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Music and Spirituality in Yolngu (Australian Aboriginal) Culture

“It is our everything.” Inspired, dictated, permeated by the land, Yolngu culture is a socio-geographic phenomenon; an antiphony between earth and man which has been going on for some 50,000 years. As land is their “everything”, everything arises from their land…their ideology, their spirituality, their music, their art. And so, any examination of their beliefs, practices and arts must sift through the red, red desert earth in which they are rooted. This 3000-word essay was submitted as coursework for an undergraduate course in "The Music and Culture of Aboriginal Australia" in UCC, 2005, and explores the complex, symbiotic, intertwining role and relationship which Yolgnu music has within and with Yolgnu spirituality. There are no footnotes in this version. For a version with footnotes, contact the author. Contact Úna here

“Perhaps land ownership to us can best be described as a continuing dynamic notion, not bounded by geographical limits of a government surveyor. It is a living, breathing entity, made up of earth, sky, clouds, river, trees, rocks, and the spirits which created all these things. It is the place wherein the spirits of our forefathers roam, the place wherein our spirits will reside in the great dreamtime. It is an extension of our very souls; it is our everything.”

“It is our everything.” Inspired, dictated, permeated by the land, Yolngu culture is a socio-geographic phenomenon; an antiphony between earth and man which has been going on for some 50,000 years. As land is their “everything”, everything arises from their land…their ideology, their spirituality, their music, their art. And so, any examination of their beliefs, practices and arts must sift through the red, red desert earth in which they are rooted. As I wish to explore the complex, symbiotic, intertwining role and relationship which Yolgnu music has within and with Yolgnu spirituality, this is where I must start: and so, I begin to dig.

The Yolngu believe that the world was sung into existence . They believe that the Ancestors, supernatural beings sleeping beneath the crust of the earth, awoke and gave life to all the animals, plants, birds, fish, mountains, trees, waterholes…by calling out their name, and singing their names into songs. They believe that the Ancestors wandered all over the world, “singing” it as they went; and they call their trails, still echoing with music, the “songlines”.

These Ancestral songlines are made up of songs, which in turn consist of verses. Each of these verses refer directly to the particular patch of land which their singing brought into existence . In this way, the intimate link between song and land is established; the land is of the song, and the song is of the land. When a Yolngu child is born, he/she is entrusted with verses, and accordingly the custodianship of the particular patch of land to which they are connected .

The Yolngu peoples regard the Creation – and hence, the world as it is - as completely perfect. Thus, their only goal is its preservation and continuity as is. They believe that the re-enactment of their Ancestors’ journeys strengthen the fabric of existence, and therefore re-create them regularly in order to maintain the Creation . Crucial to these rituals is the singing of the songlines, exactly as they were originally sung; the importance of this within Yolngu philosophy is inestimable. It is reflected in the severity of the penalty for singing verses in the wrong order: death .

The Yolngu do not speak; they sing…they have no artistic tradition which employs only the spoken word, for example the declaiming of poetry ; instead, their linguistic artistry is aligned with music, and channelled into their songs.

For a Yolngu tribesperson, existence is equated with perception. He/she doesn’t believe land exists unless they conceptualise or see it. Moreover, virgin territory must be “sung” in order for it to be truly actualized .

And so the red, red earth yields proof – proof of the pivotal role which song plays in the ontological processes of a Yolngu tribesperson. As can be seen from the above accounts of Yolngu myth and the resulting Yolngu cultural practice, song is absolutely central to Yolngu belief-systems. It is fundamental to their cosmology and religion; it is their primary method of personal, interpersonal and spiritual mediation; and it is an absolutely vital part of their ontology. The incredibly intimate relationship between the musical and spiritual lives of the Yolngu peoples results in a complex twining, where Yolngu music and spirituality influence each other in a symbiotic, reflexive cycle.

The initial impetus of this phenomenon is the direct impact of Yolngu spiritual ideologies on the nature of its music. This happens at quite basic, obvious levels, but also at more sophisticated heights, which I shall explore later. However, a simple example, and appropriate starting point, is the issue of composition within the Yolngu song tradition.

The Yolngu do not have the Western, art-music concept of a “composer” within their cultural structure. This is fairly typical of a folk musical tradition; however, the Yolngu musical tradition is distinct in that they believe their songs originate directly from their spiritual icons. They believe that the songs which make up the bulk of the songlines have been passed down to them directly from their Ancestors , and therefore, if a “composer” in the Western sense is referenced at all, it is a totemic, mythical being from a metaphysical realm . In other words, the philosophical stance of Yolngu culture has resulted in a sociological construct which dictates that its musical oeuvre, in keeping with its meta-ideology, remains relatively static. Regardless of the fascinating sociological and philosophical implications inherent in this fact, the practical ramifications for their musical culture which result from it are huge. The “spirit-conception” of the songs obviously confers inestimable importance upon them amongst the Yolngu; this is undoubtedly one of the main reasons their oeuvre is simultaneously so well-preserved and substantial. I would also posit that the deep-rooted reverence of the Yolngu for their repertoire has major implications for Yolgnu musical performance, resulting in very strict parameters of interpretation for the performing artist. There are also the significant artistic consequences of having a relatively static repertoire, not least of which is that it frees a lot of creative energy within Yolngu culture for refining already highly- developed performance skills. Straight away, the way in which Yolngu spirituality has shaped and informed Yolngu musical culture is obvious.

Another fairly visible instance of Yolngu musical culture being highly influenced by tribal spiritual ideologies is in instrumentation. As previously mentioned, the primary goal of a Yolngu tribesperson is the ecological preservation and husbandry of their land, and therefore it is eminently logical that the instrument which dominates their musical tradition is one which requires (at least directly) no natural resources whatsoever: the human voice . The few instruments which are employed to accompany Yolngu singing – the clapsticks, boomerangs or clubs used to pound the ground, skin hand-drum (Cape York), didjeridu, ubar – are made by using unprocessed organic matter which is already dead, or as in the case of the didjeridu (a dead tree trunk hollowed out by termites) custom-made by nature. It is entirely fitting that Yolngu instruments, whose purpose is to play music that affirms the existence of the natural environment, in no way impinge upon an exceedingly delicate ecological balance.

However, Yolngu ideologies also inform the musical tradition in far more subtle ways. One instance is the reflection of Yolngu concepts of temporality in the metre and rhythm of their songs. A quite basic, self-evident example of this is that the pulse of traditional Yolngu song is not particularly fast; this mirrors their traditional, non-industrialised pace of life. However, there are more involved, refined connections between the music of the Yolngu and their conception of time.

The Yolngu have wholly different temporal constructs to the West ; they do not count , and although they have a past, present and future, they do not concede time to be determinative . Rather, they arrange their lives into patterns of events which follow a rhythm . These rhythms are obviously influenced by natural cycles such as night-to-day etc., but are actually predominantly based upon the occurrence of those self-same events which they frame . The impact of this temporal conception upon Yolngu music is immediately apparent upon listening to a traditional Yolngu singer . In no way is the pulse of Yolngu singing an independent, stand-alone metronomic entity, or the primary musical driving force: rather, it is wholly dictated by the structure of the song-text . In other words, the rhythm of Yolngu singing is subordinate to musical events within the song; the song is a musical microcosm of the Yolngu world-view.

Another subtle way in which the Yolngu conception of time infiltrates their musical practice is in the lack of prolonged musical development within their songs. I alluded earlier to the way that, for the Yolngu, something has to be perceived in order for it to exist; this mode of thought is closely allied to their attitude towards temporality. For the Yolngu, time is wholly relative to events, and relevant only when events occur . This is neatly demonstrated by the fact that there is no reference whatsoever to ultimate pre-Creation origins in their cosmology . It is also apparent in their system of time-notation, which depends not on numbers, but on “appreciation of events” , the vivid description of the current state of the world: for example, “The outline of trees and objects are clearly defined” for the moment before dawn. The centrality of perception to the world-view of the Yolngu peoples infers a huge level of personal engagement with the “now”; far greater than, for example, a particular college student in the West, (i.e., me) who barely notices the beautiful river on the way to university every day. It therefore makes sense that Yolngu songs are brief, intense experiences (between thirty seconds and two minutes ) and that the songlines, while longer, do not feature musical development in the overt, large-scale sense of, for example, Western art music. Integral to appreciation of this type of large-scale musical development is the listener’s mental juxtaposition of music both in the immediate past and present, and sometimes also the listener’s anticipation of the future. In stark contrast, the Yolngu tribesperson is wholly absorbed in the present, which must result in an entirely different listening experience; one which, in my opinion, is potentially far richer. However, the major impact of this cultural engrossment in the “now” upon Yolngu music is that the musical development which does occur in Yolngu song is on a minute, but no less artistically valid, scale.

With this in mind, it also makes sense to me personally that the Yolngu musical tradition is primarily a vocal one, as the human voice is the instrument which has the least mediation between source – be that brain, heart, or soul – and sound. It is the most immediate channel of human aural communication; it therefore seems both logical and fitting that it is the primary instrument of a culture who live so emphatically in the present. However, there is also a multitude of other factors which contribute to the appropriateness of voice as the centre of Yolngu musical culture; not least of which is its physicality and accessibility. Although it is completely natural for a nomadic people who place hardly any emphasis on material possessions to use what is ultimately the most portable instrument, I would argue that there is a more profound reason behind the use of voice in Yolngu musical culture. The physical embodiment of voice within our very selves results in it being our most honest aural channel of emotional communication. I do not think that it is any coincidence that spirituality is the fundamental impetus behind music-making in Yolngu culture, and that voice is their chosen medium of musical/spiritual expression. Any seeker of communion with the divine must relish the self-honesty and immediacy that the human voice entails; indeed, this is recognized in our culture by the very etymology of the word “spirituality”, which comes from the Latin for breath, spiritus . Although I am, by definition, looking through a Western cultural lens, the manner in which song completely permeates Yolngu spiritual culture would imply that this is one common point between Western and Yolngu spiritual traditions: the curious sympathy between voice and the search for transcendence.

There is also the practical issue of accessibility: if a Yolngu tribesperson can talk, they can sing – or at least vocalize to some extent. Since every single tribesperson must “sing” their particular land-song heritage in order to ensure its continued existence, it is vital that each member of the tribe be able to fulfil the re-Creation ritual. Thus, the fact that voice, which is a simple, if not easy, instrument is the medium of ritual is again no surprise.

However, as I mentioned at the beginning of my essay, the relationship between Yolngu spirituality and Yolngu music is a symbiotic, reflexive one. The integral role of music in the spiritual lives of the Yolngu inevitably influences the nature of their music; but it also heavily influences the nature of their spirituality.

The spiritual beliefs of the Yolngu are remarkable for their eco-systemic nature. The celebrated anthropologist Roy Rappaport, in “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” wrote: “The moral responsibilities of humanity’s unique place are nowhere more profoundly realized than in the religions of aboriginal Australians.” He was referring to the fact that humans, as the dominant species on earth, have a responsibility not only to themselves but to the world as a whole if humanity is to continue. The theologian Anne Murphy, in her essay “Sounds Sacred: Immanence and Transcendence in Music” points out: ‘Music would seem to communicate through its rhythmic patterns which have been drawn from the subconscious rhythmic impulses of biological or natural life.” . In my opinion, these two statements synthesize neatly to explain how the Yolngu have the most ecologically respectful belief-system in the world. As Anne Murphy asserts, music originates in biological impulses; a result of the juxtaposition in the human of a need for self-expression and a vocal ability. In scientific terms, the human animal, as a species, is a singing creature. My thesis is that the exercise of this basic biological impulse, a human’s very nature, makes the individual more sensitive to the needs and presence of other biological entities which surround him. If an entire culture completely embraced this biological impulse, surely the result would be a society and belief-system very similar to that of the Yolngu: a society in which there is a deep reverence for the land and all its children.

The other major facet of the Yolngu spiritual tradition which sets it apart from Western religions is the emphasis on not only communion with the divine, but actual embodiment of the divine. In order to explore this, it is first of all necessary to clarify the definition of the “Dreamtime” or the “Dreaming”.

The wakening of the Ancestors and their singing of the world took place in a mythical realm called the “Dreamtime” or, preferably, the “Dreaming”. In simplistic and popular readings of Yolngu myth, this is often interpreted as a time, a temporal space pre- Creation. However, this is a wholly inaccurate rendering of the concept, resulting from the bastardised translation of Yolngu language and the superimposition of Western spatial and temporal constructs upon the Yolngu . A more precise definition is the Dreaming as both a place and an energy source, a symbol which gives shape to Yolngu experience of the Ancestral realm .

The distinction between these two definitions of the Dreaming is vital, since it is only with the second, accurate interpretation of the Dreaming that an outsider can approach a proper understanding of the Yolngu world-view; the centrality of spatiality to their ontology, and how their mythology holds the potential for them to actually enter into their myths. This possibility exists due to the “oneness” of song and land within their belief-systems: “The essence of the Aboriginal Hero is song, and the essence of song is place.” . The intimate connection of Yolgnu song to the land – their ultimate souce, their “everything” – means that it gains power by association, which in turn rebounds upon their spirituality. When Yolngu tribespeople are re-Creating the journey of their ancestors and re-Singing the Creation, they are not mere caretakers, guardians or actors. They are not just treading the existing landscape. They are not merely re-performing a piece that has been sung thousands of times before... They are the Ancestors, singing the First Song, walking in the Dreaming.

Bruce Chatwin makes the interesting point that peoples who have little or no nomadic element to their culture oftentimes have a major travelling theme in their afterlife myths; almost as if the human being has an innate need to wander, and if that need is not satiated in this life, that it will be projected on to the next . The Yolngu peoples have no such fear: they believe that if they have spent their lifetime walking the paths of their Ancestor, singing his song, when they die they become the path, the Ancestor and the song. As the Yolngu child is conceived with song, as he spends his life singing it, he finally becomes it. The intertwining of spirituality and spirit which bore him, bears him back to the red, red earth from whence he came.

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<hrdata-mce-alt="Bibliography" class="system-pagebreak" title="Bibliography" />


Buck, Peter Henry: Anthropology and Religion Yale University Press, New Haven, 1939

Chatwin, Bruce: The Songlines Pan Books Ltd. London, 1988

Cooper, Diana: The Codes of Power Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2003

Covell, Roger: Australia's Music - Themes of a New Society Sun Books, Melbourne, 1967

McLean, Ian: White Aborigines: Identity Politics In Australian Art Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998

Murphy, Anne M., and Eoin G. Cassidy (ed.s): Neglected Wells: Spirituality and the Arts Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1997

Orchard, W. Arundel: Music In Australia Georgian House, Melbourne, 1952

Pierce, Peter: The Country of Lost Children - An Australian Anxiety Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

Rappaport, Roy A.: Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity Cambridge University Press Cambridge 1999

Riemenschneider, Dieter, and Geoffrey V. Davis (ed.s): Aratjara – Aboriginal Culture and Literature in Australia Rodopi Amsterdam, 1997

Serle, Geoffrey: From Deserts the Prophets Come - The Creative Spirit in Australia 1788-1972 William Heinemann Australia, Melbourne, 1973

Swain, Tony: A Place for Strangers – Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being Cambridge University Press Cambridge 1993