Films from the Mewal song project
The Mewal songs are part of an ancient performance tradition, often referred to as bunggul in north-central Arnhem Land. The Mewal story, songs and dances are owned by the Wurrkigandjarr clan group (Marrangu Djinang) and performed by members of that group along with the support of their djungkays ‘ceremonial managers’, who are related to the songs through their mother’s clan group.
The key themes of the song cycle are Mewal and Djarewarre, two ancestral travellers. Djarewarre is the ancestor for ‘wild honey’ (sugarbag), and much of the performative action in these songs centres on Mewal searching for the prized substance. The songs also reflect the seasonal cycle, topography and habitats of Marrangu country. They traverse through the ‘top’, ‘middle’ and ‘bottom’ – from the high and dry gravel country through to the jungles and swamps – and mention various animals and plants associated with sites in these different environments. Some of these are song topics in themselves, such as gulwirri ‘cabbage palm’, gekangki ‘Silver-crowned friarbird’, nargi-nargi ‘possum’, wudubal ‘black bream’ and morrgorl ’spangled gudgeon’.
The Mewal story is part of a songline that connects many Djowunga/Dhuwa clan groups in Eastern and Central Arnhem Land. These clan groups (bapurru) are united as Marrangu, and celebrate different local versions of the Mewal and Djarewarre story. See here for a map showing the Marrangu dreaming track (Map reproduced from Elliott 1991:38).
The Mewal song project is a response to a request from the Wurrkigandjarr group for documentation and presentation of their song knowledge. These songs are of inestimable value to their owners and custodians – they are complex and need to be learned by repeated listening and practice over many years. The Wurrkigandjarr people are aware that many younger people miss out on opportunities to learn the songs and are eager to find ways to keep the knowledge of songs alive by performing and teaching them. While the songs have been recorded and studied by anthropologists (Borsboom 1978, 1986; Elliott 1991, 2015) there are no contemporary productions which showcase the performance repertoire of these songs. This project is a creative collaboration in which local people lead the presentation of cultural material with support from a range of individuals and organisations. The project involves a team in the Maningrida/Ramingining region led by local producer Stanley Djalarra Rankin. It includes singers and dancers from the Wurrkigandjarr group and their djungkays (ceremonial managers), with key team members Ad Djulipirri, Gary Madjibarreli Smith, JB Fisher, Raymond Fisher, Daniel Rarrenorle, Jimmy Djamanba, Johnny Malibirr, Kevin Yirrwirr and Harold Raiwalla. The production team is based in Maningrida and is connected to the Lúrra Language and Culture program at Maningrida College, and the Wíwa Project (Media and Arts team from Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation and Maningrida Arts and Culture).
The team also includes Batchelor Institute project linguist Margaret Carew and Aung Si, an linguist/anthropologist from the Research Unit for Indigenous Language at the University of Melbourne. Anthropologist Craig Elliott, who lived at Gartji and Galawdjapin in the late 1980s and early 1990s contributes his comprehensive knowledge of the Mewal songs and Marrangu cultural life as taught to him by Marrangu elders, including Ray Munyal, Dick Miwirri, Don Gundinga, Andrew Margalulu, Joe Gudarri, Jimmy Moduk and Freddie Yuwalarra (all deceased). It was the express wish of these elders that their songs be recorded, interpreted and preserved for future generations. Craig Elliott has song and narrative recordings and photographs that have been digitised and drawn from as part of this project. He has maintained contact with the Marrangu people since the time of his original work and is well placed to provide access to a well curated set of historical materials. In this respect, the project links to an active repatriation project, with the aim of producing a creative interpretation of cultural material.
This project has been made possible through funding from the Australian Government’s Indigenous Languages and Arts program along with a production grant from the Community Broadcasting Foundation (CBF). The CBF grant is supporting us to make films for broadcasting on Indigenous Community Television (ICTV). ICTV is a digital television station available to remote communities in Australia on channel 601, via the Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) service (and as a terrestrial service in Broome and Roebourne). ICTV content is also available online through IndigiTUBE.
Borsboom, A. P. (1978). Maradjiri. A Modern Ritual Complex in Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. Nijmegen: Katholieke Universitiet.
Borsboom, A. P. (1986). The Cultural Dimension of Change: An Australian Example. Anthropos, 81(4/6), 605-615. doi:10.2307/40461234
Elliott, C. (1991). ‘Mewal is Merri’s name’ : form and ambiguity in Marrangu cosmology, North Central Arnhem Land. (Master of Arts Thesis), Australian National University, Canberra. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1885/10349
Elliott, C. (2015) ‘Conceptual Dynamism and Ambiguity in Marrangu Djinang Cosmology, North-Central Arnhem Land’ in Peter Toner (ed.) Strings of Connectedness: essays in honour of Ian Keen. Canberra: ANU Press. pp.101-119.