Dream songs


In my post on Noh drama, I noted that Allan Marett’s Eliza made a kind of bridge to his fieldwork on Aboriginal culture in Australia.

In the fine tradition of subaltern studies, Allan Marett, in partnership with Linda Barwick, has long been studying wangga, a musical and ceremonial genre of Aboriginal people of the Daly Region of northwest Australia. Along with many articles, he has written

  • Songs, dreamings, and ghosts: the wangga of north Australia (2005, with CD online here)

and co-authored

  • Allan Marett, Linda Barwick, and Lysbeth Ford, For the sake of a song: wangga songmen and their repertories (2013), with associated website here (NB audio here).

Dream songs make one of the most fascinating instances of the process of musical creation, and the relation between “inspiration and perspiration”. They also make a fine exhibit for us to broaden our concept of “serious music”.

Here I’ll consider Songs, dreaming, and ghosts. It’s the result of nearly twenty years of fieldwork, its detailed analyses enhanced by participant observation. In the Preface Allan explores the ambivalence of non-Aboriginal society towards Aboriginal culture, asking why its visual arts are so much more valued than its music:

Part of the answer must surely lie in the fact that both paintings and popular songs are easily commodified, while traditional songs are not. They do not lend themselves to reframing within a European modernist tradition in the way that paintings do. Moreover, traditional songs work in ways that are unfamiliar to most audiences and are sung in languages that nobody outside their home communities understands. They tend to be intensely local, focused on places that are frequently unknown to any but those who have rights to the country. They rest on cosmologies and ways of being that are radically different from those shared by the majority of the Australian community.

The articulation of the relationship between the living and the dead occurs both in the process of song composition and in ceremony. The whole culture is deeply embedded in the concept of country (for a very different kind of Country, see here).

As Allan observes,

The many social changes—settlement, migration, marginalization—that attended European intrusion on Aboriginal domains in the Daly region are reflected in, and mediated by, wangga.

The focus of the book on the positive roles of cultural transmission emerged from Allan’s dialogue with his mentors, whose primary wish was to share the beauty and resilience of their art, rather than dwelling on the post-colonial traumas that permeate all their lives, shared by indigenous peoples worldwide (for the destruction of a First Nation community in Canada, see here)—poverty, low life expectancy, discrimination, high rates of incarceration, land rights, and so on (see e.g. here). For endangered songs and endangered languages, see here, and for the role of technology in preservation, here.

Allan outlines the history of research since the 1950s (A.P. Elkin, Trevor Jones, Alice Moyle, Catherine Ellis, and so on). He reflects on how to integrate social and musical analysis—a model for which I recommend Berliner, Thinking in jazz. We may think of WAM as complex, but the complexities of both the culture and soundscape of aboriginal life are of a different order. He reflects wisely on the role that notation may serve for us:

Although analysis is not particularly fashionable within ethnomusicology today, I am strongly of the view that it provides our best methodological tool for isolating significant (and signifying) moments of performance. I am not so naive as to assume that Western notation can ever accurately represent the totality of the sound world of wangga—or indeed any complex sound world—but I believe that transcription can, if sensitively handled, be used to direct the listener to salient features of the music, much as maps direct travelers to salient features of the landscape. Just as maps are socially constructed documents with their own sets of conventions, and just as they can never represent every aspect of the landscape without simply replicating the landscape in its entirety, so too are transcriptions socially constructed documents that can never totally encode the sound world to which they relate. But insofar as they help us navigate through an unfamiliar music, they can be extremely helpful.

The reason that I use Western notation—despite its obvious shortcomings—is because it is the most widely understood way of graphically representing musical sound. Many of the recordings on which my transcriptions are based are presented in the accompanying CD, and I invite readers to judge the efficacy of the transcriptions, and their associated analyses, with regard to the extent to which they open up the music and render it intelligible.

Indeed, reading such densely-argued analysis makes it all the more important to follow Allan’s careful transcriptions in conjunction with the 28 short audio tracks on the associated website. Such analysis of arcane repertoires is admirable—all the more so in view of the dearth of indigenous musical terminology. Profound concepts are often expressed in misleadingly simple expressions (cf. “doing things” in north China).

Chapter One introduces repertories, histories, and orders of being—opening with the legend of Old Man Tulh, represented in painting and in song.

Wangga songs are performed by one or two (or occasionally more) songmen, who accompany themselves on wooden clapsticks and are accompanied in turn by another performer playing the didjeridu, a long trumpet fashioned from a tree branch thathas been hollowed out by termites. Wangga songs typically comprise a number of bursts of singing, which I term “vocal sections”, which are accompanied by didjeridu, and, in some cases, clapsticks. Vocal sections are separated from one another by a number of “instrumental sections”, which are performed using clapsticks and didjeridu, with occasional spoken, sung, or hummed interjections by the songman. In many case, it is in the instrumental sections that dance comes to the fore.

The wangga repertory may be divided into two broad musical types. In the first, which I call “unmeasured”, the singer alternates didjeridu-accompanied vocal sections without clapstick accompaniment with instrumental sections performed by both clapsticks and didjeridu. In the second, “measured” type, the singer accompanies himself with clapsticks throughout the whole song, and the delivery of the text in the vocal sections is contstrained by the metrical framework established by the sticks and the rhythmic ostinato of the didjeridu.

Allan introduces the two main centres for the composition and performance of wangga, Wadeye and Belyuen—both migrant communities.

Today it is the Walakhanda wangga repertory that is dominant at Wadeye. The reasons for this go back to a set of extraordinary decisions made by Wadeye elders almost fifty years ago. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, a conscious decision was made to create three new repertories of song—the Walakhanda wangga, lirrga, and dhanba—as the basis of of a new tripartite system of ceremonial reciprocity. […]

The immediate impetus for the establishment of this system was the rapid expansion of the Port Keats mission that occurred during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The expanded community included groups who had long histories of conflict with one another and therefore required a new mechanism to maintain social harmony. The tripartite system established at that time continues to function to the present day and is pointed to as a source of ongoing stability within the community.

In Belyuen, by contrast, the community was further removed from the country in which their totemic Dreamings reside, giving rise to a different set of cultural references.

Chapter Two, “Dreaming songs: sustaining tradition”, opens with the Barunga songman Alan Maralung’s account of how he was given songs in dream, and goes on to explore what exactly it is that the ancestors give to songmen. The author finds that the process of composition continues to evolve.

I once witnessed Maralung rehearsing a new song that he had just received. He sang fragments of melody and text sotto voce and quietly beat out short rhythmic patterns, adjusting the various elements until he was happy with them. Later that day he was able to perform the song for a recording; this perhaps suggests that he required less composition time than Mullumbuk. One should bear in mind, however, that Maralung’s songs involve a much greater degree of improvisation than Mullumbuk’s. They constantly evolve and never attain the degree of stability sought by Mullumbuk, or indeed by Lambudju. When songs are not regularly performed in ceremony, as is the case with Maralung’s repertory, they never become “set”, and their form invariably remains unstable from performance to performance. Nevertheless, both forms—those set by performance in ceremony, and those that continue to evolve from performance to performance—equally represent the collaborative work of humans and ancestors.

Basic elements are the cooperation and tensions between lineages, and between different language groups, influencing important aspects of performance.


As ever, this is not some anonymous, timeless tradition: individual performers make major contributions. As in other genres (including WAM), wangga repertories change significantly over time. Allan notes repertory loss:

Many songs fall quickly from the repertory with the death of their composers, while some survive for several generations. New songs quickly emerge as new songmen take over.

For various parameters for musical change, see Bruno Nettl.

Left: Behaving suspiciously towards strangers [lessons available for Brexiteers].
Right: Circumcision ceremony, Wadeye 1992.

Chapter Three explores ceremony, notably mortuary and circumcision rituals—again, constantly subject to revision. Always paying attention to the underlying importance of myth, Allan focuses on two burnim-rag mortuary ceremonies, in 1988 and 1995; and he makes detailed comparisons between a 1988 circumcision ceremony and accounts from 1935 to 1945. He broadens the topic to include lirrga and dhanba genres, and ceremonial reciprocity.

As performed today, the circumcision ceremonies at Wadeye represent a revival of the rites discontinued in the mid-1940s under influence from the Catholic mission at Wadeye, then Port Keats. The exact date of the revival is difficult to ascertain, though it seems reasonable to assume that it coincides with the creation of new repertories of wangga, lirrga, and dhanba in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

New ritual complexes have been introduced to replace those that are no longer regarded as efficacious. Notwithstanding the function of ritual to enhance social cohesion, given the precarious nature of tradition, I’d be interested to see an account like that of Geertz for a “failed funeral”, which I emulated for China.

Chapter Three ends with an account of funerals, performed within a Christian framework, and “quasi-ceremonial” civic events such as graduation ceremonies and festivals.

Chapter Four addresses the nuts and bolts of song and dance in performance. Referring to Susan McClary, he comments:

The need to focus not only on how performers play against conventions to generate meaning, but also on the meanings embedded in the conventions themselves, is as important for the study of wangga as it is for McClary’s study of the blues or Beethoven’s A minor quartet.

Indeed, pace Taruskin, this is another clear case of “serious music”!

Allan analyses melody, mode, melisma, metre, voice quality (cf. Voices of the world); the role of the rhythmically patterned drone on didjeridu, and the clapsticks, often signifying the footsteps or the gait of an ancestor; and the dance.

He begins by analysing a 1968 performance of a measured wangga song by Tommy Barrtjap at Belyuen (above, with audio track here), discussing in turn how metre and tempo are established in the instrumental introduction, the structuring of vocal and melodic sections, the structuring of text and its rhythmic realisation in song, instrumental interludes and codas, and stabilizing form.

He then unpacks an unmeasured wangga from a 1988 burnim-rag ceremony at Wadeye, and its relationship with dance.

Always uncovering both communal and personal elements in transmission, Chapters Five to Eight explore major repertoires of wangga with detailed analyses. Chapter Five concerns the Walakandha wangga, established in the early 1960s as part of the reorganization of ritual life at Wadeye. Chapter Six discusses the more variable (and now rare) Ma-yawa wangga, Chapters Seven and Eight the wangga of Tommy Barrtjap and Bobby Lambudju Lane at Belyuen.

In Chapter Nine Allan revisits the musical conventions of the Daly region, drawing general conclusions on the diversity of text structures, rhythmic treatment, multivalency, melody and mode, rhythmic mode and dance.

Chapter Ten looks beyond the Daly region to the performance of wangga and lirrga in the Barunga/Beswick and Kimberley regions. Again using material from as far back as the 1940s, Allan explores the wider network of ceremonial reciprocity between Wadeye and other communities, always identifying creativity.

Again, it is most important to follow Allan’s detailed analyses together with the audio tracks on the book’s website. Of course, listening like this we can only admire them as isolated sound objects, detached from the context of ceremony and dance. Short of attending ceremonies ourselves, film should be a major medium to engage with this culture—indeed, I can imagine Allan making a wonderful portrait film on the topic. Meanwhile, we can get a flavour of ceremonial performance here, with Button Jones singing wangga and lirrga from the Kimberley (as in Chapter Ten):

And lirrga from Wadeye:

Allan also admires the dancing in this exceptional video of performers from Wadeye at a 1973 Eucharistic Congress at Melbourne, with specially-composed Christian lirrga:

* * *

Beyond the nuts and bolts of soundscape, Songs, dreamings, and ghosts constantly stresses cosmological significance, and the creativity of individual composers.

Meeting up with Allan again in London recently, I reflect that after our paths converged at Cambridge while studying Tang court music with Laurence Picken, they then diverged with our respective fieldsites, and then converged again with fieldwork on living folk ritual among disadvantaged people (my own topics in China including spirit mediums and blind shawm players)—all paths of which Laurence, in his wisdom, approved.

See also under Native American musical cultures (here and here).



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