The Sounds of Our Country Are in Our Voices

Dr Genevieve Campbell and Jacinta Tipungwuti reflect on the unique vocal sound of the Tiwi Strong Women’s group. Their songs are more than just the sound of words and music, they are the breath, the rain and the bush.

Taracumbi, Melville Island. Photo by Genevieve Campbell.

The words of Jacinta Tipungwuti, my Tiwi colleague, sister and friend, are in italics. 

Tiwi Yiminga is my identity inherited from my mother. Yiminga also means breath, pulse, life, the time of the day. Tiwi songwomen speak of having yimingawama – good breath. This means more than lung capacity or breath control in the singer. It means to be strong, to find one’s voice and be proud when you sing. To know who I am inside and where I belong and to sing that. This is at the heart of who the women are. They are Ngarukuruwala we sing – a self-descriptive collective noun that says who, why and where they are as custodians of a continuum of oral and aural connection with the land they belong to.

For a culture that traditionally holds lore in non-written forms, the voice is a powerful vehicle for the transmission of knowledge through generations. The voice, when recorded, also transcends time. In the context of auditing archive recordings of Tiwi song material, I have noted numerous instances where Tiwi listeners recognised vocal qualities that help successfully identify a long since passed performer and of idiosyncrasies, linguistic devices and pitch-centres being passed down orally through lineages of singers. Especially for those Elders whose early aural perception and instruction in song and ceremony were untainted by introduced sound media, the correlation between words, pitch, vocal timbre and the person singing is very strong. Their strong aural memories bring voices in to the present, creating personal connections and transmission of experience between (living) listeners and (deceased) performers as well as confirming and strengthening the Tiwi vocal sound.

When the women perform – whether on stage at a public concert or at the shoreline on the island, they sing for the moment and they sing for – and often as – the Ancestor or ‘Dreaming’ Kin, whose story they are telling. Ngiya Kimarriyanginila … I am (the Ancestral Crocodile) … pushing through the mangroves, running on the sand, lurking in the shallows. I haven’t yet found a song text in which the protagonist is passive. The Ancestor joins the immediate temporal and situational experience through the present continuous, engaging the singer actively with the natural environment. Through allusion to ancestral beings, ‘Dreamings’ and sacred places, singers (and concurrent dancers) further embody their Dreaming to enact the continuing presence of the Dreaming ancestor – the brolga, the jungle fowl, the shark, the crocodile. When Jacinta sings I am Crocodile she becomes the Crocodile ancestor in that moment and enacts the physical reconnection with the place and the deep past. Not only is she saying ‘I am again the Crocodile’, she’s saying ‘I am still the Crocodile – as I always have been through all of my Crocodile ancestors’. All of these songs create a continuity of practice, through voices, in country.

Songs are more than the sound of the words and the music. They’re also the sound of the voice, the hands, the feet, the breath. The sound of the bush, the animals, the plants, the water, the wind and the rain. The pre-dawn coo of the Masked Owl, the screeching of black cockatoos at dusk and the chirping of crickets in midday sun or the rush and gurgle of the tidal mangrove creek – all add a very real and rich extra element to the physical and aural performance space, the intent and the inference of a song. These physical sounds of the bush also convey embodied connections that are reflected in both the text and the timbre of vocal performances, as conveyors of the soundscape of the song. Words that are only ever sung, never spoken, create a vocalised sound of the morning, the daytime and the evening. They’re not descriptive or translatable, but in them the listener hears vocables and phonetic alterations and additions that means a song sounds like morning or sounds like daytime, the bird telling us it is morning.. “Mantirijipi rijipi agayi”.

Evening is when we hear in the songs the lying down time, the dusk, the dark, the stillness. It’s when we hear the plaintive wail of the Wayayai bird, the Bush Stone Curlew, who is Bima, the wife of Purrukapali who brought mortality on to the people after the death of their baby son. As Bima cries out every evening, mourning her baby, the women call back and say sorry to her and to all those who’ve died unhappy. “Kayayi kayayi kayayi” a daily aural connection through the living country to the deep past that is visceral and tangible.

Kulama Ngariwanajirri, a song by senior songwoman Callista Kantilla is her contribution (in the ‘old’/ ‘ritual’ musical form) to a children’s music project we worked on together in 2011. As Callista extemporises on her chosen words, Jacinta (with Leonie Tipiloura) listens and repeats them in support and accord. They knew their recording was for inclusion on a CD and yet, as I’m sure you’ll hear, they sang for the words, for the moment, the place and the intent of the song, certainly not for the microphones. In the introspective, timeless quality of the voices we hear the sung exchange of thoughts and the bond between three women.

Perhaps mostly what we’re hearing in their voices is a complete lack of ego. They sing not as “performers” but as custodians of their eons-old culture and with the weight and honour of responsibility that carries. In Tiwi culture, song is less about the individual than it is about the communal and spiritual whole. While individuals’ poetic and vocal skills are highly regarded, the essential purpose of song is to facilitate mourning, ritual, kinship dance, healings, celebrations and the imparting of knowledge.

In 1975 Pujuta sang a mourning song for Long Charlie, his mujina cousin-brother. Between his death and his Yiloti (Final Ceremony), Long Charlie was stuck in the liminal space between the world of the living and that of the dead. Through his brother’s song he muses about his current state and worries for the silence and emptiness. He can’t hear the trees. He doesn’t realise yet that he has gone from life to death, but he can tell that something is different, and he wonders what has happened to the land that he is wandering in. Once his Yiloti is completed he will be able to move into the next state of existence and he will hear the trees again. Pujuta sings to help his brother find his country and to enable his voice to join the ancestors’.

When elders speak of the sound of the bush they don’t (just) mean the sounds of the birds in the trees. They mean the sound of the country and the ancestors – in the ground and in the trees, birds and animals – and all they can tell us. When we go out to collect pandanus or piranga [mud mussel] we call out to them to let them know we’re here. As the women walk deeper into the bush their callings-out trail off into the distance, their voices merging into echoes in the breeze and the trickling creek and I can’t tell the difference between their voices and the country’s voices.

As the sound of our country becomes increasingly drowned out by cars and trucks and bulldozers we could do well to listen to the land and hear what it might be telling us all and perhaps even try singing back to it.

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. She is the Research Lead on the Tiwi Song Culture and Loss project.

For an interview with the author/s, contact Genevieve Campbell on genevieve.campbell@sydney.edu.au.

For media enquiries, contact Vivienne Reiner, University of Sydney Media and Public Relations Adviser, +61 2 9351 2390 or vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au.