQ). This rhythmic mode is used extensively in the Ma-yawa wangga repertory, where nine of the twelve songs are in this mode, and by Barrtjap, four of whose songs are entirely in this rhythmic mode while a further five have some vocal sections in rhythmic mode 5c and others in 5b. The use of this rhythmic mode by other singers during vocal sections is more limited, though all repertories except the later Walakandha wangga have examples of songs in rhythmic mode 5c. With the exception of the examples by Barrtjap just cited (and one song where Billy Mandji uses rhythmic mode 5c only for the instrumental section), songs in rhythmic mode 5c are usually sung in this mode throughout.

For this mode dancers typically perform stamping on alternate legs with the three clapstick beats, marking time in the air for the fourth beat (a rest by the sticks). For the next cycle they commence on the opposite leg, giving the pattern [LRL, RLR,] over two cycles of the uneven (gapped) clapstick pattern (qqqQqqqQ).

  • Rhythmic mode 5d (fast uneven triple) (qqQ). This occurs in one song only, Lambudju’s ‘Rak Badjalarr’ (chapter 7, track 1). As for rhythmic mode 5c, dancers synchronise their footfalls with the clapstick beats, marking time with a kick in the air for the clapstick rest, giving the repeated pattern [RL,RL,RL,] (or [LR,LR,LR,]). This produces a marked impression of limping or lameness, which is frequently cited as an attribute of wunymalang ghosts. As mentioned in chapter 7, this song is regarded as particularly powerful in calling up these ancestral ghosts.
  • Rhythmic mode 5e (fast uneven sextuple) (qqqqqQ) is used only in Benmele’s performance of ‘Rak Badjalarr’ (chapter 7, track 4). Presumably this would be danced in a similar style to the other uneven rhythmic modes, that is, with alternate leg stamping followed by a kick in the air on the clapstick rest, giving the pattern [RLRLR,LRLRL,…].
  • There is also a mixed fast rhythmic mode, designated as 5*, which is used only in instrumental sections in some songs in the Walakandha wangga and Ma-yawa wangga repertories. [168] It consists of a sequence of fast doubled beating (rhythmic mode 5b) followed by fast even beating (rhythmic mode 5a) followed by the ‘Walakandha wangga cueing pattern’. It is comparable to Jimmy Muluk’s use of a similar sequence in the moderate tempo band (rhythmic mode 4*). Both 4* and 5* constitute cases of mixed rhythmic mode