Sustained song and spirit | University of Melbourne Chase

Common Warning: Aboriginal readers are advised that this article contains images and information about deceased individuals.

In 2011, the UNESCO-backed International Council for Traditional Music issued a stark warning against Indigenous Australian music.

“These traditions are among the oldest and most endangered in the world,” they said in a statement. “Australia’s traditions of indigenous music and dance are in crisis.”

Elder Pansy Nulgit (Ngarinyin) teaches young dancers at Mowanjum Festival 2016. Photo: Sally Treloyn

When this statement was made, Ngarinyin elders in the Kimberley communities of Dodnun, Kupungarri and Mowanjum – which are just off the Gibb River Road – had already begun to take on the challenge of perpetuating musical practice in relation to their own public dance song tradition, Junba

Initiated by master composer Scotty Nyalgodi Martin, they had recently embarked on a project to identify and execute strategies to Junba repertory.

Fast forward a decade, and the collaboration Junba Project, as it came to be known, has helped revive the tradition and strengthen the community spirit.

Healthy song, healthy place, healthy people

Held and performed by many of the First Peoples of the Kimberley, Junba is an ancient storytelling tradition that supports social and emotional well-being.

Junba songs are given to living and remembered song people in dreams by ghosts of deceased family. They are then created for performance – a continuation of a compositional practice that dates back to time immemorial.

The songs document ancient and modern histories: from creation myths to tsunamis, forest fires and meteor events; from composers’ experiences on Country to major industrial and social changes of the twentieth century.

Rona Goonginda Charles introduces the Mowanjum Festival 2021. Video: Mowanjum Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre.

They refer to historical figures such as Yagan (Whadjuk Noongar), a figurehead of the indigenous resistance from the south east of the continent, as well as global events that influenced lives in the Kimberley, such as the arrival of the British and world wars.

These songs are passed down through the lineages of singers and dancers, giving current and future generations knowledge about place, society and the world – with tools to manage change.

Out of a repertoire of more than 1,200 songs and dances, about ten were performed in 2009 in the Mowanjum community, home to many Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal First Peoples.

Elders wanted to rebuild the repertoire and increase the participation of younger generations. They invited associate professor Treloyn, with whom they had documented a lot Junba repertoire almost a decade earlier, to return and help.

The joint research effort in collaboration with the Mowanjum Art and Culture Center identified more opportunities to advance music practice, including youth-led documentation of music practice, access to archival collections and diversification of repertoire as effective strategies to stimulate intergenerational transmission

Ten years later, and the most recent celebration of Junbathe Mowanjum Festival 2021 of the Mowanjum Art and Culture Center, with about twenty Junba dance songs performed by 120 dancers and singers, including 80 children, led by young people who have been part of the project since childhood.

John Nyunjuma Divilli (left) and Pete Myadooma O’Connor (right) dance Royal Flying Doctor and Mail Plane dance at Mowanjum Festival 2016. Photo: Matthew Scurfield/Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre. Used with permission.

Elementary school children of the Wananami Remote Community School sang a recently resurrected song about gathering livestock, originally dreamed of in the 1930s. Worrorra dancer Pete O’Connor carried a totem that represented Captain Cook’s great ship and told a story of colonization that probably hadn’t been performed since the 1960s.

The community also recently opened the Mowanjum Museum at the Mowanjum Art and Culture Center which has a space dedicated to the history and importance of Junba

But while the return of Junba dance songs is a source of great community pride, the opportunity to teach younger generations means much more than just that. It is about spirit and the interconnection of place, people and artistic practice

Matthew Dembalali Martin, Junba Project leader and son of Scotty Nyalgodi Martin, explains what it means for children.

“They don’t look sad,” he said, speaking as part of the University of Melbourne’s Music on the Mind seminar series in 2012.

“They’re looking forward to dancing or something, they’ll do anything. Now the bone, the ornorr, is strong to do something, dance. They can also run all day if they wish.

Garnba-be (Ready to Sing) with Matthew Dembalali Martin (clapping) and Pansy Nulgit (clapping). Video: Mowanjum Aboriginal Art and Culture Center and University of Melbourne

“They have the land and for themselves they feel strong, they are not weak. The mind, the singing, the dancing, that makes them healthy. It has always been there.”

From pressing oranges to young people in charge

Associate Professor Treloyn is based in the Indigenous Arts and Cultures Research Unit with the Wilin Center for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Music.

Treloyn started working with Junba practitioners in west and north Kimberley in the late 1990s, led by senior Ngarinyin cultural custodians.

Her work with practitioners and their communities has continued ever since, working together to bring the Junba Project in collaboration with the Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre, and focusing on strategies to support Junbaestablish a local archive and support community-led discovery and repatriation of historical recordings.

To be a non-indigenous researcher engaged in community agendas around Junba was a privilege, but it’s also “complex terrain to navigate,” she says.

Operating in the historical shadows of colonialism, she has been constantly challenged to assess the extent to which her work contributes to – and the unexpected ways in which it can affect – the communities of Junba excercise.

Ngarinyin and Nyikina Junba practitioner and community leader, Rona Goonginda Charles, has also deliberated on these questions.

Pictured are associate professor Sally Treloyn (obscured), Scotty Nyalgodi Martin (reverse) and Rona Goonginda Charles reviewing archival film for Mowanjum Festival 2015. Photo: Matthew Scurfield/Mowanjum Art and Culture Center. Used with permission.

As she and Treloyn investigate in a 2014 paper What do you think about juicing oranges? – although the work was directed by Elders, by recording and acquiring knowledge and skill in Junba in her early doctoral fieldwork between 2000 and 2002, Treloyn risked removing cultural knowledge, just as researchers had done before her.

“I was wondering what this non-Indigenous woman (Treloyn) is doing in the community,” recalls Ms. Charles.

“How come you sit there and do all these recordings…. I am the one who wants this knowledge – you take the juice and don’t leave the orange.”

While footage shot by Elders remained in the community, this conversation led Ms. Charles and Associate Professor Treloyn, then a postdoctoral researcher, to explore new research methods that support the engagement and leadership of community members, including youth. .

Young people have been leaders in Junbas revitalization. They master songs and dances, teach younger generations and in 2019 launched a book and poster series for local cultural awareness programs and schools.

For associate professor Treloyn, this is a way to honor the legacy of the elders she worked with two decades earlier, who wished youth participation would increase.

External researchers must ensure that the cultural knowledge stays with the communities, otherwise you “take the juice and don’t leave the orange”. Image: Getty Images.

For Mrs. Charles, the Junba Project has aroused the confidence of young people.

“They used to be very shy and lack confidence,” she says.

“Now they can stand and perform in front of thousands of tourists. It’s amazing how they can start performing their Junba without feeling nerves or shame. This project has built so much trust and that helps children to stay in school.”

She says the Junba Project has given many teens in the community the confidence to complete Year 12, which was rare a decade ago.

For both Charles and Treloyn, the collaboration was a way to ensure that the “juice” Elders has shared with outside researchers over the past century feeds today’s practice.

So this is what it means to leave the orange.

Associate Professor Treloyn’s research focuses on the interplay of historical recordings, community access to audio collections, and contemporary dance-song practice, in the Kimberley and elsewhere

The Junba Project is supported by the Mowanjum Aboriginal Art and Culture CenterKimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture CenterKimberly Language Resource CenterAboriginal Wine Corporationthe Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studiesthe Australian Research Council and the University of Melbourne.

Banner: The Birriwirri closing dance at Mowanjum Festival, 2016. Photo: Matthew Scurfield/Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre. Used with permission.

Leave a Comment