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Manyardi songs make us remember

Indigenous Languages, IYIL, Shape, Wellsprings

Date: 30 July 2019

Note: It is with great sadness that we acknowledge the passing of Warruwi Elder David Manmurulu. All depictions of David have been removed from this article for the time being.

Traditional custodians from Warruwi community in western Arnhem Land (NT), David Manmurulu, Jenny Manmurulu, Rupert Manmurulu and Jamie Milpurr joined with researchers to present the Garrurru public lecture, centred around the Inyjalarrku ‘Mermaid’ song-set, an important part of their cultural heritage.

Songs hold emotions and memories of people, places and earlier times. This is true of song traditions in general, but even more so for the Inyjalarrku ‘Mermaid’ song-set that has been passed down over three generations of the Manmurulu family. In this public lecture, songman David Manmurulu, his wife Jenny, son Rupert and Jamie Milpurr performed music and dance from the song-set. They discussed how music, dance, memory and emotion are tied up in manyardi (song) with musicologist Isabel O’Keeffe and linguist Ruth Singer.

Based on research by Dr Singer, Warruwi has been celebrated as a linguistic phenomenon – The Small Island Where 500 People Speak Nine Different Languages.

We hear how performance of Inyjalarrku songs brings about emotional interactions between performers and audience. For example, the audience can be moved by the performance and say ‘Ah kangmarrangulin!’ (‘Oh, they’re breaking my heart!’). Like the first rains of the wet season, also described with this Mawng language verb, music brings about a change in emotions, often reminding people of earlier times, people passed and places long not visited. Examining the way that Mawng conveys these ideas reveals a different perspective on how Inyjalarrku songs bring their performers and audiences together to share emotional experiences and memories.

This lecture was proudly funded by the Garrurru Education and Employment Strategy of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, and featured:

David Manmurulu is the senior songman and custodian of the Inyjalarrku ‘Mermaid’ song-set, which he inherited from his father George Winungudj (MBE). David is in high demand as a performer and cultural consultant across Arnhem Land and is on the steering committee of the National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia. He teaches Inyjalarrku dancing to male students at Warruwi School and is fluent in English, Mawng, Kunwinjku and Yolngu-matha.

Jenny Manmurulu is the senior Indigenous teacher at Warruwi Community School and is currently furthering her teaching qualifications at the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. She has helped to develop an Indigenous cultural program for Warruwi students, which involves teaching Inyjalarrku ‘Mermaid’ dances to female students. Jenny is the lead female dancer for Inyjalarrku songs and is fluent in English, Mawng, Kunwinjku and Kunbarlang.

Isabel O’Keeffe is a linguist and musicologist who has been working with communities in western Arnhem Land to document the manyardi/kunborrk song traditions and languages of the region. She is currently a Research Associate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music working on a project to document the endangered Kunbarlang language of western Arnhem Land.

Ruth Singer is a linguist at the College of Asia and the Pacific at ANU and The University of Melbourne. She researches multilingual language practices in Arnhem Land and works with speakers of Indigenous languages at Warruwi Community, including speakers of Mawng, Kunbarlang, Yolngu-matha and Kunwinjku.

With thanks also to:

Reuben Brown (not attending) who is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne. For his PhD, Reuben collaborated with ceremony leaders in Gunbalanya and Warruwi, Northern Territory, to return archival recordings of song and research the significance of the kun-borrk/manyardi song tradition in contemporary society.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University