Volume 2, Issue 5 Feature Article

Singing through the sea: Song, Sea and Emotion   John J. Bradley

Singing through the Sea pdf version

This article offers us a deep insight into the seamless connection between people and country and the ways in which this intimacy creates the Yanyuwa’s identity.

Nine hundred and seventy kilometres south east of Darwin, in the Northern Territory of Australia, is the small township of Borroloola. It been home to the Yanyuwa people for the past 100 years as successive waves of colonialism and enforced institutionalised removal from their homelands has taken place. They are really saltwater people, their homelands are the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands and the immediate adjoining coastal regions. While resident at Borroloola the island and sea country has been constantly visited, talked about, danced and sung about, it is the sea country that has been at the heart of their emotions even while living in Borroloola. The Yanyuwa peoples own name for themselves is li-Anthawirriyarra, or “the people whose spiritual origins are derived from the sea”.

In the Yanyuwa language the sea, antha, is masculine, while the waves, a-rumu, are feminine, male and female combined, no separation. The waves are feminine because they were created by the female Sea Snake Ancestress, a-wirininybirniny, thus the foaming white crest of a wave is called nanda-rayal; her spit, the fine sea spray from wave, nanda-minymi; her condensation, the external arch of the wave is nanda-wuku; her back, and the concave interior, nanda-wurdu; and her stomach, the Wave and the Sea Snake are one and the same, there is no separation.

The Sea Snake is but one of many Ancestors that travelled Yanyuwa country, giving it meaning and imbuing all of the land and sea with an essence or thick substance that in Yanyuwa this is called ngalki. The ngalki is still there in the sea, on the islands, on and in the sea, on the coastal lands of the Yanyuwa and in every living and non-living thing including Yanyuwa people. Thus Yanyuwa people are related to all things in Yanyuwa country; they are a part of a multitude of invisible threads of connection; where people stand in a matrix that sees them able to call all people and all animate and inanimate things in Yanyuwa country as kin; thus, if they are kin there can be no non-animation, thus all things, the sea included, are sentient.

It is common to call the relationships described above as the Dreaming or Dreamtime. The Yanyuwa people use this term also, but they also use their own word Yijan. Both the English word and the Yanyuwa word have nothing to do with sleep, rather it is a term that refers to the relationships between people and their country and the Law, narnu-yuwa, that is embedded in the country, and it is this Law which sets out the realm of Yanyuwa experience. It is the Law which embodies their beliefs, and the Law in Aboriginal English is said to be derived from the Dreamtime” or the Dreaming”. In addition this English term is misleading because it carries connotations of an imaginary or unreal time.

In much of the discussion that centres around this term Dreaming and Law there has always been the tendency in the west to construct binaries of the sacred and the secular, or non-sacred, this binary does a huge disservice to the way in which the Yanyuwa people see their place, and the place of all living and non-living things in their country. All things that belong to Yanyuwa country have Law; Law can be their observed biological behaviour, or it can be the songs, rituals and important body designs and objects as well as the powerful places in the land and sea associated with them. Because of the images of relatedness that have been described above, there can be no separate boxes” of sacred and secular; there exists rather the potential for all living and non-living things to carry their more normative forms and the potentiality to become something else, and this potential is always present.

The most powerful demonstration of this knowledge that relates to country and a Yanyuwa person’s relationship to it is through the singing of kujika that have come to be known in popular imagination and literature as ‘song lines’ or ‘song cycles’. For the Yanyuwa kujika, are multi-versed sung narratives that travel through country. They are songs that the Yanyuwa describe as ‘bringing everything into line’, all living and non-living things, peoples’ names, the names of the land, the winds and other seasonal events are all given a place in these songs.

At one level it is possible to call these songs environmental narratives but that is underestimating their purpose and content. The term environment or landscape are terms that the teachers of western knowledge use to describe the places in which we find ourselves living and working and spending our lived existences. The Yanyuwa use the term country to describe the places they live.  Country can also be the sea, and it is spoken about in the same way that people talk about their living human relatives, people cry about country, they worry about country, they listen to country, and they visit country, and long to visit country. In return, country can feel, hear, and as close relativesbring to that relationship all of their past experience, their present and their future. So when people talk about singing their country, all of these relationships are present. It is not just a song about the environment.

What needs to be first understood is that the verses of the song lines, the kujika, are a distillation of not only the potential to negotiate and influence the environment but also a rich imagery that expresses qualities that are seen as indicative of the health and vitality of all the living and non-living things on the land and in the sea and river systems.

For the Yanyuwa people this is the ideal that the song lines celebrate, a country that contains images of brilliance and brightness that signify the physical, emotional and spiritual health of the country, and it is these images that are contained in the verses of the song lines. The songs are not just restricted to land but they also speak of the sea and sky. The songs become a way of engaging through sight and sound and human emotion with the essence of the creative power, vitality and nourishment that still exists in the country because of the Dreaming, the original Ancestors of the Yanyuwa.

The process of singing just one verse, let alone the many others, draws both the singer and the listeners back to the original time of beginning, to the original moment of creation. The songs, create a powerful repetition of ongoing dialogue between the past and the present whereby each singing, even of one verse, is an interpretation of Ancestral events, of country, Law and kin, as well as knowledge of the rituals associated with each Ancestral being and the narratives that surround them. Each song verse then is like a key-hole, that, when peeped through, leads to another room full of understanding about the Law that then leads to another door with another keyhole. The song cycle verses are keys to the ongoing accumulation of knowledge about the specifics of the Ancestral beings, their country and of the living kin that call that country home. Thus song is a fabric constructed of many, many webs and as knowledge is acquired, a multidimensional structure is built, but it is a structure of the mind, drawn from the land and sea, that is brought into being and articulated through speech, song, ritual action and moving through country and over sea.

The song lines were placed into the earth and sea by the original Ancestral beings, so it is as if the land and sea themselves have become a recording device and the song is still there constantly moving, only waiting for human kin to give it voice. These songs it could be argued are Australia’s oldest music, a most ancient libretto embedded in the country, which speak of origins and beginnings, and ways of understanding the richness of this continent, with songs such as this there can be no terra nullius or indeed marae nullius, a sea without inhabitants.

It is wrong and demeaning to the authority of the song lines to see them merely as road maps to survival in the land, as having only a life-saving function to be part of a structuralist, functionalist part of a culture. While many of the songs name lagoons and freshwater wells, many of the songs also travel through the depths of the sea or through thick impenetrable mangrove forests, they travel as the Ancestral beings travelled, and they did not always travel with human kin in mind. Furthermore, from a Yanyuwa perspective, clear understandings of these songs can only be truly understood by knowing the country they are moving through. This does not mean that a singer has to travel the route of the song; rather, the singer has hopefully had enough of life’s experience on country to actually know the physical characteristics of the land that he is singing. People can sing song lines many kilometres from their source but still have an active engagement with the country being sung. Song functions as a compendious mnemonic and encyclopaedia of knowledge of country that begins to explain to outsiders how much knowledge of country is required for survival. Survival not just in the physical sense but also in a spiritual and emotional sense as well.

The song lines are like a conduit of power placed by the Ancestral beings and to sing these songs is to reveal original creative energy and potency.  When people sing these songs, the country in all its wealth and vitality opens up in the singers’ minds. They are seeing the land anew as it once was and they hope it will always be. A distillation of the power and sentience of the country is being revealed once more, and it is as if the singers are the loud speakers for what they know already exists in the country. The country and sea sings and reveals itself through its human kin. Yanyuwa song cycles enact a celebration of the specificity of their country and knowledge.

The very sounds of the song cycles are also the sound of the subject being sung, warlamakamaka, the broad open sea, or warriyangalayawu, the hammerhead shark. The very syllables resonate with the super vital; the sounds combine to make up words that give meaning. But at one level meaning is also seen to be secondary because the very words are seen to be building blocks of Yanyuwa country. Song, to use an analogy is a repetition of the country’s DNA strand and to sing is to bring forward all of a country’s biology, geography, meterology, its phenomenology, indeed the very biography of the place.  Song is a way in which the Yanyuwa people negotiate with their country. When Yanyuwa people sit and discuss their country they often sing, and in doing so they are striving to understand and accommodate its needs, so that country will in turn continue to meet theirs. The singing of country and sea is about love and the lifting up of space and place, of the only home that people have ever known.

Constantly these songs are about memories as well. They become distilled with commentaries, thus as new commentaries are added, old ones may be forgotten or absorbed, and in doing so the meanings are redefined and shaped to make sense to the meaning of the lives of the present generation. When sung in the proper manner kujika becomes an invocation, a conjuration of the enchanted that brings with it the experience that it describes; it is never ‘history’ or memory, nor a metaphor for something else. Kujika is of the now, of the ever being. When performed with full knowledge and enthusiasm, it becomes actual re-creation. Kujika includes the experience itself. Yanyuwa country is not a wilderness, not even the sea is unknown space: it is only wilderness if there is no knowledge. Wilderness, in a Yanyuwa sense, is a place that is devoid of reverence and revelation.

On a day-to-day basis, it is possible to be oblivious to these things and then there are moments, when something happens or events demand that we see the connection. We are astonished that we couldn’t see them until that moment. These are often the revelations of the sacred, the super vital in our lives and in the country. Just beneath the surface, each person is linked to every other person and to every other organism, and there is a responsibility to preserve these invisible threads of connection. Knowledge of kujika and country is a way of sensing the presence of a network of mutual interdependence that binds us to others both human and non-human, both animate and non-animate.

The consciousness of the Yanyuwa world is dependent on the continued fabric kinship, country and Law regardless of contemporary, radical and all too often tragic changes. The older generation knew, and there are those that still know that their bodies and minds are composed of this fabric and that the meaning of life and death is inherent in it, and perhaps, just perhaps, the deepest knowledge they possess is to know what life is really about. Kujika is about the very beginning pulses of Yanyuwa time.

The oral tradition surrounding the kujika means that there is never one editorial. So-called mutually exclusive accounts are woven in together and this allows for an understanding of a multifaceted nature of reality, and in this there is the wisdom that brilliantly conveys the message of country so that it leaves the listener, the learner and the singer in the same state of confusion about what ‘really’ happened (as if reality were only one thing at a time). For the men and women who know kujika, everything happened and it all happened at once, and everything and everyone is there and distilled, nothing is nothing, and everything is something, it is all the same but different. Confusing? Not really, because people and country and all that it contains are needed to make clear the way these things are learned.  It is too hard to explain, it needs to be experienced, needs to sensed and then once the experience has been had, it is possible to move onto a situation that begins with:“alright, I’ll tell you a story…..”

Kujika are songs of the sacred, of the super vital that conceal myriad meanings, ordinary everyday words cannot contain them, thus they require the special language of the Dreamings themselves, the language of the plants, fish, dugong, waves, birds, rainbow serpents and all the other human and non-human entities that are in the embrace of country. The commentary surrounding the words is necessarily fluid because each singing redefines the meaning of all the previous stories. Thus ‘new’ singing ripples backwards and forwards through all the previous singings and new stories about ancient songs are constantly being invented.

My Yanyuwa teachers have constantly taught me that all the things in their country are just the way they are supposed to be (leaving modern encroachments aside), the way they must be. However to completely understand this there must be a surrender of ego, a submerging in the flow of song and narrative on, in and through country, and in doing so we also learn that much of what is called Law. The merging of the sacred with the secular is all dependant on relationships of affection and shared purpose as well as continuing  unashamed accounts of biography and autobiography.  Ultimately, however, kujika lived constantly in the minds of those that are now deceased and it lives in the memories of those still alive, and for those that cannot sing, the word kujika still conjures important issues and moments of introspection of the wealth that still courses through country.

John Bradley was in his early 20s when as a new teacher he was sent to the remote Aboriginal community of Borroloola in the Northern Territory. For most of his adult life he has been working with the Yanyuwa, documenting their language and culture, and is now a fluent speaker himself … one of the last. Today, John Bradley is Deputy Director of the Monash Indigenous Centre and continues to work with animation to convey this Yanyuwa heritage and the cross generational transfer of knowledge. He has also written Yanyuwa dictionaries and is currently rewriting a Yanyuwa encyclopaedic dictionary, which may also help the Yanyuwa people reconnect to their language in the future.