Opinion

Interweaving Voices: Wayai and Women’s Songs of Sorrow

In the fourth part of the Interweaving Voices series, musicologist Genevieve Campbell shares the story of the Wayai, and the powerful connections across memory, time and space the songs summon.

‘Japarra, the Moon man’. Image provided by Genevieve Campbell.

To our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers – please note that the following article contains the names and images of deceased persons. 

This is the fourth 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.

For this, the next in our series of thoughts on the interweaving of Tiwi voices through people, place and time, we are thinking about Wayai, the ancestral woman who now cries as the Wayai bird. Thinking too how recordings from the archive add to the threading in and out of songs, hearing grieving in recordings made generations ago is a moving and sometimes confronting experience. Decisions around the inclusion of voices, names and songs are made with sensitivity and respect and with Tiwi family. Amongst the archive we have discovered some powerful examples of the women’s amparruwu grieving songs. They have inspired conversations and singing as older Tiwi women teach younger ones about the Wayai bird and her place in the Palingarri and today. This and the accompanying audiovisual piece were composed with the help of Augusta Punguatji, Frances Therese Portaminni, Jacinta Tipungwuti and Ella Puruntatameri.


In the Palingarri, the deep past, all the animals and birds were men and women. Tokampuwi (birds) are present throughout Tiwi creation time stories. The tokampuwi ancestors were the messengers, mourners, informers and law makers. Birds continue to follow the ways of their deep past mortal selves and so they continue to teach Tiwi people customs and seasonal knowledge through their behaviour as the birds we see and hear. Tokampinari is the dawn – etymologically ‘the time of birds’ – when the birds start to sing at first light. In the Palingarri it was the time when the birds had the first conversations after the ‘dawn’ of the period of people. The birds continue to converse and engage with people, following the teaching, helping and cultural behaviours of their ancestral predecessors.

Purruti, the sea osprey was a fisherman and still guides us to good catches, Mudati (the fork-tailed kite) helped discover fire. The koel, Alarpiningwani, is a note in the calendar, whose call signals the imminent start of the wet season. Japarrika (the frigate bird) is a warning system, congregating on the shore when a storm or cyclone is approaching. Kirrilima, the jungle fowl builds a large round mounded nest and is said to have taught the ancestors how to make the circular cleared dance ground central to all ceremonies. The sulphur-crested cockatoo is Yinkaka, symbolised by the weaving of his feathers into adornments and his voice into songs for mortuary ceremonies. He keeps watch over the ceremonies, encouraging the deceased spirits who might be lost on their journey to the next state of existence. When he flies across the sky he is following the paths they [the deceased] walked on the land and is making sure they are safely there with the spirit ancestors.

Now through their calls and behaviours the birds create a daily aural hourglass, singing to note weather changes and responding to the height of the sun and the moon. Tiwi song language similarly includes the sound of times of the day in specific grammatical and poetic patterns depending on when one sings. This is not to say that Tiwi singers are mimicking birds, but they are placing their vocal presence in the present – perhaps a millennia-old transmission of sung knowledge tracing right back to those first ancestral singers, whose ‘words’ applied to when and where they were singing. When Ella sings her Dreaming Kirrilima she embodies the voice of Jungle Fowl, as it looks out surveying its country. She tells me this is not (just) the sound of the Jungle Fowl, but of the ancestral bird speaking – in the moment of the bird’s surveying and of her (the singer’s, the bird’s and the ancestor’s) song. This she said was the sound of the story that belongs to her country. The sound of the environment from within it, not a description from outside it.

Wayai (also known as Bima) is the Tiwi ancestral woman. The death of her infant son Jinani was the catalyst for all death and mortality. In her grief and shame she became Wayai, the Bush Stone Curlew, destined forever to cry every evening in her loss. Her cries of sadness and regret are heard through the bird’s mournful call at night and through the ‘crying words’ in women’s sorrow songs. More than mimesis, these are the cries of grieving women connected through their songs and through the Curlew’s calls all the way back to Wayai, the first woman to cry for sorrow.


Amparruwu
is the widow song. It is performed alone, often away from the assembled mourners, at the time of a death, throughout the mortuary ceremonies and anytime of sorrow at the agency of the widow herself or of sisters singing in support of her grieving. Although there is a definable melody for songs of the amparruwu it enjoys as many variations as there have been singers. The amparruwu songs are laments, keening, cathartic expressions of sadness, so much so that even in the absence of a ‘translatable’ meaning, a strong emotional and spiritual response is felt by Tiwi listeners who recognise the ‘sound of sorrow’ physicalised by the singer and absorbed by the listener. Each woman expresses her own emotional, physical, spiritual self through her song and her way of calling out after Wayai is her own. As the widow she sings to release her own sadness and to allow others to cry with her, giving people permission to feel pain and sadness and taking it in to herself on their behalf. Absorbing the grief as she must as the representative at that moment of Wayai, of all the women who cry for death. In these songs we find what the women call the ‘crying words’ kayai kayai kayai.

When we sing amparruwu we sing like that crying Wayai. We are remembering that story.

As the elder women today hear recorded voices of their sisters of the past singing amparruwu they feel part of the continuity of life and death, and they listen to the recordings with a motivation that goes beyond historical, cultural interest or family sentiment. They listen to these songs, sung many years ago to heal those around the singer at the time, and they in turn receive healing themselves.

Meanwhile the Wayai bird cries at night and the women sing back to her – a visceral connection between the past and the present.


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.