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New book tells of 4000 kilometre Gurindji travelling songs

Evolution, Felicity Meakins, Shape, University of Queensland

Date: 1 November 2018

A new book, Songs from the Stations, published in collaboration with the Gurindji ceremonial elders, tells an astonishing story of the extraordinary distances that travelling songs called Wajarra were passed between Indigenous groups in Australia.

The book was launched yesterday by Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, along with the next leg of the exhibition ‘Still in my mind: Gurindji experience, location and visuality’ at the Art Gallery of Charles Darwin University.

The Gurindji people of the Northern Territory continue to sing the highly endangered Wajarra verses first recorded by Daisy Bates in 1913, some 4000 kilometres away on the coast of South Australia.

Thomas Monkey Yikapayi, Ronnie Wavehill Wirrpa and Topsy Dodd Ngarnjal sing Wajarra (Photo by Brenda L Croft)

Thomas Monkey Yikapayi, Ronnie Wavehill Wirrpa and Topsy Dodd Ngarnjal sing Wajarra (Photo by Brenda L Croft)

The songs have since been recorded throughout the Western Desert and the coast of Western Australia sung by groups previously not known to have close connections. In the last 150 years, cattle stations provided the setting for these popular songs. 

The Gurindji are best known for walking off Wave Hill Station in 1966 in protest against mistreatment by station managers. This event precipitated the equal wages case in the pastoral industry and the Aboriginal land rights movement.

An eclectic ceremonial life flourished amidst the harsh conditions on Wave Hill Station. Constant travel between cattle stations by Aboriginal workers across north-western and central Australia meant that the station itself became a cross-roads of desert and Top End musical styles. 

The Wajarra songs were a part of the vibrant ceremonial practices of Aboriginal station life in the region. As senior cultural custodian Violet Wadrill says:

“Life was hard on the stations, but we kept our songs. We used to listen to the old people performing Wajarra on the station. People from the west would exchange songs with us, and some of the old people like Smiler Kartarta were given songs by spirit women. We perform Wajarra now on Freedom Day to celebrate the Wave Hill Walk Off. It’s important that the next generation know how to perform Wajarra.”

The book is the result of extensive collaboration between Violet Wadrill, other Gurindji elders Ronnie Wavehill and Topsy Dodd, language experts Felicity Meakins (a Chief Investigator at the Centre), Myfany Turpin and Cassandra Algy, and Karungkarni Arts.

Songs from the Stations is published by Sydney University Press.

Book cover:Wajarra as sung by Ronnie Wavehill Wirrpnga, Topsy Dodd Ngarnjal and Dandy Danbayarri at Kalkaringi

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