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Past and present converge as First Nations songmen gather to keep their ancestors’ stories alive.
By Michael Dwyer
Grant Nundhirribala has driven through the night. “From Maningrida, 14 hours, non-stop,” he boasts as kids and grandkids spill from a silver dual cabin Hilux with red dirt trim. “I was filling up at Jabiru, then from Jabiru to Katherine. I’m feeling tired but… every festival when you call me… I’m coming there straight away.”
The people of Beswick are thrilled to see him. He’s soon sitting in regal command on the shipping container stage of the Djarmalak Festival, still wearing his Aussie flag trucker’s cap, his family transformed with white paint and red lap-laps (loincloths) into the Red Flag Dancers.
Grant Nundhirribala: “When I [feel] goosebump, I know my father is next to me. And I sing really strong.”Credit:Anthony Gray
His songs come in short, urgent bursts, clapsticks ringing and dancers kicking up sand as the big blue sky pales to yellow. This one’s called Sunset. Aeroplane is about the “big bird” that astonished his grandfather over the mission in Numbulwar. Each is followed by a roar of appreciation that balanda (white-man) acts seldom muster up here.
“I am Songman for Red Flag,” he explains later. It’s a role bestowed by birth, passed from father to son. The red flag songs are connected to the seafaring Macassan traders of Indonesia, who began visiting northern Australia around the middle of the 18th century.
Young performers at this year’s Djarmalak Festival. Credit:Paz Tassone
“Every bedtime my father used to sing all these songs, all the red flag songs and the smoking ceremony songs,” he says. “I listen all the time. When I went hunting together with my father; always singing.”
How many songs? “Thousand songs,” he says. “Songs from my grandfather. Too much.”
How does he keep track of them? He taps his head. “All in here.”
Djarmalak is an annual celebration in memory of Nundhirribala’s nephew, the local legend now referred to as Balang T.E. Lewis, star of music, film and theatre from The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith to The Shadow King. Over many years, Lewis’ Walking With Spirits festival put this small community 90 minutes east of Katherine on the map for a limited number of tourists permitted to visit the spectacular Beswick Falls site nearby.
Since his passing in 2018, the party has moved here to the community hub of the Djilpin Arts Centre, run by his widow, Melbourne arts veteran Fleur Parry, in consultation with Jawoyn elders. She sits on the steps as visitors learn about bush medicine and grass weaving, or buy local art and textiles.
“It’s about cultural survival,” she says. “Part of my job is to consult all the time with my board and work with them. I’ll say ‘What do you want to be doing?’ And every time without fail, ‘We’ve got to keep culture alive ’cause we’re seeing it fading every day’.
Young audience members at the 2022 Djarmalak Festival. Credit:Paz Tassone
“Dance is super important, painting… but the big thing is the stories. It’s all a bit of a tapestry and I guess the cultural dispossession that’s happened is pulling at the threads but what’s critical is language. You could have a hundred dancers but if there’s no songman, they can’t get up.”
Songs From Walking With Spirits was one of Lewis’ most inspired survival projects. In 2007, he recorded four Arnhem Land songmen with new musical backing by himself, Melbourne guitarist Ross Hannaford, Gurrumul’s bassist Michael Hohnen and others. Each of those songmen (Hannaford too) has since passed, but their voices are now about to take the next step into eternity on streaming services worldwide.
The embrace of Apple Music, which negotiated an early release of the songs this week, seems to illustrate a growing hunger for this kind of material. Ngulmiya, for example, is Grant Nundhirribala’s new album with the Budapest Art Orchestra, sung in Wubuy language peppered with old Indonesian words; language that tells a long story in and of itself.
Then there’s Yirrkala songman Rrawun Maymurru, recorded by classical-electronic artist Nick Wales for a Sydney Dance Company production a few years ago. His just-completed collaboration with pianist-composer Sophie Hutchings promises another frontier for ancient songlines infiltrating contemporary music landscapes in 2023.
The new drones are neither here nor there to Lewis’ sister Loretta George, a teacher at Beswick’s Wugularr School. “You can mix it all up together,” she says, as long as the stories are delivered faithfully.
Loretta George, whose brother, Balang TE Lewis, is celebrated at the annual Djarmalak Festival.Credit:Paz Tassone
“Some of the kids know their culture, but some of them don’t know their land, their stories. That’s why we do learning on-country at school… This one,” she says, indicating the Walking With Spirits CD, “you really want them to learn about and really start singing because that’s [disappearing]. I told the school mob to let the young boys listen. Some of them, they know how to do the didgeridoo but somebody needs [to be] the songman. The storyteller.”
She names a few boys who are learning, but the absence of living teachers concerns her. Songs by the late Victor Hood and Jimmy Wesan, sung in endangered languages Dalabon and Rembarrnga, might have been saved by the miracle of digital streaming but “they need to hear it [live] to sing strong, the young ones,” she says. “What’s really good is if one of the older men could get this back for the younger ones, to keep it alive again.”
Today’s Djarmalak headliner is Torres Strait hip-hop artist Mau Power, a mighty presence on-stage and off. The sky is dark purple when he takes the stage. “We come all the way from Torres Strait to share culture. The dancers come to call the spirits down,” he booms as they stalk the stage in stunning plant-fibre capes and headdresses, wielding stylised paddles like downward-pointing spears. “Raise your hands and feel the energy of our ancestors here with us.”
As the DJ kicks in, the visitation turns a little eerie as a pack of normally sedate town dogs noisily surrounds the dancers on their way back to the dressing room. Later, Power and his team are convinced the animals saw the ghosts. “When we call the ancestors, the spirits come and get embedded into the gear. They can actually haunt you. That’s happened to our surprise all the time,” he says.
Mau Power with dancers at the Djarmalak Festival.Credit:Paz Tassone
“Back in ancient times, they had the turtle shell masks; the eyes are made of pearl. If you want to move the masks, you must remove the eyes because they actually watch you. And if you don’t, it haunts you. Even the British Museum curators know this. Because the elders came over and told them.”
On a good day like this one, the elders’ ghosts are everywhere.
“When I perform in these places I can feel my father next to me,” says Nundhirribala, back at his Hilux and preparing for the next leg of his journey. He pinches his arm. “When I [feel] goosebump, I know my father is next to me. And I sing really strong. Everywhere he follows me, no matter where.”
His father is still passing on new songs, he adds. “When he’s singing in my dream, the next day I’ll get up, get my clapping stick and sing. Follow the dream. And then I tell the yidaki player, he follow me and then I show all the dancers the new dream, new songs.”
Is he ever worried about the old ones disappearing?
“No,” he says, laughing. His language is stronger than some others. “I’ve got my eldest son. He’s got everything. He’s twenty-something. He learned when he’s a little boy. And that’s my grandson,” he says, pointing to a child of maybe six clambering over the ute. “My son’s eldest son. He’s doing singing too.”
So the songs are safe? He nods once. “Safe.”
Songs from Walking With Spirits is available to stream on Apple Music now, other services from Wednesday. Michael Dwyer travelled to the Djarmalak Festival courtesy of Djilpin Arts.
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