For the sake of a song

A Social History of Wangga



Wangga is a genre of public dance-song from the Daly region of northwest Australia, the country that lies to the north and south of the mouth of the Daly River (see Map 1). This book focuses on the songmen (medjakarr in Batjamalh; ngalinangga in Marri Tjavin) who have composed and performed wangga in the Daly region in the last fifty years. [1] Many of these singers are now deceased, though their descendants and heirs continue to perform the songs in ceremonies and various public events. At the core of the book is a corpus of 150 wangga song texts, organised into six repertories: four from the Belyuen-based songmen Barrtjap, Muluk, Mandji and Lambudju, and two from the Wadeye-based Walakandha and Ma-yawa wangga groups, which are named after the ancestral song-giving ghosts of the Marri Tjavin and Marri Ammu people respectively. In this chapter we provide an introduction to wangga and its performance contexts, before presenting a social history for each of the main communities (Belyuen and Wadeye), and tracing the performance lineages of the repertories presented here.

In recent times wangga has been composed and performed primarily by people from five main language groups. Three language groups—the Wadjiginy (who speak Batjamalh), Emmiyangal (who speak Emmi) and Mendheyangal (who speak Mendhe)—live mostly at the community of Belyuen (formerly Delissaville) near Darwin, while the Marri Tjavin and Marri Ammu language groups live mainly in and around the township of Wadeye (formerly and still commonly known as Port Keats). Members of other Daly language groups—such as the Kiyuk, Marranunggu, Malak Malak, Ngen’giwumirri, Ngan’gikurunggurr, Marri Thiyel, and Matige—also identify with and perform wangga, primarily as dancers and ceremonial participants. None of this last group of languages has, however, produced a composer or songman within the past 50 years or so. [2]

In the past, members of other language groups such as the Murriny Patha and Marri Ngarr have also performed wangga, but at present these groups own and perform their own genres of song and dance, primarily djanba and lirrga respectively. [3] Wangga has also spread beyond the Daly into areas such as the Kimberley, where it may also be referred to as lirrga, to southern Arnhem Land, where it is called walaka, and to Western Arnhem Land, where it is called djunggurinj (Marett, 2005, chapter 10).

Wangga Image Figure 1.1 Map of northwestern Australia, showing the some of the principal places where wangga is performed.

Wangga Image Figure 1.2 Philip Mullumbuk and Les Kundjil sing wangga, accompanied by didjeridu player Leo Melpi, during a circumcision ceremony at Wadeye, early 1990s. Photograph by Mark Crocombe, reproduced with the permission of Wadeye community.

Wangga songs are usually performed by two or more male singers who accompany themselves with clapsticks and are accompanied by another male playing didjeridu (kenbi, in Batjamalh and several other languages of the Daly region). Performances by a single singer are possible but not ideal, because strong unisonal singing is the aesthetic ideal. Furthermore, some clapstick-beating patterns require two performers for interlocking beating patterns. The primary purpose of wangga is to accompany dance in ceremony, and there is a close relationship between the forms of dance and the musical form of songs. Not all performances, however, accompany dance. Singing can also accompany other ceremonial activities such as ‘painting up’ (the application of body paint), as well as being performed purely for entertainment.

The two principal performance occasions for wangga are the final mortuary rites known in Aboriginal English as burnim-rag and the rites by which boys are made into men by circumcising them. In the former the belongings (rags) of a deceased person are destroyed by fire and the spirit of the deceased is conducted away from the society of the living and into the society of the dead (see further below for detailed discussion of the significance of these two ceremonies). Wangga songs and dances are also used in a variety of other occasions such as funerals (conducted within days of a person dying, usually Christian ceremonies to which traditional elements are added), ceremonies of purification through smoking, graduation ceremonies, ceremonies for the opening of buildings, bravery awards and other occasions that require ceremonial enhancement. In addition, people perform wangga and listen to recordings of wangga purely for pleasure. It is rare in these days of television and hi-fi to hear corroborees being performed around the campfire at night, but it is common to encounter people listening to recordings of wangga in the home, when travelling by car, or in institutions such as pensioners’ centres. Today, recordings are readily available in Wadeye though the Northern Territory Library and Knowledge Centre, and in Belyuen through the Belyuen Bangany Wangga digital archive established in 2002.

Wangga songs are given to songmen in dream by the dead. In most cases the song-giving agents are deceased relatives of the songman (little distinction appears to be made between the transmission that occurs between a living songman and his apprentice, and between a deceased songman and a living songman). On occasion, women may dream a song, but in such cases the song will be passed to a male songman. Most wangga song texts are the words of the song-giving ghosts, which are initially sung to the living songman in the language of the dead, which differs from the everyday language spoken by the living. Part of the work that a living songman does is to render what he receives from the realm of the dead into a form fit for living humans. This involves translating the language of the dead into a living language such as Batjamalh or Marri Tjavin (though to varying degrees songmen may leave some text in the language of the dead, heard by the living as unintellible vocables). The songman also shapes the musical structure into one of the forms conventionally used to accompany dance. The degree to which a song comes perfectly formed or in fragments appears to differ from songman to songman, and perhaps from one song-giving occasion to another. The fact that songmen sing the words of the dead, sometimes using the voice of a dead relative, underpins the transformative power of both mortuary and circumcision ceremonies.

Properly speaking, a singer does not become a medjakarr (Batjamalh for ‘songman’) or ngalinangga (Marri Tjavin) until he has composed songs of his own. Because the songs are his individual property, rights to them are inherited by his relatives (ideally, his sons). He also has the right to give or sell songs to another. For example, Lambudju gave his song ‘Mubagandi’ to Roger Yarrowin on the occasion of the death of Yarrowin’s father) (see notes to chapter 7, track 25).

Typically, wangga songs consist of bursts of singing (which we term ‘vocal sections’), which are separated from one another by ‘instrumental sections’ performed by clapsticks and didjeridu. Vocal sections are accompanied by didjeridu, but not always by clapsticks. ‘Unmeasured’ vocal sections are accompanied only by didjeridu, while ‘measured’ vocal sections, accompanied by didjeridu and clapsticks, are performed in a variety of tempo bands and with different beating patterns. Instrumental sections are also performed with a range of different tempi and beating patterns. The combination of tempo and beating pattern constitutes a system of rhythmic modes that correlate with different dancing styles. For a full description of overall form and the analytical terms used in this book, see chapter 2.

In chapter 3, Lysbeth Ford gives a detailed description of the five language varieties used in wangga: Batjamalh, Emmi, Mendhe, Marri Tjavin and Marri Ammu. All of these languages are now severely endangered. None has more than a dozen fluent speakers, and most current songmen have only imperfect command of their language. If the five languages are severely endangered, the songs in those languages are even more so. This wangga corpus represents an extremely valuable and fragile aspect of the Australian national heritage, and yet it constitutes only one of the many highly endangered indigenous musical (and linguistic) genres nation-wide (Marett, 2010; Marett & Barwick, 2003). Efforts to preserve and document this heritage before it is lost have become urgent. This book is part of a series that aims to raise the profile of the major indigenous musical traditions of northern Australia (Marett, et al., 2006).

The corpus is based on audio recordings (made mostly by Marett over a twenty-two-year period between 1986 and 2008, and supplemented by older archival recordings), all of which we have documented in collaboration with relatives of the singers. Audio examples for every song text are provided in chapters 4-9, which cover the six repertories. Songmen for Belyuen (Delissaville) included: Tommy Barrtjap (Wadjiginy, who composed and sang in Batjamalh language), his father Jimmy Bandak and his son Kenny Burrenjuck [4] (see chapter 4); Jimmy Muluk (who composed and sang in Mendhe) (see chapter 5); Billy Mandji (Emmi and some Marri Tjavin, his ancestral language) (see chapter 6); and Bobby Lambudju Lane and Rusty Moreen (Batjamalh and some Emmi) (see chapter 7). In Wadeye (Port Keats) composers of songs in Marri Tjavin (the so-called Walakandha wangga) were Stan Mullumbuk, Thomas Kungiung, Wagon Dumoo, Martin Warrigal Kungiung, Les Kundjil and Philip Mullumbuk [5] (see chapter 8); and for Marri Ammu (the Ma-yawa wangga), Maurice Ngulkur [6] (see chapter 9). The singers alive and active today include (for Belyuen) Colin Worumbu Ferguson (Marri Tjavin, who also sings songs in Emmi, Batjamalh and Marri Ammu), Roger Yarrowin (Emmi and to a lesser extent Batjamalh) and Robert Gordon (Mendhe). Charles Kungiung (Marri Tjavin, but also sings in Marri Ammu) is now the main wangga singer for Wadeye.

Performance contexts for Wangga

The principal performance context for wangga is the ceremony known in Aboriginal English as burnim-rag. This ceremony, which normally occurs in the country of the deceased between a year and two years after he or she has died, has a dual function: to release the ‘sweat’ or essence of a deceased person into his or her country, and to purify the environment of his or her surviving relatives. It is believed that after death the ‘sweat’ of the deceased remains in things that he or she had used habitually in life—bedding, clothing, treasured objects such as hunting implements, woven baskets, weapons and so on. By burning these chattels, the spirit of the deceased is forced out into the open, whence it can be coaxed, through the performance of appropriate songs and dances, to leave the society of the living and join the society of the dead. Wangga songs, like other genres used in burnim-rag ceremonies—lirrga and djanba in the case of Wadeye—play a major role in this process. Because wangga songs are given to humans by the ghosts of deceased relatives, and because their texts convey the utterances of the dead—either in the incomprehensible language of the dead, or in the human language of the songman—the songs reassure both the deceased and all ceremonial participants of the closeness of the world of the dead and the world of the living.

Wangga Image Figure 1.3 Dancers at a Belyuen kapuk (burnim-rag ceremony) for Agnes Lippo, July 1995. Photograph by Linda Barwick, reproduced with the permission of Belyuen community.

Song, dance and overall ceremonial form emulate ceremonies performed by the dead, and their enactment in ceremony has the power to temporarily close the gap between the world of the living and the dead. Thus, the singer sings as if one of the dead, using the words, melodies, rhythms and even, in some cases the voices of song-giving ghosts. Dancers dance the dances of the dead and mingle with them in ceremony—people speak of the dead joining the throng of dancers and dancing alongside or behind their living descendants, the footsteps of dead and living alike synchronised by the songman’s clapsticks. Within this liminal space, that is both of the living and of the dead, but also of neither, the deceased is able to go and join his or her ancestors in the world of the dead and to leave human relatives in peace. At Belyuen, the ceremony is concluded by the ritual washing (ka-puk, literally, ‘it washes’) that gives the ceremony its name in that part of the world, but in other places, such as Wadeye, it concludes with purification by smoke. Once the ceremony has been completed the relatives express palpable relief that their lives and their country are no longer troubled by the potentially troublesome and dangerous presence of a being who is between worlds and unable to complete its existential journey back to the totemic site from which it first emerged and to which it must return. It is after this ceremony that the name of the deceased person, which is placed under taboo after death, can again be uttered, since it no longer has the power to call the potentially dangerous spirit back into the world of the living.

Because of this strong association with death, the texts of wangga songs are saturated with associations with death: they are the utterances of the dead, they use the language of the dead, and they contain metaphors referring to death, such as the going out of the tide in the Walakandha wangga (see chapter 8); or the intermingling of salt and fresh water in the Ma-yawa wangga (see chapter 9). They also contain reference to things that the living and dead share, like a deep attachment to country, and a distrust of outsiders.

Wangga Image Figure 1.4 Ritual washing by mourners at the end of the kapuk ceremony, Belyuen, July 1995. Photograph by Linda Barwick, reproduced with the permission of Belyuen community.

Wangga Image Figure 1.5 Les Kundil, Thomas Kungiung, Martin Warrigal Kungiung, Maurice Ngulkur, Ambrose Piarlum (didjeridu) bringing up a boy, circumcision ceremony at Wadeye, 1988. Photograph by Mark Crocombe, reproduced with the permission of Wadeye community.

At Belyuen, wangga is always performed for kapuk ceremonies, the songs usually being those from the family lineage to which the deceased belongs. Thus both the deceased and their relatives hear the voices of their ghostly ancestors emanating from the bodies of their living songmen. The names of people and places in the songs are ones with which both ceremonial participants and the deceased are intimate. The themes and underlying stories associated with the songs are theirs.

For historical reasons that will be addressed in more detail below, in Wadeye the situation is markedly different. Here themes of reciprocity between groups override those of familial intimacy. For a deceased person from the wangga group, it is not wangga songs that are sung and danced to, but rather the songs of either lirrga- or djanba-owning groups (for further information see historical discussion below). Here it is the principles of human relationship to country, ancestors and totems that come to be celebrated, rather than the specific country, ancestors and totems of the deceased.

The ceremony for making boys into men by circumcising them is the other major context in which wangga is performed both at Belyuen and at Wadeye. [7] The songs sung in this context are the same as those sung in the mortuary rites (Marett, 2005, p 4). The suffusion of the texts with references to death is entirely appropriate, because in this context an initiand is seen to die to his childhood and to be reborn as a man. The expression of grief, particularly from the mothers, is as dramatic and heartfelt as any encountered at mortuary ceremonies. [8]

Colin Simpson’s book Adam in Ochre contains a vivid account of a kapuk mortuary ceremony that he witnessed at Belyuen (then known as Delissaville) in 1948 (Simpson, 1951). Simpson also put together an ABC radio program in which one can hear all the drama of the occasion (Simpson, 1948), which Barwick and Marett have related to another kapuk ceremony performed by members of the same families in 2008 (Barwick & Marett, 2011). Marett has also described in some detail a kapuk that he witnessed in Belyuen in 1995 (Marett, 2005, pp 68-69) as well as a burnim-rag ceremony that he attended at the small outstation of Nadirri in 1988 (Marett, 2005, pp 63-66). Vivid and enlightening accounts of circumcision ceremonies may be read in Furlan (Furlan, 2005), in Elkin (Elkin & Jones, 1958, pp 145-146), and in Stanner’s On Aboriginal Religion (Stanner, 1963 (1989), pp 110-117). An abridged summary of Stanner’s account occurs in Songs, dreamings and ghosts alongside Marett’s account of the large 1988 ceremony that he attended at Wadeye (Marett, 2005, pp 72-74). Rather than reproduce these accounts here, we refer the reader to these publications.

History of wangga

We will now discuss the social history and main repertories of wangga in more detail. The two principal centres of wangga performance—Belyuen and Wadeye—will be treated separately because of their different histories and significant divergence within the principal rituals associated with wangga.

Social history of wangga at Belyuen (Delissaville) and surrounding areas

It seems likely that wangga has been practised in the Darwin area for a long time, if we accept that in this region the presence of didjeridu is indicative of the genre. Darwin (initially known as Palmerston) was established in 1869. Both Darwin and the Cox Peninsula, where Belyuen is located, belong to the traditional country of the Larrakiya. Etheridge cites Coppinger (1883, p 204) in reporting: ‘Dr Coppinger … saw at a camp of the Larikia tribe, in the vicinity of Port Darwin, pieces of “hollow reed”, about 4 feet long, that were blown “like cow horns,” and produced “a rude burlesque of music”’ (Etheridge, 1894, p 322).

Groups from neighbouring areas that began to gravitate towards the new settlement included the ‘Waggite’, who came from the coastal areas of the Daly region to the south of Darwin (the name of the group derives from the word wagatj, which means ‘beach’ in various coastal languages of the Daly region, including Batjamalh, Emmi and Mendhe). The earliest written reference to this group in the Darwin area is a report by Wildey, which records that according to the surveyors exploring the hinterland of Darwin for the Overland Telegraph in 1874, ‘the Waggites are located to the westward about Anson’s Bay’ (Ford, 1990, p 3; Wildey, 1876, p 115). Anson’s Bay is formed by the mouth of the Daly River and its shores include the traditional country of the Wadjiginy, Emmiyangal and Mendheyangal (speakers of Batjamalh, Emmi and Mendhe languages respectively). By 1879 there is a reference in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette of 3 May 1879 to a reception held by the ‘Larrakeyahs’ in Palmerston (Darwin), for ‘their brethren from the Peninsula—the Waggites’, which involved singing and dancing on the oval (Anonymous, 1879; Povinelli, 1993, p 71). Ford notes that the presence of the ‘Waggites’ at Point Charles on the west coast of Darwin Harbour was recorded in 1885 (1990, p 3).

In 1937, the Wadjiginy and their relations, including the Emmiyangal and Mendheyangal, were moved to the government settlement of Delissaville (now known as Belyuen), located on the Cox Peninsula on the site of a sugar plantation first established in the 1880s. By the middle of the twentieth century, the traditional country on Anson Bay was virtually depopulated. Even today, Belyuen people visit their traditional country only rarely, although a semi-permanent outstation has been established at Balgal in Wadjiginy country to the north of the Daly River, opposite Peron Island. The effect of this migration from their traditional country in the Anson Bay area has had profound effects on wangga: the way that songs are received, the way it forges links between people and country and the way it works in ceremony. All these in turn affect the texts and other formal elements of wangga at Belyuen. This matter is discussed in considerable detail in Songs, dreamings and ghosts (Marett, 2005, pp 32-36, 66-69, 74-75 passim).

The works of Basedow (1907), Spencer (1914), and Elkin and Jones (1958, pp 151-152) show that from very early on the Wadjiginy, Emmiyangal and Mendheyangal performed alongside the Larrakiya (traditional owners of the Cox Peninsula, where Belyuen stands) in ceremonies such as the final kapuk mortuary rites, as well as in male and female puberty rites, and other public occasions. Because of the settlement’s proximity to Darwin, being located on the southern shore of Darwin Harbour, performers from Delissaville (Belyuen) often performed for non-Aboriginal audiences. Tourist corroborees were staged in Darwin for visiting dignitaries and cruise ships from as early as 1882 (Anonymous, 1882) and have continued since then, with the Delissaville (Belyuen) people often taking a leading role. According to Mountford’s diary from 1948, the government superintendent Tom Wake encouraged performances by Delissaville people:

Wake announced that the men were going to perform a dance for our benefit. Wake has stimulated the ceremonial life of his people, suggested that they dance when-ever they want to, even allows them a week off from work when the initiation rituals are being carried out, and then looking after the circumcised boys, so that the convalescent period is much shortened.

Wangga Image Figure 1.6 ‘Corroboree group’ at Mandorah, 1968, photographer unknown. Jimmy Muluk is the bearded man in the centre of the photograph. Northern Territory Library, Evan Luly collection, photo PH0784/0099, reproduced with the permission of Belyuen community.

Although the aborigines were dancing in the first place to please Wake, it was not long before they were doing it for their own satisfaction. The performance, like every other aboriginal ceremony I have seen, was carried out with a great deal of real enthusiasm and enjoyment (Mountford, 1948, pp 77-79).

In 1951 Aboriginal people refused the Northern Territory Administration’s request to stage a corroboree in Darwin for visiting American tourists. This strike was in solidarity with the Larrikiya activist Fred Waters, who had been exiled to Central Australia for leading strikes by Aboriginal people in Darwin in support of better pay and conditions (Anonymous, 1951). Even today the Kenbi Dancers, a Belyuen-based group led by Colin Worumbu Ferguson and Roger (Rossie) Yarrowin continue the tradition of performing for tourists, festivals and other public events.

When it became impossible for the Larrakiya members of the Delissaville (Belyuen) community to continue to exercise primary responsibility for ceremonies for the Cox Peninsula, this responsibility was passed on to non-Larrakiya groups there. The last Larrakiya songman, George King, is said to have died at Katherine during the second world war. [9] Subsequently ‘rights to sing some clan songs and to make songs’ for the country around Belyuen were formally passed to the Wadjiginy songman Tommy Barrtjap by the Larrakiya elder, Tommy Imabulk Lyons (Brandl, Walsh, Haritos, & Northern Land Council, 1979, pp 27, 171). George King’s son, Prince of Wales, was brought up by his Wadjiginy relations at Delissaville, and contemporary newspaper reports show he took an active part in ceremonial and tourist performances in the post-war period (Anonymous, 1948). In 1979 the Northern Land Council filed a land claim under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act over the Cox Peninsula, on which Belyuen stands, on behalf of its traditional owners, the Larrakiya people. Destined to become the longest running land rights case in Australian history, the case was finally resolved in 2000 when the Land Commissioner Justice Gray recommended that the majority of the land under claim be handed back to the traditional owners. Importantly, the judgement protected the rights of the Wadjiginy and other groups with traditional links to the Anson Bay area to remain at Belyuen.

History of the Belyuen song repertories

Four distinct song repertories or lineages [10] can be traced at Belyuen over the past five decades, two in Batjamalh, one in Mendhe, and one mainly in Emmi (with some Marri Tjavin). In the last decade, as the traditional languages have weakened and the lines of inheritance and transmission have converged, the distinctions between these repertories have been progressively eroded (Marett, 2005, pp 49-53).

Chapter 4 covers repertory 1, associated with the Wadjiginy songman, Tommy Barrtjap. While Barrtjap received some songs from his father’s brother, Jimmy Bandak, and inherited others from the Kiyuk performer and composer Mosek (from the neighbouring Kiyuk language group), most of the recorded corpus was composed by Barrtjap, with the assistance of Wunymalang ghosts, including the ghost of Jimmy Bandak. These he passed on to his own sons Kenny and Timothy Burrenjuck.

Repertory 2 (chapter 7) is associated with the Wadjiginy singer Bobby Lambudju Lane. Transmission within this repertory is, compared to the straightforward generation-to-generation transmission of repertory 1, somewhat complicated, and this is reflected in the songs themselves, which are far less homogenous than those of repertory 1. Lambudju’s songs have now passed to Colin Worumbu Ferguson (Marri Tjavin), who was brought up with Lambudju, and to Lambudju’s brother-in-law Roger (Rossie) Yarrowin (Emmiyangal), both of whom continue to perform some of his songs today.

Repertory 3 (chapter 5) stems from the Mendheyangal songman, Jimmy Muluk, who was immensely successful in the 1960s, when he was recorded by Alice Moyle, but was no longer alive when Marett first visited Belyuen in 1986. Some of Muluk’s songs continue to be sung by Worumbu, who spent part of his childhood in Muluk’s household. Muluk’s grandson, Kenny Burrenjuck, also sang a few of these songs. The surviving repertory of Muluk’s songs is only a fraction of the original, perhaps because neither Ferguson nor Burrenjuck were fluent Mendhe speakers. Because of the lack of recent recordings of Muluk’s repertory, it was not discussed in detail in Songs, dreamings and ghosts, but we have come to realise that it is immensely significant for the history of wangga (Marett, 2007). The significance of this repertory lies not just in its widespread popularity (Muluk’s songs have been recorded as far away as Derby in Western Australia), but also because it served as a model for the first songs of the Walakandha wangga (chapter 8) when it was being established at Wadeye in the 1960s and 1970s (Marett, 2007). Furthermore, Muluk’s songs are, as we shall see in chapters 2 and 5, among the most complex and formally flexible examples of wangga that we have.

Repertory 4 (chapter 6), associated with the Marri Tjavin singer Billy Mandji, was also not discussed in detail in Songs, dreamings and ghosts. Mandji and his brother Harry Ferguson (father of Colin Worumbu Ferguson) migrated to Belyuen in the 1940s. A third brother, Ngundurl, remained in the southern Daly and his family eventually settled in Wadeye. The sons of these brothers, Ngundurl’s son Les Kundjil and Harry Ferguson’s son Colin Worumbu Ferguson, inherited rights to sing Mandji’s songs. [11] Colin’s sister Marjorie Bilbil, another Belyuen resident, assisted us with documenting Mandji’s songs and in 2006 she too made a brief recording of a Mandji song. Most of Mandji’s songs are in a Belyuen language, Emmi, with only a portion of one song being in his ancestral language, Marri Tjavin. Billy Mandji was involved in the pastoral industry, and for this reason recordings of him and his songs turn up over a widespread area. The recordings presented in chapter 6 by no means exhaust the corpus of recordings and it is expected that additional recordings may be discovered in the future.

Table 1.1 summarises the main recordings of the four Belyuen repertories over the past sixty years (1948-2008). Although wangga has always been the major public genre in Belyuen, it has by no means been the only music performed there. Both Mountford and Simpson recorded a wealth of other song genres during their separate 1948 visits to Delissaville, including balga, tjarrarta and mindirrini (Barwick & Marett, 2011). In the 1940s, other wangga repertories were also performed at Belyuen, including the songs of George King (Larrakiya) (Hemery, 1942), and George Ahmat (Emmiyangal) (Elkin & Jones, 1958, pp 149-150). By the early 1950s, however, the Wadjiginy songs of repertory 1 were well established, and the older repertories fell out of use with the deaths of their main composers and performers. Lambudju (repertory 2) and Mandji (repertory 4) were recorded as young men by Alice Moyle at Bagot in Darwin in 1959.

The 1960s were a time of considerable mobility, with many workers from the Daly region finding work in the pastoral industry, especially in the eastern Kimberley (Jebb, 2002). In 1961, Lamont West recorded Lambudju’s adoptive brother Rusty Moreen (Emmiyangal) together with Larrakiya/Wadjiginy man Lawrence Wurrpen singing songs of repertory 2 in Beswick Creek government settlement, which had links with the nearby Beswick cattle station. West also recorded another Belyuen singer named ‘Billy Brab’. It is possible that Muluk (repertory 3) was resident in the Kimberley during the 1950s (he doesn’t appear in Delissaville records of this period), [12] but by 1962 he was very active back in the Darwin area, where Alice Moyle recorded him leading a burnim-rag ceremony at the Bagot community. He took an active part in tourist corroborees as well as in the Darwin eisteddfod, where Moyle recorded him in 1962 and 1964, along with three young boys he had trained to sing his songs, including a young Worumbu Ferguson, as well as the Mendheyangal brothers Robert and Thomas Gordon. Mandji (repertory 4) was again recorded by Alice Moyle in 1962, singing djanba songs from Port Keats (Wadeye) with another singer Philip Mileru, whom he had perhaps met during his time on cattle stations in the southern Daly or the Kimberley. In 1964 Wurrpen was again in the Katherine area, this time singing songs of repertory 1, recorded by the anthropologist Ken Maddock. In 1966 we find Billy Mandji (or perhaps the Jaminjung singer Major Raymond) recorded by linguist John Cleverly in Timber Creek in the eastern Kimberley singing both Mandji songs (repertory 4) and some of those of Jimmy Muluk (repertory 3), but by mid-1968 Mandji was back in Delissaville, where Alice Moyle recorded him singing both alone and with Jimmy Muluk at a tourist corroboree. Later in the year, his songs were recorded by Moyle from the Jaminjung singer Major Raymond in Kununurra (WA).

Repertory 1   Repertory 2   Repertory 3   Repertory 4  
Mountford 1948, Delissaville  MosekNilku 
Simpson 1948, Delissaville  MosekNilkuBandak 
Elkin 1952, Delissaville  BandakBarrtjap 
Elkin 1953, Bagot  Bandak 
Moyle 1959, Bagot  Lambudju  Mandji 
West 1961, Beswick  MoreenWurrpen  Mandji? 
Moyle 1962, Bagot, Darwin  Muluk  Mandji 
Moyle 1964, Darwin  Muluk, Mandji, Worumbu, R. Gordon, T. Gordon 
Maddock 1964, Katherine  Wurrpen 
Cleverly 1966, Timber Creek  Mandji (or Raymond)  Mandji (or Raymond) 
Moyle 1968, Mandorah, Delissaville, Kununurra  Barrtjap  MulukMandji  MandjiRaymond 
Marett 1986, Mandorah, Belyuen  Barrtjap  Lambudju  Barrtjap 
Marett 1988, Belyuen, Batchelor  Barrtjap(Lambudju)  Mandji 
Marett 1991, Belyuen  Lambudju 
Marett 1995, Belyuen  T. Burrenjuck 
Marett and Barwick 1997, Belyuen, Wooliana  K. Burrenjuck  WorumbuYarrowin  R. Gordon, T. Gordon, K. Burrenjuck, Worumbu  Worumbu 
Marett 1998, Wadeye  Kundjil  Kundjil 
Furlan 2002, Belyuen  K. Burrenjuck  Worumbu, K. Burrenjuck 
Marett 2006, Belyuen, Mandorah  Worumbu, R. Gordon 
Barwick 2006, Belyuen  Bilbil 
Barwick 2008, Fifteen-Mile  T. Burrenjuck(Marett) 
Treloyn 2008, East Point (Darwin)  Worumbu  Worumbu  Worumbu  Worumbu 
Barwick 2008, CDU  Worumbu (Yarrowin)  Worumbu (Yarrowin)  Worumbu (Yarrowin)  Worumbu (Yarrowin) 

Table 1.1: Main recordings of Belyuen singers, by repertory, 1948-2008. The use of brackets denotes a secondary ‘backup’ singer role, assisting the main songman. See chapters 4-7 for full details of the relevant recordings.

No substantial recordings of Belyuen wangga were made in the 1970s, though there is ample evidence of the continuation of the tourist corroborees at various locations in Darwin Harbour [13] as well as in ceremonial activities throughout the region (Brandl, et al., 1979). In 1986 Marett made the first of many visits to Belyuen, where he recorded the tourist corroboree at Mandorah, where Barrtjap performed his own songs as well as some of Jimmy Muluk’s (Muluk was by then deceased). Later in the trip he elicited recordings of both Barrtjap and Lambudju singing their own repertories. In subsequent visits Marett re-recorded the repertories of Barrtjap (1988) (with Lambudju acting as second singer for Barrtjap) and Lambudju (1991) in elicited performances at Belyuen, as well as recording Billy Mandji performing in a burnim-rag ceremony at Batchelor. By 1995 all three of these songmen had died, and the younger generation of singers had started to emerge.

It is evident from the post-1990 recordings by Marett, Barwick and their collaborators Furlan and Treloyn listed in table 1.1 that the younger generation of singers has tended to mix songs from a number of repertories. Barrtjap, Lambudju, Muluk and Mandji usually sang only songs that they had composed themselves or inherited from relatives in a higher generation. The only exceptions were where singers collaborated particularly closely (for example, we have recordings of Billy Mandji and Tommy Barrtjap singing Jimmy Muluk’s songs at tourist corroborees to accompany ensemble dance pieces) or where a singer supported another as the second singer, as when Lambudju assisted Barrtjap in Marett’s 1988 recordings of Barrtjap (see chapter 4, tracks 11-15). Kenny Burrenjuck, who passed away in 2008, was probably the last singer who predominantly sang a single repertory—that of his father Tommy Barrtjap (repertory 1), to which he added a few of his own songs. Kenny also had rights to sing the songs of his maternal grandfather, Jimmy Muluk, which he included relatively rarely, and usually in non-ceremonial performance contexts. Kenny’s brother, Timothy Burrenjuck, was also trained by their father, but is a rather reluctant singer these days, who performs songs from repertory 1 only when no other singer can be found.

Colin Worumbu Ferguson is arguably the leading Belyuen wangga songman today, and has inherited rights to almost all the repertories by one means or another: through direct inheritance in the case of Billy Mandji (repertory 4) and the Walakandha wangga (chapter 8); through spending large amounts of time as a child with the families of Bobby Lambudju Lane (repertory 2) and Jimmy Muluk (repertory 3); and, since the death of Kenny Burrenjuck, through a broadening of perceptions of community rather than family ownership of the various repertories, including those of repertory 1. While tending to favour songs he inherited (entirely conventionally) from his father’s brother, Billy Mandji, Ferguson now includes songs from all four Belyuen repertories in his performances, as well as both Wadeye wangga repertories (Walakandha wangga and Ma-yawa wangga). Nevertheless, as far as we are aware, he has yet to compose any songs of his own and hence would not, at least under the old conventions, be counted as a fully fledged songman. This lack of songs of his own may be related to the fact that he is not a native speaker of most of the languages in which he sings. Even in the case of Marri Tjavin, his ancestral language, he is of a generation that no longer regularly speaks this highly endangered language. The other active Belyuen songman, Roger (Rossie) Yarrowin, is from one of the prominent Emmiyangal families at Belyuen, and his father was a noted didjeridu player and dancer. Yarrowin received rights to sing some of Lambudju’s songs via Lambudju’s marriage to his sister, but like Ferguson he has a limited command of Batjamalh (the language of the songs) and, as far as we are aware, has not composed any songs of his own. [14] He often acts as backup singer to Ferguson, though on occasion he performs solo with the Kenbi dance group, whose resources now include songs from all four repertories.

Ferguson sometimes relies on recordings of earlier singers to learn songs, and in this he has been assisted by Marett and by the establishment of local repositories of archival recordings in Belyuen and Wadeye (Ferguson spends periods of time in both communities) (Barwick, et al., 2005; Marett, et al., 2006). This method of learning from recordings is not as unusual as it may at first sound. For decades singers in the Northern Territory have relied on recordings to support traditions—listening to cassettes of earlier performances by an earlier generation prior to singing in a ceremony, for example (Marett, 2010). Moreover, recorded voices belong to the same category (maruy in Batjamalh, in Marri languages) as the ghostly voices of ancestors singing in dreams, and hence modern transmission methods are closely related to the traditional method of receiving songs (Marett, 2003). Despite an ongoing transformation of the tradition, wangga performances remain viable at Belyuen, as evidenced by the number of recent recordings included in chapters 4-9. Nonetheless, we should never underestimate its intrinsic fragility: the loss of one or two key singers could, at any time, signal the end.

Social history of wangga at Wadeye (Port Keats) and surrounding areas

The history of wangga at Wadeye (Port Keats) is affected by the location of the community at the junction point of the mayern kulu traditional trade route (extending northwards to Darwin and southwards to the Kimberley) with the mayern nonga-mandjikat [15] trade route extending eastwards towards the Katherine region and beyond into southern Arnhem Land (Falkenberg, 1962, p 143; Stanner, 1963 (1989)). Whereas at Belyuen nearly all families had migrated north from the wangga-owning Daly region around Anson Bay, the settlement at Wadeye (Port Keats) included not only wangga-owning clans who had come into the area from the north (including speakers of Marri Ammu and Marri Tjavin), but also clans from the east (including speakers of Marri Ngarr) and south (including Jaminjung speakers). Wangga (associated with the northerly direction on the mayern kulu) thus co-exists in public ceremonies with other song genres deriving from the east and south.

One of the earliest references to wangga in the Daly region appears in a list of song types in Stanner’s fieldnotes for September 1932, when he was at Daly River. On 17 June of the same year, he recorded that a source had told him that most of the songs sung by the Madngella and Mulluk Mulluk were of Larrakia (Larrakiya) or Wogait (Wadjiginy) origin (in other words, composed by singers then mostly resident in the Darwin area) [16] and had been introduced to the Daly by visitors from these tribes or had been learned by Daly tribesmen on visits to these tribes. (At this early point in his fieldwork he seems to have been unaware that the Wogait were originally from the Daly.) Stanner was in no doubt that the Darwin compound acted as a distribution centre for songs.

In 1935 Stanner travelled to Port Keats with Father Richard Docherty, at the time of the founding of the Port Keats mission. In his later published discussion of Murinbata (Murriny Patha) circumcision Stanner lists the following three types of song used for initiation (circumcision), ‘determined by the region to which [the boy] was taken for isolation during the preliminary phase of the rite’:

  • wangga (to the north, the name having no discernible meaning in Murriny Patha, but being associated with the Daly River region);
  • manbanggoi (to the east or north-east, being derived from the Murriny Patha mayern pangguy ‘long road’), using the song and dance form lirga [lirrga] that originated in the Beswick area of southwestern Arnhem Land [17] ;
  • naitpan (to the south or south-east, derived from the Murriny Patha ngatjparr ‘distant’), using the mindirrini dance form, identical with the dingiri [dinggirri] of the Ngan’giwumirri and the kudjingga of the Jaminjung. (summarised from Stanner, 1963 (1989), p 108) [18]

The links established between the boys and the distant people and countries to which they were introduced during the preliminary visit were reinforced by the music and dance performances during their circumcision. Afterwards, the boys were known by the name of the ceremony that had accompanied their circumcision, a practice that continues today. Marett states that links established in this way acted to the social advantage of the young man and his kin (Marett, 2005, p 71).

During his first visit to Port Keats in 1935, Stanner took some telegraphic, but nonetheless revealing notes on the use of wangga at a circumcision ceremony:

Dance wangga repeatedly. This dance simple principles. Drone pipe, tapping sticks, singing men and leader, three or four dancers in semi circle formed by massed associates, First steps like rhythmic jog trot to breathed song (ye, ye, ye, ye); then dance begins. Only one leg used (in this case right). Much posturing, shaking of shoulders … Dance for several minutes near semi-circle. Wangga all the time. Then retreat to the other end of beach. (Stanner, 1992, fieldnotes for 3 July 1935)

Despite its telegraphic nature—Stanner was clearly jotting down observations of the performance as it occurred—this description accords with how wangga is performed today. [19] It is clear from this, and other evidence, that wangga was already well established in the area. Indeed people at Wadeye today say that wangga has always existed in the Daly region.

According to Falkenberg, Father Docherty, the first priest at the Port Keats Mission, initially allowed the performance of corroborees at the mission station for the purpose of convincing people that the mission did not disapprove of their culture (Falkenberg, 1962, p 19). From the mid-1940s, however, circumcision ceremonies were prohibited at the mission. Stanner reports that:

the local missionary, alarmed by a supposed risk to life or well-being from loss of blood and septicaemia, persuaded the elders to let him perform the operation on several boys. Soon afterwards, a hospital was established at the mission. It then became customary to have infant males circumcised by a trained sister. The traditional institution lapsed. The elders put up little resistance and the youths, one need scarcely add, were in favour of the change. (Stanner, 1963 (1989), p 109)

Stanner adds that at the time of his later fieldwork in the 1950s, it was felt by older men that the discontinuation of the ceremonies had had an adverse effect on the social behaviour of young men, but all attempts to start the ceremonies again foundered on the fact that there were no uncircumcised boys (Stanner, 1963 (1989), p 109). It is unclear precisely when circumcision ceremonies began again at Wadeye. According to Frank Dumoo, it was ‘after the war’ (Marett, 2005, p 70). It seems likely that the wangga kardu kunybinyi (wangga for the people of Kunybinyi [20] ) of Joe Malakunda Birrarri and the Ma-yawa wangga (see chapter 9) were composed during this period, perhaps to provide songs for the newly resurrected circumcision ceremonies (Marett, 2007, p 66). According to Frank Dumoo, these local wangga traditions were supplemented by performances by Belyuen singers such as Jimmy Muluk and Tommy Barrtjap, who were brought in from Belyuen. As we shall see in chapter 2, it was these Belyuen songs that provided the strongest musical model for the new composition of the Walakandha wangga tradition in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the first decades of its existence, the mission had been unable to support its entire population, so a roster system was established whereby for one fortnight half the population worked in the community while the other half went bush. In the following fortnight, the positions were reversed. By the 1950s, the resources of the mission had become sufficient to support the population full-time. In the meantime, groups traditionally hostile to the Murriny Patha traditional owners of Port Keats had come into the mission, resulted in serious social conflict. [21] To provide a greater degree of social cohesion, elders from the competing groups developed a tripartite reciprocal ceremonial system whereby the three principal factions took on the obligations of providing ceremony for each other in the two main public ceremonial arenas, namely the final mortuary rites, known in Aboriginal English as burnim-rag, and circumcision ceremonies. For this purpose, three new repertories were composed.

These were the Walakandha wangga (composed and performed mainly by Wadeye-based Marri Tjavin men, representing coastal clans whose traditional country lay to the north of Wadeye) (see chapter 8), the muyil lirrga (composed and performed by Wadeye-based Marri Ngarr men, representing those people whose traditional country lay to the east of Wadeye) (Barwick, 2006; Ford, 2006), and djanba (composed and performed by the Kardu Dimirnin, the Murriny Patha clan group on whose traditional country the township of Wadeye stands, as well as people from Yek Nangu, another Murriny Patha clan whose traditional country lies to the south of Wadeye [22] ) (Barwick, 2011; Barwick, et al., 2010; Barwick, et al., 2007; Barwick, et al., 2005). Each of these new repertories drew on the musical and dance characteristics of the three distant repertories described by Stanner that were formerly used for circumcision (and perhaps mortuary rites), that is wangga from the Daly region to the north, lirrga from the Beswick region to the east, and naitpan (and according to our Wadeye informants, various repertories of balga) from the south and ultimately the Kimberley, which had been traded along the old trade routes or brought into Wadeye by visiting groups from these areas.

The composition of these new local repertories meant that it was no longer necessary to import singing groups from outside the community (although this practice has continued on occasion), because people from the relevant clans were already resident in Wadeye. Because all the songs were in a local comprehensible language (Marri Tjavin, Marri Ngarr or Murriny Patha) and about known places, it was now possible for everyone participating to have access to the content of the songs. [23] The new tripartite system of ceremonial reciprocity dictated that if a member of one group needed ceremony to be performed as the final rites of one of their deceased, or for the circumcision of one of their sons, they should call on one of the other two groups to perform the ceremony. Thus, if a member of a Murriny Patha clan required ceremony, he or she could either ask the Marri Tjavin, together with other wangga-owning groups such as the Marri Ammu and Matige, to perform Walakandha wangga, or the Marri Ngarr group to perform lirrga. If, on the other hand it was a member of a Marri Tjavin, Marri Ammu or Matige clan that needed ceremony, he or she could call on the Murriny Patha to perform their djanba or the Marri Ngarr to perform lirrga, and so on.

This has important implications for the dynamics of ceremony, since it is the country, ancestors and totems of the group that provides the ceremony, rather than those of the deceased or the boy to be circumcised, that are sung. For example, singers of djanba perform songs about their own Murriny Patha country at Kunybinyi, their own djanba ancestors and their own totems, honey and black cockatoo, rather than, say, the deceased’s Marri Tjavin country at Yendili with the Walakandha ancestors and totems of the Marri Tjavin. Clearly, despite this disjuncture, the songs of the ‘other’ group still have symbolic power to create a liminal space between the world of the living and that of the dead, and thus to effect the required transition from child to man, or from living person to ancestor.

The new tripartite system had significant continuities with the previous practice of using distant ceremonies in that it emphasized the building of social networks, here focused within the growing community. At the same time as celebrating the individual differences between the three groups, the new repertories also stressed the fundamental principle, shared by all groups, of the quality and strength of an individual’s personal attachment to his or her own clan country, ancestors and totems.

The circumcision ceremonies that Marett witnessed at Wadeye in the 1980s were very different from those Stanner wrote about from the 1930s. In the 1930s the ceremonies were much smaller, family affairs, which usually focused on one boy and lasted one day (excluding ceremonies associated with the seclusion of the boy prior to initiation). By the 1980s the ceremony had become much larger and wide ranging. Over three days in 1988, a large number of boys were circumcised. Singers and dancers from all three traditions performed in turn, according to the genre that had been chosen for a particular boy’s circumcision. [24] Following this ceremony, however, there were expressions of dissatisfaction: the ceremony was so large partly because the responsibility to circumcise had been lax in preceding years, leading to a backlog of boys in need of ceremonial attention. Singers and dancers complained about being exhausted by the rigours of performing highly energetic forms that were designed for much shorter time frames. In the following years, attempts were made to redress these complaints by holding the ceremonies more frequently (and hence with fewer boys to circumcise). In 2003, in an attempt to recreate circumcision ceremonies in the form in which they had existed prior to the creation of the mission in 1935, elders went back to Stanner’s accounts of circumcision in the 1930s and attempted to resurrect the smaller, family-based rituals of old (Furlan, 2005, pp 271-292 contains a detailed account of this ceremony).

Mortuary ceremonies, too, had changed. Stanner’s 1963 account (based on fieldwork in the 1950s) suggested that Christian burial had by then largely supplanted the fullscale six-stage mortuary rites described by Stanner’s informants as having lapsed prior to the Second World War. Stanner himself never witnessed any mortuary ceremonies, and suggested that ‘only fragments of the traditional rite now survive’ (Stanner, 1963 (1989), p 118). Belying Stanner’s pessimistic outlook for the future of mortuary rites, at the time of our fieldwork in the 1990s it was clear that wangga and its sister genres djanba and lirrga were still in regular use throughout the Daly region, including at Wadeye, to accompany burnim-rag ceremonies, which, while somewhat simplified from the full rites described by Stanner, nevertheless contained many of the same elements. Unlike the large-scale circumcision ceremonies, however, mortuary ceremonies continued to be performed within smaller family groups, usually on the country of the deceased when it was accessible from Wadeye. While most funerals included some traditional singing within the Christian liturgical framework (usually during the mass or to accompany the procession of the coffin into the church and to the graveyard), the burnim-rag ceremonies, which took place a year or two after death, were not mounted for every deceased individual. Rather, the holding of a ceremony depended on the means and commitment of the family of the deceased to organise and fund the event and its associated logistics.

History of Wadeye wangga repertories

Turning now to focus on wangga, we have already mentioned the three local repertories of wangga originating at Wadeye (Port Keats): the wangga kardu kunybinyi of Joe Birrarri Malakunda, the Ma-yawa wangga (see chapter 9) and the Walakandha wangga (see chapter 8). Table 1.2 presents a summary of the known recordings of these three repertories over the course of 55 years (1954-2009).

Wangga kardu kunybinyi   Ma-yawa wangga   Walakandha wangga  
Stanner 1954 (?Daly River)  Joe Birrarri 
Walsh, 1972-1974, Wadeye  Joe Birrarri  Stan Mullumbuk, Thomas KungiungAmbrose Piarlum 
Reilly, 1974-1976, Wadeye  Joe Birrarri  Stan Mullumbuk 
Unknown, circa 1982  Thomas Kungiung 
Frances Kofod, 1986, Wadeye  Thomas Kungiung 
Marett, 1988, Wadeye, Peppimenarti, Barunga, Batchelor, Nadirri  Thomas Kungiung, Martin Warrigal Kungiung,Wagon Dumoo 
Enilane, 1992, Wadeye  Thomas Kungiung, Wagon Dumoo, Colin Worumbu Ferguson, Les Kundjil 
Marett 1998, Peppimenarti, Merrepen, Kununurra, Wadeye  Maurice Ngulkur  Les KundjilAmbrose Piarlum 
Marett 1999, Wadeye  Maurice Ngulkur  Les KundjilPhilip Mullumbuk 
Crocombe 2000, Wadeye  Maurice Ngulkur 
Crocombe 2004, Wadeye  Philip Mullumbuk 
Treloyn 2008, Darwin  Frank DumooColin Worumbu Ferguson  Frank DumooColin Worumbu Ferguson 
Treloyn and Barwick 2009, Batchelor  Charles Kungiung (Marett)  Charles Kungiung(Marett) 

Table 1.2: Main recordings of Wadeye wangga singers, by repertory, 1954-2009. The use of brackets denotes a secondary ‘backup’ singer role, assisting the main songman. See chapters 8-9 for full details of the relevant recordings. [25]

Although several recordings exist of Joe Birrarri Malakunda’s wangga kardu kunybinyi, the texts are in untranslatable spirit language. [26] Because of the difficulty of transcribing texts made up entirely of vocables once the singers have passed away (see Ford’s comments in chapter 3), these songs have not been included in the present collection. The texts of the wangga kardu kunybinyi were entirely in spirit language because Malakunda was not of the same language group as the beings that gave him the song, and hence could not translate their texts into human language (Marett, 2005, p 43). As Barwick and others have observed with reference to Western Arnhem Land, incomprehensible texts have certain advantages when ceremonies are performed for multilingual audiences, insofar as the texts are equally incomprehensible to all in the audience (Manmurulu, Apted, & Barwick, 2008). Birrarri’s wangga songs have not been performed since his death in the mid-1970s.

Wangga Image Figure 1.7 Charles Kungiung and Les Kundjil singing wangga at the funeral for Cyril Ninnal, accompanied by didjeridu player Basil Dumoo, Wadeye, 1999. Photograph by Mark Crocombe, reproduced with the permission of Wadeye community.

The Ma-yawa wangga repertory (chapter 9) is the older of the two Wadeye wangga repertories (Ma-yawa wangga and Walakandha wangga) presented in this book. The texts of the Ma-yawa wangga are in human (Marri Ammu) language, and in this, they perhaps foreshadow the creation of the three new repertories created later (Walakandha wangga, the muyil lirrga and djanba) all of which use normal human language. All but one song was composed by the Marri Ammu songman, Charlie Niwili Brinken, but he was never recorded. The performances presented in chapter 9 were all elicited in the 1990s from his relative Maurice Tjakurl Ngulkur (who also added his own song to the set), sometimes backed up by the Marri Tjavin singers Ambrose Piarlum and Les Kundjil. The recordings exhibit a higher degree of variability than most other wangga in the corpus, perhaps reflecting the fact that by the 1990s the Ma-yawa wangga was rarely performed ceremonially. At the time of writing, the repertory seems effectively defunct, though two Marri Tjavin singers, Colin Worumbu Ferguson and Charles Kungiung, have recently been learning some of the songs from CDs. In 2008 Treloyn recorded Marri Tjavin elder Frank Dumoo backed up by Worumbu singing one Ma-yawa song in an elicited performance, and Kungiung was heard to perform the same song, along with his own Walakandha wangga songs, in a burnim-rag ceremony directed by Dumoo in 2009. What will become of the remaining songs in this tradition is presently unclear.

The first Walakandha wangga songs were composed by Stan Mullumbuk [27] in the mid-to-late 1960s (according to Dumoo, this was the last of the three new repertories to be composed). Mullumbuk also composed a number of wangga songs with Christian themes, which were apparently performed in various church contexts in the 1970s but which have not been performed since his death in the late 1970s or early 1980s. His Walakandha wangga repertory, however, was taken over by a new group of singers, principally Thomas Kungiung and Wagon Dumoo. [28] When Marett arrived in Wadeye in 1988, the Walakandha wangga was at its height. While the majority of songs performed at that time had been composed by Kungiung and Wagon Dumoo, other singers, such as Kungiung’s brother Martin Warrigal Kungiung and Les Kundjil, were also active both as composers and singers. Songs by Stan Mullumbuk were now rarely, if ever, performed. The more recently composed songs by Kungiung, Dumoo et al were regularly performed both in the major ceremonial contexts and in less important ceremonies and in festivals. By this time, the repertory had also been adopted by the Peppimenarti community, and in 1988 an impressive body of men from both Wadeye and Peppimenarti danced together en masse at the Barunga Festival. By the second half of the 1990s, however, all the songmen who had been active in the previous decade, with the exception of Les Kundjil, had passed away.

In the 1990s and early 2000, the rising star was Stan Mullumbuk’s much younger brother, Philip. Philip’s songs are brilliant and complex, so complex in fact, that he was the only person who could perform them. This led to the slightly anomalous and less than ideal situation that wangga performances regularly had one rather than the requisite two or more singers. Tragically, Philip himself passed away in 2006. All hopes now rest on Thomas Kungiung’s son Charles and on Colin Worumbu Ferguson. Marett, Barwick and Ford participated in a burnim-rag ceremony in 2009 at which Charles Kungiung performed numerous Walakandha wangga songs as well as one Ma-yawa wangga song. On this occasion he performed several of his own songs, and can thus be counted as perhaps the only fully-fledged songman of the younger generations. [29]

As with all traditions of Aboriginal music in Northern Australia, the future of the Walakandha wangga, which flourished so vigorously in the 1980s, is now in doubt. As in Belyuen, we can observe in modern performances a movement towards coalescence of formerly distinct traditional repertories (in this case, the Ma-yawa and Walakandha wangga). Amongst the younger generations, there is strong support for the recording and documentation of the tradition, and for making available in the community knowledge centre the performances of the masters of old.

Wangga Image Figure 1.8 Wangga dancers painting up at Peppimenarti, 1998. Photograph by Allan Marett, reproduced with the permission of Wadeye community.