For the sake of a song

The Ma-yawa wangga Repertory

This chapter contains texts and recordings of all known Ma-yawa wangga, a repertory of songs given to songmen by the Marri Ammu ancestral ghosts known as Ma-yawa. [158] In the days before the advent of the tripartite ceremonial system at Wadeye (discussed in chapter 1), it seems that this repertory was frequently performed at Wadeye, but once the Marri Ammu adopted the Walakandha wangga as the repertory to be used for ceremonies for their kin—and all evidence suggests that this goes back to the 1960s at least—the use of the Ma-yawa wangga in the major ceremonies of burnim-rag and circumcision declined. We only ever heard the Ma-yawa wangga repertory performed for minor ceremonies such as graduations (at Batchelor College) or bravery awards, as when the Administrator of the Northern Territory presented such an award to a boy at Peppimenarti in 1998.

Wangga Image

The originator of the Ma-yawa wangga repertory, Charlie Niwilhi Brinken (left) seated alongside the Walakandha wangga performance group at a circumcision ceremony at Wadeye, 1988. Singers are Thomas Kungiung and Les Kundjil, with John Dumoo playing kanbi (didjeridu). (Photo by Mark Crocombe, C_016_2)

All but one of the Ma-yawa wangga songs were composed by the senior Marri Ammu law man and artist Charlie Niwilhi Brinken (ca. 1910-1993), but so far as we know, no recording was ever made of him singing. Maurice Tjakurl Ngulkur (Nyilco) (1940-2001), the Marri Ammu songman who inherited the repertory and added one of his own songs to it, passed away in November 2001, and since that time the songs have rarely been performed. To our knowledge no Marri Ammu singer has emerged to take over this repertory, but in recent years some of the songs seem to have been assimilated into the Walakandha wangga repertory. Two Marri Tjavin singers, Frank Dumoo and Colin Worumbu Ferguson, performed one of the songs for Marett in 2008; and another Marri Tjavin man, Ngulkur’s son-in-law Charles Kungiung, also performed a number of Ma-yawa songs alongside Walakandha wangga songs at a burnim-rag ceremony recorded by Barwick and Treloyn at Batchelor in 2009.

The Ma-yawa wangga repertory holds a unique place within the corpus. No other repertory focuses as strongly on the Dreamings (ngirrwat) and Dreaming sites (kigatiya) of the owning group. The repertory deploys a potent metaphor for to the mixing of the living and dead in ceremony: this is the wudi-puminy, a fresh water spring that flows into the salt water at high tide below the cliffs at Karri-ngindji in the north of Marri Ammu country. There are also songs about the Mayawa dead dancing on the top of the cliffs at Rtadi-wunbirri, and references to the specific Ma-yawa ancestor, Tulh.

Wangga Image

A bark painting by Charlie Niwilhi Brinken, showing Ma-yawa dancing in ceremony. Note the women dancers on the left, and the didjeridu player and singer (Brinken himself) near the centre.

But in addition to these references to the Ma-yawa dead, there are many songs in the repertory that refer to other totemic ancestors. Here we have explicit and revealing statements about the actions of Dreamings (see for example ‘Tjerri’ (song 5, track 13)), and the incorporation into song of creation stories (see for example ‘Wulumen Tulh’ (song 12, tracks 28-29)). Five songs concern Marri Ammu Dreamings and four are about Dreaming sites (though the distinction may be a little forced in that it is impossible to refer to one without the other). The remaining three songs are about the human world rather than Dreamings, though in each case there is an association with ceremony or ghosts: ‘Watjen-danggi’ (Dingo) (song 6) is probably about a boy being led away into seclusion prior to circumcision; ‘Na-Pebel’ (song 11) is about a particular sand bar that, according to Ngulkur, although not a Dreaming site per se is nevertheless a place where Ma-yawa congregate; and ‘Walakandha Ngindji’ (song 1) concerns Walakandha, the Marri Tjavin ancestral dead, who also manifest as Dreamings.

In another distinctive feature not found elsewhere in the wangga corpus, the singer articulates relationship to his country and its associated Dreamings and Dreaming sites by the use of melody. The Ma-yawa songs about Dreamings use only two melodies, which come to be emblematic of the Marri Ammu and their ancestors. [159]

Notes on the recording sample

Ngulkur's repertory comprised only twelve songs. These make up the total surviving repertory for the Ma-yawa wangga current at Wadeye in the period between 1998 and 2000. [160]

Wangga Image

Maurice Tjakurl Ngulkur taking a break from performing wangga for Allan Marett, Wadeye, 1999. (Photo by Allan Marett, Walakandha2Wangga99-11)

In all, we have access to five performances of the Ma-yawa wangga. The first was elicited by Marett at Wadeye in October 1998. The second was made the next day at Peppimenarti, in the context of a ceremony at which the Administrator of the Northern Territory conferred a bravery award on a boy from that community. In 1999 a third recording was made by Marett at Ngulkur's initiative in order to add another song, ‘Na-Pebel’ (song 11), which he had forgotten to perform in 1998. In 2000 a fourth recording was made by Mark Crocombe, again at Ngulkur's initiative, to add another previously omitted song, ‘Wulumen Tulh’ (song 12). We have also included a performance of a single Ma-yawa wangga song performed in Darwin for Marett, Treloyn and Treloyn’s students at Charles Darwin University in 2008 as part of a wangga documentation session. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, Frank Dumoo and Colin Worumbu Ferguson sang the Ma-yawa song, ‘Thalhi-ngatjpirr’ (track 24). Ferguson confessed afterwards that he had learnt the song by listening to a CD recording given to him by Marett. [161]

The twelve Ma-yawa wangga songs are listed in table 9.1. The first, ‘Walakandha Ngindji’ (track 1), was composed by Maurice Tjakurl Ngulkur (Nyilco) and the remaining songs (2-12) by Charlie Niwilhi Brinken.

Track  Song #  Composer  Title  Performers  Recording 
Track 01  Ngulkur  Walakandha Ngindi  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s01  
Track 02  Walakandha Ngindi  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s02 
Track 03  Walakandha ngindji  Ngulkur  Mar98-16-s01 
Track 04  Brinken  Wulumen Kimigimi  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s03 
Track 05  Wulumen Kimigimi  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s04 
Track 06  Brinken  Rtadi-wunbirri  Ngulkur  Mar98-16-s02 
Track 07  Rtadi-wunbirri  Ngulkur  Mar98-16-s03 
Track 08  Rtadi-wunbirri  Ngulkur  Mar98-16-s04 
Track 09  Rtadi-wunbirri  Ngulkur  Mar98-16-s05 
Track 10  Brinken  Menggani  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s05 
Track 11  Menggani  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s06 
Track 12  Brinken  Tjerri  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s07 
Track 13  Tjerri  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s08 
Track 14  Brinken  Watjen-danggi  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s09 
Track 15  Watjen-danggi  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s10 
Track 16  Brinken  Malhimanyirr  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s11 
Track 17  Malhimanyirr  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s12 
Track 18  Brinken  Ma-vindivindi  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s13 
Track 19  Ma-vindivindi  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s14 
Track 20  Brinken  Karri-ngindji  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s15 
Track 21  Karri-ngindji  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s16 
Track 22  10  Brinken  Thali-ngatjpirr  Dumoo & Worumbu  Mar98-14-s17 
Track 23  Thali-ngatjpirr  Ngulkur  Mar98-14-s18 
Track 24  Thali-ngatjpirr  Ngulkur  Tre08-1-s17 
Track 25  11  Brinken  Na-Pebel  Ngulkur  Mar99-01-s01 
Track 26  Na-Pebel  Ngulkur  Mar99-01-s02 
Track 27  Na-Pebel  Ngulkur  Mar99-01-s03 
Track 28  12  Brinken  Wulumen Tulh  Ngulkur  Cro00-01-s07 
Track 29  Wulumen Tulh  Ngulkur  Cro00-01-s08 

Table 9.1 Songs from the Ma-yawa wangga repertory discussed in this chapter.

Because Ngulkur’s performances of some songs were quite variable and because the recorded repertory is so small, all available recordings have been included here, including one or two of less than ideal quality. Often we need to hear more than one example of a song in order to get a sense of the limits of its form and content. As was pointed out in chapter 2, when songs are not regularly performed in ceremony singers tend to play around more with their texts, introducing interesting variations as they go.