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Art, Country and the DreamingAboriginal Music


Music is a powerful part of Aboriginal culture and is part of everyday life as well as being a vital part of sacred ceremonies. Traditional music is still practised and performed widely - and there is also a very strong and lively contemporary music scene.

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Music in Traditional Society

Music plays a major role in traditional Aboriginal societies and is intimately linked with a person's ancestry and country (the animals, plants and physical features of the landscape). It is traditionally connected with important events such as the bringing of rain, healing, wounding enemies and the winning of battles.

Aboriginal music is learnt and carried on to later generations by performing it. It is not seen as fixed but rather is something that is varied or built upon in successive performances. There is usually a large number of participants and is performed communally. The diversity of culture across Aboriginal groups is reflected in the diversity of songs, music, instruments and techniques.

Types of Traditional Music

There are three distinct types of Aboriginal music. The first and largest type consists of that used in sacred and secret ceremonies. These are songs which can only be performed in a particular place, and for a particular purpose. The ceremonies usually commemorate some event or events connected with a totemic ancestor. The songs and ceremonies of this type can only be known and witnessed by initiated men. There are also women's secret ceremonies, a large proportion of which are connected with reproduction, and particular songs for children.

The second type of music is the semi-sacred, of which there is a large amount. They were sung by men, while women danced, during the initiation ceremony of young boys. The sacred and semi-sacred songs were performed in full only at the appointed ceremonial ground, and were never sung by men who were not initiates of that totem at that particular place

The third type is non-sacred or entertainment music. These songs are the only form of Australian Aboriginal music that can be performed by any person - man, woman or child - at any time or any place. The best known form of these public events is the corroboree in which the men dance for up to three or four hours continuously while the women and children sing. Non-sacred songs were traded freely between tribes and spread easily, often crossing from one language into another.

Arrernte painting for public corroboree - Spencer and Gillen 1901

Music also plays a part in ordinary daily life. Herbert Basedow in 1925 noted that:

It is common practice . . . among the tribes of Australia, for one individual to carry on conversation with another by singing the words. When, for instance, it is the intention of the person engaged in conversation to make the matter as little noticeable as possible, or when they want to impart information to each other without attracting the attention of a third party, they clothe their words in song. And the same is also done when a third party is criticised.

Young aboriginal children are encouraged to dance and sing about everyday tasks. At puberty a child learns the first songs about the totemic plants and animals of their clan and the history and mythology of the group - these have specific melodic formulas that distinguish them from other group's songs. Young men also learn more lighthearted songs which are the basic entertainment for their group. When a man marries and enters further into group responsibilities, the karma songs are the central part of his education and his source of spiritual strength. His maturity can be measured in the knowledge he has acquired through songs and ceremonies.

Music, Songs and Ceremonies - Krill Krill Songs

One of the most recent and significant examples of the continuing role of song and ceremony in Aboriginal traditional culture is the emergence of the Krill Krill song cycle and ceremony in the east Kimberley.

The Krill Krill (or Gurirr Gurirr) ceremony was revealed to Rover Thomas after the death of a woman to whom he was spiritually related in 1974. The woman was severely injured in a car accident close to Turkey Creek (near Warmun community) and was transferred first to Wyndham then, as she was being flown over the west Kimberley coastline, she died from her injuries. About a month later Rover Thomas was visited by her spirit and she gave him a series of songs and dances about her travels after her death, visiting many sites of sacred or historical importance in the Kimberley.

After several years of his telling these stories, they evolved into a song and dance ceremony called Krill Krill performed by the Warmun community. This ceremony included the carrying of painted boards by dancers. These boards initially were painted by Thomas's uncle Paddy Jaminji, under Rover Thomas' instructions, and only several years later did Rover Thomas take up painting independently himself. These paintings have led to the remarkable growth of the east Kimberley style of painting in which Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, Hector Jandany and Jack Britten are some of the best known artists.

The Krill Krill songs record in brief verses the travels of the woman's spirit in the Kimberley. The number and combination of songs presented in each performance may depend on the nature of the venue and the audience, and on occasions new verses have been added. In each performance, however, the order of the movement across the landscape is maintained. This set of songs is remarkable in a number of ways: as an example of innovation in songs and ceremonies, as the origin of a new and lively school of art, and as an example of continuity in an extremely old oral tradition.

For more details on Rover Thomas and the Krill Krill ceremony, see the book 'Roads Cross - the paintings of Rover Thomas'


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