Public Performance in Western Arnhem Land

Following in their footsteps: the Aboriginal song tradition of kun-borrk and manyardiand its role in western Arnhem Land society.

Reuben Brown

In western Arnhem Land, a diverse repertory of songs—referred to as kun-borrk in Bininj Gunwok language and manyardi in Mawng language—have been passed on from male relatives over many generations. Today, these songs still play a central role in a wide variety of public occasions including funeral ceremonies, diplomacy or ‘exchange’ ceremonies, formal events such as cultural festivals and informal excursions to ancestral country with family, or visiting researchers. Following in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers, and ancestors before them who sang in languages now endangered or understood only by ancestral spirits, Aboriginal songmen continue to teach these songs and their accompanying dances to younger generations, and compose new songs which have been given to them by deceased spirits in dreams.

Bringing together historically and linguistically informed performance ethnography and music analysis, this thesis describes the social significance of western Arnhem Land song traditions to the everyday lives of both Bininj/Arrarrkpi (Aboriginal people) and Balanda (non-Aboriginal people). Each chapter analyses performances of kun-borrk/manyardi in different social contexts, which all centre on the theme of intercultural encounter and exchange. The author traces his own journey on the road to learning about Bininj/Arrarrkpi culture by participating in social events in and around the communities of Gunbalanya and Warruwi in western Arnhem Land, accompanied by kun-borrk/manyardi songmen and their families.

As they have done for hundreds of years since the arrival of Macassans from South Sulawesi to their shores, Aboriginal people continue to perform their songs in ceremony for outsiders and between neighboring clan and language groups to establish good relations. This thesis shows how as social circumstances in Arnhem Land change, kun-borrk andmanyardi continue to play a fundamental role in mediating relationships and maintaining traditional culture and values, laying out a path for the next generation to follow.