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Read an extract from Singing Bones: Ancestral Creativity and Collaboration

Manikay are the ancestral songs of Arnhem Land, passed down over generations and containing vital cultural knowledge. In Singing Bones, Samuel Curkpatrick speaks with manikay singers from Ngukurr in southeastern Arnhem Land, who describe the social, ceremonial and linguistic significance of their songs and discuss their critically acclaimed collaboration with jazz musicians from the Australian Art Orchestra (AAO), Crossing Roper Bar.

Singing Bones cover imageDescribed by the AAO as an ‘electrifying marriage of the very old with the very new’, Crossing Roper Bar premiered at the Garma Music Festival in 2006 and has toured internationally. It features a contemporary interpretation of ‘Wild Blackfella’, a song cycle that follows the ancestor’s journey through his country. In Singing Bones, Curkpatrick charts the development of this project and argues that it is at once an exciting example of creative intercultural collaboration, and a continuation of the manikay tradition.

You can read an extract from Sing Bones below.

The book is out now in print and electronic editions. It is the latest release in our Indigenous Music of Australia series.

An extract from Singing Bones by Samuel Curkpatrick

Ŋilipidji lies in the far northern reaches of the Australian continent, about two days’ drive from the nearest capital city, Darwin. It is a hot, inland place some thirty-five kilometres west of the coast at Blue Mud Bay in the Gulf of Carpentaria. During the wet season each year, Ŋilipidji is encircled by floodwaters. These drain away in the dry season, leaving behind dusty riverbanks and deep, dark waterholes. The low-lying hills to the south are covered by scattered stone outcrops, and the landscape is covered sparsely in hardy eucalyptus and ironbark trees. Ŋilipidji is famous for its historic production of greasy, pink-streaked ŋambi (stone spear heads) and knives at numerous open-ground quarries. A valuable commodity, ŋambi were lethal in hunting and combat, and traded across great distances.
     Until the fragmented movements of exodus from life on ancestral estates in the mid-1900s, Yolŋu had lived on their traditional homelands for countless generations. Today, Wägilak reside in towns like Ngukurr, hundreds of kilometres away. While the opportunity to get “back to country” is often thwarted by limited access to reliable transport, the possibility never fails to light up excited eyes. When a trip does eventuate every year or so, no one can help but sing all the way home. The gumurr (chest) of manikay—the main body of a song during which sacred names of Ŋilipidji are intoned (see Chapter Five)—pulls swelling hearts back into the embrace of country.
     We arrive at Ŋilipidji after two days’ travel via Numbulwar, where, along the way, more family were gathered into the convoy. The old corrugated-iron huts need sweeping, the grass burning to get rid of snakes. Not far from where we are camping is a spring, bubbling through thick foliage and running into still pools. These pools are soft underfoot with thick black silt, making it hard to see any little, shy “snappy ones”—freshwater crocodiles. The spring is an ever-flowing source of life, created when the ancestral Djaŋ’kawu Sisters plunged their sacred digging stick into the ground. A few hundred metres away, this water joins Wunungirrna, the Walker River.
     We go fishing in one of the freshwater pools that overflow in the wet season. It is full of ŋatban’ (rifle fish) and huge madhpuna (black bream). Stomachs rumble. We are not strangers: the land recognises the presence of the wäŋa-wataŋu (country owners), smelling our scent and giving up an abundance of natural resources for our sustenance and pleasure. Plenty to catch.
     An old rope swing extends across the deepest part of the stream, a playful remnant of the abandoned outstation. Not much infrastructure remains here: a few rotting blankets, some fishing reels and spears, colourfully painted but extremely dusty huts, a defunct solar panel, and one large water tank.
     What remains at Ŋilipidji is much more permanent and tangible than a few dilapidated buildings. When we entered Wägilak country, just west of the main track to Gove, we stopped to smoke some many’tjarr (leaves) for the spirit of a recently deceased relative, announcing our presence to the land.
After eating some freshly stewed ŋanaparru (buffalo), we roll out sleeping mats and mosquito nets on a huge tarpaulin—the underside is still covered in buffalo blood—and the sun sets. Benjamin Miyala Wilfred, Andy Lukaman Peters and David Yipininy Wilfred prepare to sing the manikay that narrates the foundation of this homeland.
     David Wilfred, a Ritharrŋu man related directly to the Wägilak by marriage, is djuŋgayi (manager) for the singers. The djuŋgayi plays yidaki (didjeridu) for his ŋändipulu (mother’s group; opposite moiety), ensuring that the performance follows the correct narrative sequence. Benjamin Wilfred and Andy Peters are reciprocally obliged to play yidaki for Ritharrŋu songs.
David addresses the ancestral beings in the Ritharrŋu/ Wägilak language, naming everyone who is present and reflecting pensively on the state of contemporary ceremonial practice: “There is no elder in the Wägilak clan for the buŋgul [ceremony].”
     Benjamin continues:
We are going to start [singing] from Butjulubayi [north of Ŋilipidji]. Yidaki player is David, and his land, where he came from, is Bundulum. Where I’m standing now is my home, Ŋilipidji. Tomorrow we are leaving, walking to Warparni.4 My song is Wägilak. We will start with [the songs] “Yolŋu Man” [“Djuwalpada”], “Gara” [Spear], “Malka” [String bag], “Wadawada” [Wire spear].
     Long-time ago our grandfather’s father, grandfather’s mother, they used to walk everywhere, travel around with the Yolŋu song, “Djuwalpada”. This song we are going to start from is where we are now, Ŋilipidji. Ŋilipidji, Lärra [stone spear country]. This is my home, me, Miyala. All my grandfathers and my in-laws, they are all gone now. All our grandfathers—fathers’ fathers—all passed away. We are the only people that know the culture and the secret singing. Only us mob now. Andy [Peters] is the only elder in the Wägilak clan.
     This is me talking, Miyala. I’m doing this recording for all my children to listen and learn, and move along with our culture … I’m the only person that knows the traditional songs. All the rest are gone. This is for you mob; you mob got to listen properly, learn and carry on. Only then can I stop.
The bilma (clapsticks) break the dark, humid air, dense with insect noise. The regular and percussive strikes mimic Djuwalpada’s footsteps as he begins to walk.