Gurrumul and Indigenous languages offer windows into Australia’s past and present

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu brought Aboriginal language to wide audiences through his music.

There’s a scene towards the end of the film Gurrumul, directed by Paul Daniel Williams screening in cinemas now, that stays with me.

Set in a record store, somewhere in the United States, we hear innocuous guitar strumming in the background as people obliviously browse albums.

Then vocals. In an instant, everyone stops, puts down the album they’re holding, and stares at something we can’t see. It’s like they don't know what’s drawing them, but one by one they walk to the back of the store.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, from Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, Australia, is performing live in a language we can probably assume none of them have ever heard. He has them transfixed.

The film and accompanying album Djarramirri Child of the Rainbow were released in April, almost a year after Gurrumul’s death. The film has remained unchanged from when the artist approved it three days before his tragic death at age 46 last July.

The film is filled with incredible music and awkward moments. But, it’s an awkwardness that tells a story about working across vastly different cultures and languages. It is also about the enormous pressure facing people like Gurrumul, who live in two worlds and code-switch constantly. It’s an awkwardness we need to see.

There’s the dressing room scene, one hour before Gurrumul is meant to perform with Sting on French television. Gurrumul is nowhere near ready.

Michael Hohnen, as Gurrumul’s offsider, collaborator and spokesperson, is feeling the pressure: “They asked me ‘Why doesn’t he know the words?’ He doesn’t even know who Sting is.”

Frantic Skype calls to family across the world, back on Elcho Island, who workshop the suddenly rather frivolous-sounding lyrics, trying to come up with something in Gumatj or Galpu that Gurrumul is happy to sing. Gurrumul’s performance ends up being spectacular.

Then there’s the scene with Gurrumul looking incredibly uncomfortable walking the red carpet to the sound of cheers and camera flashes. A TV journalist, not getting anywhere with her questions, turns to the Yolngu woman at his side, and asks “and how did you dress yourself today?”

But then there’s the moment when Gurrumul is singing with his people at his father’s funeral. They sit on the dusty ground at Galiwin’ku, in a ceremony that will last days.

He is in his element, far from the red carpet. The song he sings sounds familiar. Whether it is the same songline or just has a motif or refrain in common, the context in which Gurrumul worked, the story and deep history behind his music, is suddenly powerfully clear, if it wasn’t already.

The second time I watched Gurrumul, I was on a plane. I noticed all the other people watching it. I don’t know if, like me, they enjoy it for the familiar people, places and stories, or whether the film gives them a glimpse of an Australian reality so many don’t see.

In that moment, though, I saw something of the power of the film, the music, and the work of all the others who came before and continue after Gurrumul.

Gurrumul is the highest selling Indigenous Australian musician in history. Released in April, Djarramirri is the first-ever album in an Australian Indigenous language (actually two Indigenous languages) to make number 1 on the charts.

The album brings together traditional Yolngu songs with orchestral accompaniment. Like the film, the album was finalised weeks before Gurrumul’s death, having been four years in the making.

Gurrumul was widely praised for taking his languages of Galpu, Gumatj and Djambarrpuyngu to the world stage. But, while he reached a fame far greater than many before him, Australian languages have featured in popular music of different genres for decades.

In 1983, the Warumpi Band released what is thought to be the first recorded rock song featuring an Australian language: “Jailanguru Pakarnu”, which is Luritja for “Out from Jail”. Since then, contemporary Indigenous music has gone from strength to strength

In 2016, Gawurra, another Yolngu artist, released “Ratja Yaliyali” (“Vine of Love”) in Gupapuyngu. While contemporary, it references an ancient songline from Milingimbi, Gawurra’s home island off the coast of Arnhem Land.

Understanding the deep meaning and significance of songlines is beyond most non-Indigenous Australians, but in the introductory sequence to the song’s film clip, Gawurra explains its universality: “It’s the thread of love that connects everything, all people, different clans”.

And the powerful song spoke to many: although in a language few outside the Northern Territory understand, it won a 4.5 star review from Rolling Stone, and was number one on the iTunes sales list for Australian music.

Other musicians who have brought Australian languages onto the big stage include Yolngu hip-hop artist Baker Boy, Emily Wurramara, who sings in Anindilyakwa, and Shellie Morris

Writing and performing songs in Australia’s first languages can be a powerful statement of identity and pride. It can also contribute to efforts to strengthen, revitalise and maintain the hundreds of original languages of this continent, many of which are sleeping (no longer spoken) or critically endangered.

Efforts by those involved in this work often involve uncovering old recordings of songs and stories in language, analysing them to find out what they can tell us about the structure and meanings of the language as it was then spoken.

They also tell us something about what people were thinking and singing about at that time. So, what sort of knowledge is held in these languages — what can be lost if they are not listened to, heard, protected and celebrated?

Songs and stories in the hundreds of original languages of Australia — Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander languages — go back millennia. In 2015, linguist Nick Reid and geographer Patrick Nunn published an article in The Conversation about Aboriginal stories they have analysed that describe sea level rises.

The stories came from different parts of Australia — from the Great Barrier Reef and the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north to the Spencer Gulf in the south. Given what Western science has also told us about the history of this continent, Nunn and Reid pointed out that this dates the stories as being 9000-12,000 years old.  

In Yolngu languages and ceremonies in North East Arnhem Land, the history of trade and exchange between Macassans (from Sulawesi in modern-day Indonesia) and Yolngu clans is often referenced. It features in words such as “rupiah” for money and references to Islamic practices, Mecca, ships and telescopes in songs and ceremonies.  For instance “Djoliŋ” — a song from Djarramirri named after a Macassan one-stringed instrument.

There is a rich tradition of songs as a form of record-keeping that did not end with invasion and colonisation. It is no surprise, then, that songs also tell the story of interactions with settlers and colonial power.

Andrew Dowding is a Ngarluma song custodian involved in a research team analysing more than 100 hours of recording of songs in the Ngarluma language from the Pilbara area of Western Australia. The songs are held at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Part of the project is about reconnecting the songs with their custodians. The songs were recorded in the 1950-80s, and, as researcher Dr Reuben Brown writes, “feature stories of everyday life, offering a unique account of Australian history”.

What did “everyday life” mean for Ngarluma people in the mid-20th century? European invasion happened relatively late there: it wasn’t until mining started in 1937 — and iron ore was discovered in the ’60s — that towns grew on Aboriginal land. The Thabi songs (songs meant for public performance) detail, among other things: the World War II bombing of Broome; the first picture show at Marble Bar; the first plane landing at Port Hedland; as well as things “all Ngarda-ngarli could relate to, such as leaving country or a place/station ... or being chased by police”.

Language is both tenacious and precarious: Australian languages are some of the oldest continuing languages on Earth. The history of English on this continent is but a blink of an eye in the long history of this place and its people - but what a tumultuous blink it has been for those people and their languages.

The same language that survived millennia to tell us about how the land was formed, can be seriously threatened — or in many cases fully silenced — within a few generations, thanks to massacres, mass removal of people from their land, English-only policies, etc.

Writing at Independent Australia, Celeste Liddle said: “I see Aboriginal words as a gift — not meaning that we are freely giving them to mainstream Australia for their unbridled use, but rather that, in the face of continual assimilation policies, ranging from Stolen Generation kids being flogged for using lingo all the way to continual threats against bilingual education programs in schools, the fact that we still have words and languages is a miracle.”

Like those browsing records in the US, many Australians have probably never heard some of these languages before Yothu Yindi, Gurrumul, Shellie Morris and others brought them to broader ears. But they are the languages of this continent: they grew up with this land, evolved with it, and have much to tell us about its histories, ecologies and peoples.

[Emma Murphy is a linguist who supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around Australia who are revitalising their languages.]

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