Songs of Land and Sea

I have heard the songlines singing, each to each.

Singing Saltwater CountrySinging Saltwater Country: journey to the songlines of Carpentaria (Allen & Unwin, 2010) is  a terrific book.  Of all the many exegeses of songlines and dreamings that I have read, starting from Bruce Chatwin’s narcissistic monologue through Ronald Berndt’s translation of Yolngu creation myths (Djanggawul: an Aboriginal religious cult of north-eastern Arnhem Land, Routledge & Paul, 1952), I can think of none that have given me a better sense of the singing, the imagery, or the webs of connections through time, space, and kinship than this story does.  Written by Monash University’s Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies anthropologist John Bradley “with Yanyuwa families” (there are dozens of co-authors listed on the title page), Singing Saltwater Country is a slow-simmering treasure.

Bradley went to Borroloola on the Northern Territory coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1980 as a schoolteacher, and his connection with the Yanyuwa people there has persisted for thirty years in a variety of guises and capacities.  The most persistent, however, would be that of student, first of the language and later of the kujika, the stories that the Yanyuwa tell of the ancestors, the country, and the relationships that exist among them.

Each chapter in the book has a dual focus: it tells the story of Bradley’s education, of his interactions with the people and their land, and it does so through the lens of retelling one of the major songlines that runs through the country.  Each chapter is prefaced by a charming hand-drawn map of the country and the Dreaming under discussion.  Yanyuwa place-names are presented alongside a few English ones, and the line drawings include illustrations of the ancestral figures who populate the stories.

The book’s development is patterned on Bradley’s own evolving comprehension of the kujika; the early chapters move slowly, introducing themes, never diving too deeply and progressing too quickly.  As a reader, you can not be impatient and grasping: you must settle back and listen as Bradley did, trusting that the accumulation of story and detail will lead to illumination.  This is a gentle book.  It does not celebrate Yanyuwa culture nor bewail its passing, although both joy and sorrow permeate its narratives.

The stories are rich with lore, but in the early chapters they can seem unexplicated, if not inexplicable.  The narrators and narratives are presented as accumulations of characters and  incidents.  There is the whirlwind Rainbow Serpent, the Serpent who is a stranger, the blind serpent whose path crosses that of the long-necked turtles.  They meet, they call out to one another, they move on.  The kujika are presented in alternating Yanyuwa and English couplets:

Wurulu layynngkirni
Blind Rainbow Serpent is old; 
he does not want Law from the 
Whirlwind Rainbow Serpent
Barbabarda karma
Whirlwind Rainbow Seprent moves on;
he leaves the Blind Rainbow Serpent
with nothing (p. 46)


Reading the Yanyuwa transcriptions gives you a sense of the poetry and the sound of the kujika.  Comparing the words to the English translation can leave you puzzled: this is clearly not a literal translation.  And that is one of the lessons that slowly emerges.  The Yanyuwa language of the kujika is rich and allusive.  Its meaning can only be slowly teased out and depends on a  web of meaning and connotation.  It is untranslatable and the work of understanding is complex, multi-layered, dense.  It requires not just knowledge of the words, but a physical experience of the country and a social experience of the people who have lived and died in it and their connections to one another and to the land.

As Bradley spends more and more time among the Yanyuwa, his experience begins to inform the stories that he tells.  There is a thrilling adventure recounted in the sixth chapter, “Tangled Up in the Law,” which involves Bradley as a mediator on a land claim investigation that took him, his Yanyuwa kin, and whitefella lawyers over a deep hole in the riverbed in country called Lilujulhuwa, a place where the Dingo Dreaming is “put down to rest,” or “driven back down into country”: the end of the kujika.  The spot is sacred to the Seven Sisters, and to the Blue-ringed octopus.  Already the richness of the landscape and the stories that inhabit it is evident.  It is dangerous place, with much power.  As the boat tries to navigate the channels, it roils the black mud and the sea grass.  The next morning when a strong wind out of the south brings cold rain pouring down on the campsite Bradley is confronted by Graham Friday, his kardidi (mother’s brother).

“What are you going to do–this weather is your fault, ardiyardi (sister’s son).  You took the judge too close to that place.  This weather is from the Seven Sisters: we’ve got tangled up in their business.  It’s no good: they have got strong Law—kurdukurdu.  They have ceremony, power and authority, those things–the Seven Sisters,  Blue-ringed Octopus Dreaming–you should know that.”

I was stunned by this accusation at first, but soon accepted that was not so unusual; that I had heard such admonitions before.  Even discussions of weather involved moral dimensions.  This was not an argument involving white understandings of events; this was a conversation about the potential of Dreamings–to manifest themselves, to become active agents in the world of their kin.  Graham was saying that my relationship to the Seven Sisters was one of ja-Yakurra, Dreaming mother, and that, as jungkayi or guardian, I had a role to protect that place and the country against untoward happenings (p. 157)

Debate and more assessments of responsibilities follow, and worry about having gotten tangled up in the business of the Dreaming, until Annie Karrakayny concludes

“Well that’s the Law of the Seven Sisters.  They are strong; they are boss for cold weather, and now we know about it.  Maybe that judge and all the whitefellas will know that there is Law in that country” (ibid.)

This whole episode wonderfully illustrates the kujika as process.  It is more than just stories, though stories are a manifestation of  kujika.  The kujika are embedded in every aspect of life, inescapable (though no one seeks to escape from them).  Later in the book, Bradley’s muses on how, through dancing country and singing it, the kujika have come to live and sing within him, even when he is back in the south.

When I walk along the Murray River near my parents’ home, or move in the crowded world of inner-suburban Melbourne, there are times I see a kinsman–a galah, a possum, a butcherbird, a whirlwind, a dark storm front or a willy-wagtail–and their kujika will rise within me because these songs have now dwelt a long time in my mind, in my heart (p. 220)

There are moments of wonderful and mundane insight, as when Bradley accompanies Old Isaac, his kajaja (father), on a trip to seek out wood for new boomerangs.  The old man chooses the tree carefully and saws out the section that he will craft into new clapsticks, splits it in half, and gives the raw wood a try.  Knocking the proto-boomerangs together, he sings a verse from the kujika for the country they are in, and pronounces himself satisfied.  “Light ones,” he says, “good for singing all night–can’t make your arm tired” (p. 231).  What a glorious detail that is; it is one of the revelatory aspects of Bradley’s stories that give the kujika a physical reality.

And then there is the wonderfully funny episode in the Dreaming of the Spirit People who traveled down the east coast of Vanderlin Island towards the mainland.  Known as “the kujika of the giant fart,” it involves a cantankerous old man who burns the other Spirit People to a crisp with a giant flaming afflatus.

At Liwirndirndila the old Spirit Man
shows his anus
it is hot with fire
The body of the old
Spirit man is strong
The eyes of the old Spirit Man are
wide open and shine brightly
Shooting stars move
through the country;
they travel with the old Spirit Man (p. 204)

Is there a visual rhyme here, in the eyes of the old man, the fiery wind, and the stars in the sky, both fixed and falling?

Despite the comedy and the pride and the determination that Bradley captures, he can not write about the old ways without talking about loss, and it is in this regard that some of the sadness creeps into this remarkable affirmation of the songs of country.  It is not simply that the songs themselves are being forgotten, although Bradley has an entire chapter called “Broken Songs” that details how parts of many kujika have been lost. Although by recording these songs so scrupulously with the old people, Bradley and his Yanyuwa families are keeping the words from being forgotten and even generating an interest among the youngsters in and around Borroloola today, there is an incomplete salvation in his actions.

Much of the lore that is lost or in danger of being lost began its decline a generation ago, when the men who are the sons of these old people and the fathers of today’s youth went off their country in search of employment on stations.  By the time they returned, well past the days of their initiations, many members of the older generations were already gone, and so was the chance to learn the kujika.  So even if Bradley’s work can ignite a new enthusiasm, there is a link missing that may be irrecoverable.

One of the reasons some people were doubtful about the effectiveness of taping kujika was that the taped version doesn’t allow the discussions that take place during the singing, or the knowledge of how to pace a kujika so that it arrives in its final country near to sunrise, which depends on the ability to read the stars.  Kujika was also dynamic in that it responded to social changes in the community, especially in relation to verses associated with dead people; and also in that old people who knew kujika well always had teaching and stories to tell in relation to the kujika being sung (p. 214).

The knowledge that informs and surrounds the kujika can not be captured on tape; nor is it amenable to Western forms of inquisition and discourse.  (The fact that the kujika must be paced and put back down in its country with the arrival of the dawn is another one of those marvelous insights that Bradley is so good at giving us, almost as an aside, despite it being crucial to the experience.)  Kujika is a social phenomenon, living only when located in a world where it can be physically experienced and through which it is traveled, argued over, and interpreted by those with a rich understanding of history and language and the passion to make it understood in turn.  This is something that scientists, social or otherwise, stumble on.  As Bradley puts it, “When people see Yanyuwa knowledge as a body of factual data, they miss the emphases inherent in it on how to learn and why (p. 242, emphasis in the original).

Singing Saltwater Country is almost a sort of kujika in itself.  It is Bradley’s journey through country to a kind of understanding, but that understanding, like the Yanyuwa songs, is open-ended and multivalent.  Bradley’s travels through the country and across generations are what allows him to both learn about and present the kujika.  In some ways, this is his story, but of course, in the end, it is not: it is the journey of the Yanyuwa and their ancestors in which Bradley shares.  And yet it is finally impossible to extricate one from the other.  In that manner, it most closely approximates the form of the songlines: a journey that is never complete, encompassing a knowledge that will always change while partaking of the eternal.

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2 Responses to Songs of Land and Sea

  1. Greg says:

    Thanks for this great review, Will.
    The insights I’ve gleaned even from your brief explanation of _kujika_ makes me again wonder whether one of the legacies of this form of knowledge for our consumer world-view – which is plunging the world into a climate catastrophe – is to illuminate what’s required should we want to shift to a custodial world-view. Bradley’s ‘reorientation program,’ generously supplied by Yanyuwa elders, conveyed a set of absolutes that simultaneously engage ethical, spiritual, legal and aesthetic realms. From your review, I’m sensing their fusion in Bradley’s experience of the ‘songs rising in his heart’ when encountering his animal or atmospheric kin after his Yanyuwa reeducation.
    What seems crucial to our cultural conditioning as consumer Shivas – ‘Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds,’ as Robert Oppenheimer thought upon seeing the first detonation of an atomic bomb – is that the _kujika_ isn’t simply a world-view based on ‘thou shalt nots’ for transgressors, but one that is rich with the epiphanies and embodied joys associated with the calling to nurture the physical and spiritual life of a world.
    In our attempts to enact an industrial society that will not consume the earth, we seem to be collectively stuck. Carbon trading, reminders to recycle or consume wisely all are logical steps, but they’re still schoolmarm orders, stripped of the ecstatic and inspirational sides of the Yanyuwa vision of a custodial culture. If we can’t somehow locate these realms of affect and allow ourselves to spiral inward into the mesmerizing illusions of digital devices, our dreamings are as likely to be consigned to extinction as those of the Yanyuwa.

  2. Pingback: Heritage Lost and Found | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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