Opinion

Interweaving Voices: Ampiji the Rainbow Serpent

In the third part of the Interweaving Voices series, musicologist Genevieve Campbell shares a conversation with Calista Kantilla, Tiwi Elder and songwoman, about the generational transmission of medical and environmental knowledge through songs.

Ampiji over Mantiupi country. Photo by Genevieve Campbell

To our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers – please note that the following article may contain the name and image of a deceased person. 


This is the third instalment in the Sydney Environment Institute’s Interweaving Voices series, a collection of videos and written reflections by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr
Genevieve Campbell about her work preserving the songs of the Tiwi Islands

‘Our Elders tell us, don’t go Mangatu kilimraka. Don’t go near the lake, don’t pull out the waterlilies. Try not to disturb that water. The serpent might come out. Mostly she is quiet and calm in the waterhole or the creek, but if something disturbs the water she might get angry and make the water dangerous.

Heavy rain, storms, broken up water can make us sick. Pregnant women or mothers with young babies need to be careful and stay out of the rain and the swamps. She shines in the sky when there is enough water for him to come out. She swims up into the rain and into the clouds. That’s when we know the storm has gone.

When we are away from our country and we see him in the sky it makes us think of our Ampiji Ancestors. For us Ampiji people she is our Dreaming. Our Yoi. What we dance and sing, who we are, from our fathers and their fathers.

Ampiji Elders share the story, the song and the dance that are both their cultural history and their lived present. Ampiji is their Yoi, their Dreaming, the identity inherited through fathers and grandfathers. The word ‘Dreaming’ is close, but not quite the translation we need here. Unborn Tiwi children are ‘found’ when they are dreamed or heard and then sung by their fathers. More than just a dream one has in sleep, this is more like conjuring, imagining or manifestation in the existentialist sense.

‘Dreaming’ is also the vast depth of stories that form the knowledge woven through millennia of songs, paintings, gestures, dances. The remembered stories and wisdom of grandparents, of their grandparents, and theirs… In other cultures we think of fables, folklore, legends –Phaedrus, Aesop, the Ramayana or our grandparents. Those stories, memories and history interweave and their truth is as valid as the need is (and always has been) for people to make sense of their place in the cosmos. Tiwi Dreaming is this and more. It is the basis for why everything is the way it is – the land, the plants, animals, fish, the birds and the people. The seasons, the weather, the shape of the country. It is the way of explaining all of the mysteries and all of the things one ‘just knows’. It is ‘who we are, it just is that way and always was like that’. As a community firmly connected with the land and whose stories therefore are inextricably linked to it, it makes sense that the Dreaming stories have the personalities of the natural world as the main protagonists. Through their stories repeated along the songlines, the ancestors of the Dreaming became the birds and animals and manifested in the features of the land, sea and sky that we all see today.

‘Our Yoi is our Dreaming. It comes from our Ancestors and our Country. Yoi also means to dance. We dance our Yoi … because that’s who we are. Some of us dance Crocodile, some of us dance Jungle Fowl, or Shark – and some of us dance Rainbow. When we dance Rainbow, and when the old people sing, we dance for that Ancestor Ampiji.’

Calista Kantilla in performance at the National Gallery May 2021. Photo by Peter Hislop

Just as all cultures’ fables teach, warn, moralise or inspire, Ampiji has an important story to tell. Referred to as both he and she, Ampiji also means Rainbow serpent, because the rainbow is the Rainbow serpent when she’s in the sky.

In far north Australia the monsoonal wet season combines constant damp with high temperatures to create the perfect environment for bacteria, insects and disease. Meliodosis is a potentially fatal condition caused by contact with the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, which comes to the surface in the wet season rains and lurks in damp soil. Meliodosis is most often caught through scratches or cuts on bare feet or ingesting contaminated water when swimming. People today are very aware that even in hospital this is a dangerous condition, and it is likely to have been a lethal unseen curse in the times before science gave it a name. Following old traditions, ‘everybody knows to be careful of the waterhole when the water is dark and muddy, when Ampiji has stirred it up’. Anyone with physical weakness – pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and babies are considered particularly vulnerable and so must not go near the waterholes or be caught out in the rain. Calista tells me that when she sees just a fragment of rainbow ‘always when we see that broken Ampiji if we are away we call home to check everything’s ok with them.’  This inherited message to check on family, to connect with home is part of the long-taught way we keep strong and look out for each other, she explains, an instinctive sense of responsibility amongst kin across generations and creates a tie between all Ampiji people.

It is clear that the Ancestors made the connection between the wet season swamps, waterholes and muddy ground and sickness. When Ampiji is happy the water is clear it is safe and healthy, when she is not, the water is murky and the rain can bring sickness. Wet season waterholes are also thick with mosquitoes and prone to roaming crocodiles so a wariness of Ampiji at this time is sensible. This truth is unquestionable, whether learned from a medical doctor or from a cultural elder.

Ampiji singers create their own words to add to the story, with the underlying message passed on through each new generation of mothers and children. Calista sometimes sings Puntangina for Rainbow and sometimes the names of long-deceased ancestors who were Ampiji ‘because their name means Rainbow now and we hold their story’.

The accompanying video piece was created for the Canberra International Music Festival and presented in the National Gallery in May 2021.

As Calista watched she told her story,

then she sang Nginilawula yampijinginta ngawatiwingu jirrawu

and this is how we would write the spoken words if they were ever spoken.

Nginilawula Ampiji nginta ngawa tiwijirra

We are all Ampiji people


Calista Kantilla is a Traditional Owner of Malawu Country, Rocky Point Patuwapura, Bathurst Island, Northern Territory. As a young woman she worked in the Nguiu Clinic, and has taught children Tiwi culture in the local school for many years. She is now a leader in her community and she is the most senior member of the Strong Women’s group. With them she has performed in the Darwin Festival, the Sydney Festival and at Music and Language Conferences around Australia. Calista is the last senior woman who can sing Kulama, the most important Tiwi yam ceremony and, as one of the last few with knowledge of the old Tiwi language and songwords,  is relied upon for all ceremony and song in the Tiwi community.

Genevieve Campbell is a 2019 University Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute and Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Since 1988 Genevieve has played horn in many of the major Music Theatre shows in town plus everything from Musica Viva to Australian Idol, Opera Australia to the Wangarratta Jazz Festival and toured with Anthony Warlow, Barbra Streisand, Michael Crawford and (her favourite) Shirley Bassey. Ngarukuruwala and her close involvement in the discovery and repatriation to the Tiwi islands of archived song recordings led her to complete a PhD, working with elders to document and preserve Tiwi song language and melody. Her current focus is on documenting endangered song sets and the creation of new work centred around archival recordings of passed Tiwi composers and the words, knowledge and voices of current Tiwi Elders and young people.

Genevieve is the Research Lead on Tiwi Song Culture and Loss at Sydney Environment Institute.