Published 08 December 2020
To our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers – please note that the following article contains the name of a deceased person.
This is the second 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.
Mary Elizabeth Moreen Mungatopi is a Tiwi elder, songwoman and leader in her community. She was among the group of Tiwi Traditional Owners who travelled to Canberra with me in 2009 to make initial appraisals of Tiwi recordings archived at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Amongst the 1954 collection was one song that has had a profound effect on her and her community. Here we present it also as an example of the far deeper and more complex meaning in Tiwi songs than translations and written documents can convey and how Tiwi stories continue to be told through song.
People had always known anecdotally that Mary Elizabeth was named after Queen Elizabeth. In March 1954, Mary’s father Wungurraputuwayi Mungatopi (Allie Miller) travelled to Brisbane as part of a group of Indigenous singers and dancers who performed for the Royal visit. The story goes that he met the Queen and told her that he would name his newborn daughter Elizabeth in honour of the occasion.
To our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers – please note that the following piece may contain names, images and/or voices of those who have passed away.
Traditionally a father sings his child’s name into Kulama, an annual ceremony at which names are bestowed, passed family are remembered, thanks and respect are shown to country and important news is shared. Now all those years later, in what was a very moving moment for all present, Mary heard her father’s voice naming her. It seems that Allie had indeed taken the opportunity that year to bestow the name Elizabeth in his song, composed a short time after his trip to Brisbane.
Kuwiyini mirr- ilityipiti ritiya wu- ni- wati- pawaningi-yangirri
Queen Mary Elizabeth radio now – morning- talk/send – push
We won’t give a prose translation because Allie didn’t give one, and the dictionary allows only an indication: the radio alludes to the telling of an important piece of news (older songs mention message sticks, more recent ones the television). It is also Allie’s reporting back to the community on his experience in Brisbane. Something only those educated in the old song words would know is that wati tells us he was singing in the morning – Tiwi songs are placed in the present tense of the performance, not that of the story. Most importantly though, by singing those words in that context, Allie was bestowing a name. The discovery of this short and yet immensely powerful recording is emblematic of the significant effect the archive material’s return has had. It makes tangible a piece of oral history; evidence of what has always been known. It is at once an item of sentiment, a cultural heirloom and a piece of history.
In 2015, we worked together on the album “Ngiya awungarra – I am here, now”, a series of new compositions bringing deceased Tiwi singers together with current elders and musicians. Mary Elizabeth oversaw the song’s inclusion, with Allie a featured soloist. His voice became a powerful conduit to his daughter, now herself a senior custodian of sung knowledge. In the studio she decided to add her voice to tell her story.
I sang with my dad you know? I heard him name me at that Kulama years ago. Now here I am an old lady and I hear his voice singing me again. I sang yirrikapayi (crocodile) as well, for his Dreaming, for my Dreaming.
We only have one line recorded from Allie’s song, but he may well have altered and added to it away from the recorder. Mary Elizabeth doesn’t sing her father’s song or tell her father’s story. This is now her song and her story to pass on. She now sings variations of these words:
Jimalatuwu-payapuna juwujingamaji nguwujiyarra
The male crocodile is carrying the female crocodile.
Ngirrawungarri purungumparri jiwatu wuntirranirringimi
That day the baby was coming in [to the ceremony ground] and he called her that.
Ngirrawungarri Kwiyini Yilipiti jiwatuwuntiliyarra
There is Queen Elizabeth the crocodile.
Like Allie’s, we can’t effectively translate such a layered and deeply personal song. Not because English is Mary’s second language, but because there is so much to be inferred from few words. We could call this poetry, symbolism, metaphor or allusion – and yes, there are those – but what is happening here is more an innate hearing of what the words imply. So much more than their dictionary translation and what a non-Tiwi listener can ever fully appreciate. Her father, from whom she inherits her crocodile Yoi (her dance, her identity, her ‘Dreaming’), holds her as crocodile and places her, both physically in the Kulama ceremony sand circle and spiritually in the family circle. “He called her” doesn’t (just) mean that he named her. It also means that he announced her, calling out and singing her name just as she now calls his when she passes through his country where he now exists as an ancestor.
Dancing crocodile on stage, as she sang after her father’s voice singing her name, Mary Elizabeth was reaffirming his story and telling her own. She was being Kwiyini Mirri Yilipiti, the crocodile. On paper Allie’s song is about a queen and a radio and Mary Elizabeth’s is about a crocodile and a baby. We know they both mean so much more.
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.