MSA CONFERENCE 2016
Shifts and Turns: Moving Music, Musicians and Ideas
30 Nov - 3 Dec 2016
39th National Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia
Keynote Presentation in dialogue with Steven Knopoff
Date: Friday 2 December
Songs and Meaning in Yolngu Culture
In dialogue with Steven Knopoff, Witiyana Marika will discuss some of the ways that manikay (public ceremonial songs) have shaped his own life and the life of his clan, the Rirratjingu, and of all Yolngu people. In doing so, he will draw on examples--explained in words, sung as song, and illustrated through audio-visual recordings--of some of the many ways that songs provide a basis for establishing connections and meaning both in and outside of ceremonial performance.
In significant ways, manikay provide a key element for conserving the Ancestral basis of Yolngu culture. There are some elements of manikay which are maintained in a fairly conservative, unchanging manner in performance. This has helped to maintain continuity of structure and meaning even in cases where the outward trappings of ceremonies such as funerals have been modified and adapted to the modern context. Importantly, there are also intrinsically malleable aspects of manikay. Within appropriate potions of Ancestral ceremonies, the creation and performance of yuta manikay ('newsong verses'), allows for the referencing of current events and musical trends. This is one of the reasons why an Ancestrally-derived performance practice like manikay remains relevant in the contemporary Yolngu world.
Ingrained in the hearts and minds of Yolngu, manikay are a source of strength, inspiration and philosophical reflection. Witiyana’s son, Yirrmal has attended school in Geelong for several years. At times when Yirrmal misses home and longs for a source of strength and meaning he telephones his father who then sings portions of their clan’s songs over the phone. The 'open' (publically accessible) nature of manikay also means that they can be freely adapted to performance in non-religious contexts and shared with the outside world. The same meaning-laden metaphors of ceremonial songs have accordingly found their way into Yolngu popular songs, most famously by the Band Yothu Yindi, but also by more recent bands and solo artists including East Journey, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, and Yirrmal Marika.
In a recent article in The Monthly, former Chairman of the Northern Land Council and Gumatj clan elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu stated that "I have lived my song cycle and I have done what I can to translate the concepts of the Yolngu world into the reality of my life." Here Galarrwuy alludes both to the continual process of (re)mapping Yolngu concepts onto an ever-evolving and increasingly global reality, and—importantly—to the essential role that songs play in providing a core basis for Yolngu life. It is precisely this central place of songs in contemporary life (as well as Ancestral ceremony) that will be addressed in this presentation.
Witiyana Marika (b. 1961) is a senior singer and ceremonial leader of the Yolngu community at Yirrkala, Northern Territory, and one of the most significant traditional singers in Australia today. He is one of a dozen children of the late Rirratjingu clan and community leader (and 'father of Yolngu land rights') Roy Dadaynga Marika (MBE). Among his siblings, many of whom have made significant contributions to the visual and performing arts, linguistics, education, governance/administration, and land management, Witiyana has been most active in the performance of garma manikay and related ceremonies. In the Yirrkala area and surrounding region he has served as a song- and ceremonial leader for his own clan and related clans. Outside of Arnhem Land, Witiyana has participated in cultural exchanges that have cultural revival amongst Indigenous groups whose traditions were negatively impacted by living in urban and rural areas of Australia. Beyond religious ceremony, Witiyana has led many large and small troupes in the staged performance of traditional Rirratjingu songs and dances across Australia and around the world. As one of the founding members of the highly successful Yolngu band Yothu Yindi, Witiyana played a key role in ensuring the inclusion of traditional forms of expression within a popular music context. As a Director of the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, Witiyana helps to look after the business and community interests of the Rirratjingu and other clans in Northeast Arnhem Land.
A good deal of Steven Knopoff’s research and publication has focused on the traditional songs and performance of the Yolngu people of Northeast Arnhem Land, where he has had maintained longstanding relationships in the Yolngu community at Yirrkala. Knopoff has documented a number of ceremonial performances of the Rirratjingu clan, including singing by Witiyana, his brothers, and their late father, Dadaynga.