Songs that keep ancestral languages alive: a Marrku songset from western Arnhem Land

Reuben Brown, Nicholas Evans

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    When songs are performed in socially meaningful and memorable contexts, they can act as vehicles that carry aspects of an individual’s language and identity, sometimes long after that person dies and his or her language is no longer spoken. In this chapter we present an illustrative case study from western Arnhem Land: the Milyarryarr (‘black heron’) song-set, which is associated with the ‘extinct’ languages of Marrku, Manangkardi, and Ilgar but continues to be performed by songman Johnny Namayiwa. Before his death in 2003, the late Charlie Wardaga, who spoke these languages, handed over the songs to Namayiwa. While the languages were not part of Namayiwa’s linguistic repertoire, he was able to identify some song words in order to work up translations in Marrku with Nicholas Evans, who had previously worked with Wardaga. Namayiwa performs and teaches his inherited song-set in a variety of public ceremonial contexts. These include funeral ceremonies, Mamurrng (diplomacy) ceremonies, local festivals and celebrations. He has also added to the song-set some new compositions that were given to him in dreams. Public ceremony is prominent in western Arnhem Land, and song-sets such as Milyarryarr are performed alongside others in order to enact important social transitions and transactions. We suggest that it is this performance context that has enabled the transmission of knowledge of ancestral languages that are no longer spoken, which otherwise might not have been passed on.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationRecirculating Songs: Revitalising the Singing Practices of Indigenous Australia
    Editors Jim Wafer & Myfany Turpin
    Place of PublicationAustralia
    PublisherANU College of Asia & the Pacific
    ISBN (Print)978-1-922185-40-2
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


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