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Morrdjdjanjno ngan-marnbom story nakka, 'songs that turn me into a story teller': The morrdjdjanjno of western Arnhem Land.

Abstract: Morrdjdjanjno is the name of a song genre from the Arnhem Land plateau in the Top End of the Northern Territory and this paper is a first description of this previously undocumented song tradition. Morrdjdjanjno are songs owned neither by individuals or clans, but are handed down as "open domain" songs with some singers having knowledge of certain songs unknown to others. Many morrdjdjanjno were once performed as part of animal increase rituals and each song is associated with a particular animal species, especially macropods. Sung only by men, they can be accompanied by clap sticks alone or both clap sticks and didjeridu. First investigations reveal that the song texts are not in everyday speech but include, among other things, totemic referential terms for animals which are exclusive to morrdjdjanjno. Translations from song language into ordinary register speech can often be "worked up" when the song texts are discussed in their cultural and performance context. The transmission of these songs is severely endangered at present as there are only two known singers remaining both of whom are elderly.

In 1999 I was conducting a cultural site survey of country on the Arnhem Land plateau in the upper Mann River district near Kamarrkawarn outstation. This is country for the people who speak the Kundedjnjenghmi dialect of Bininj Kunwok (Evans 2003). The sandstone plateau country is extraordinarily rugged, dissected by water courses, spectacular gorges and long fault lines, escarpments and river valleys with dramatic waterfalls. Within the Madjdjulum clan estate we recorded place names around a bowl-shaped feature in the landscape, delineated by hills and falling spurs spreading out like fingers of a hand that separated numerous gullies leading down to the grassy plains below. The senior Aboriginal man working with me, Jimmy Kalarriya, told me that this amphitheatre-shaped region was called Djorlok, which translates as 'hole/depression'. After recording a score or so place names in the hills and the plains below at Djorlok, our helicopter landed and Kalarriya sat down near the Mann River in the shade. He then started singing a series of short songs he called morrdjdjanjno, accompanying himself by tapping his smoking pipe against the tobacco tin. At the end of each song, he started telling me stories about kangaroos and the annual fire drives that used to take place here at Djorlok. These cooperative hunting expeditions involved large numbers of hunters who came to chase kangaroos with strategically lit fires, forcing kangaroos up into the dead end gullies. Here the kangaroos would hopefully get burnt, unable to go any further up the gullies and, while they stood licking their wounds, the hunters would spear them. As well as large Antilopine Kangaroos (Macropus antilopinus), the surrounding rock country was home to the Black Wallaroo (Macropus bernadus), the Short-eared Rock Wallaby (Petrogale brachyotis), and the Nabarlek (Peradorcus concinna). Djorlok was a site rich in associations with macropods, and morrdjdjanjno songs had always been sung at this place. Morrdjdjanjno associated with kangaroos are said by Kalarriya to have placed themselves at sites which have kangaroo hunting significance:

(1) JK: Kamarrkawarn morrdjdjanjno Namirlewohwo. Djorlok yiman mak ngaye Wurralele morrdjdjanjno kurrmerrinj kunj. Yaymini morrdjdjanjno kurrmerrinj Birba kurrmerrinj morrdjdjanjno.

At Kamarrkawarn and Namirlewohwo [these are places associated with] morrdjdjanjno. At Djorlok and in my country in the Wurrlele estate, kangaroo morrdjdjanjno songs placed themselves there. [Also at] Yaymini there are morrdjdjanjno which placed themselves and at Birba.

While we sat there overlooking the river, I recorded Kalarriya singing several macropod morrdjdjanjno and our following conversation:

(2) MG: Morrdjdjanjno man-dule?

Morrdjdjanjno [is the name of] a kind of song?

JK: Yoh man-dule, yiman ka-yime kunj yi-bengkan. Nawu yirridjdja. Na-yarlang ngarri-yime.

Yes, they are songs with subjects such as kangaroos, the yirridjdja moiety ones, (1) you know [i.e. Antilopine Kangaroos]? They are songs in the public domain.

[Kalarriya chants:] Ngalyedngurldjarri ngalyedngurlwakwak Ngalyedngurldjarri ngalyedngurlwakwak Na-kimuk nadjinem barrk, ka-karrme morrdjdjanjno, nungan ngarri-ngeybun ngalyedngurldjarri, nadjinem.

The very large male Black Wallaroos, they have morrdjdjanjno songs, and we call them [a special morrdjdjanjno register name] ngalyedngurldjarri, the male black wallaroo.

Ngal-daluk 'kawolhborromdi midjanjdjanj" djukerre, ka-karrme morrdjdjanjno.

The female (Black Wallaroo) "she sits in the Acacia gonocarpa groves avoiding the cold' [song text]; this female Black Wallaroo (also) has a morrdjdjanjno song:

Midjanjdjanj midjanjdjanj kowolhborromdi Midjanjdjanj midjanjdjanj kowolhborromdi

The information about kangaroos was given in small chunks, each with a particular theme. Kalarriya would repeat one of the words in the text he had just sung and then explain it to me in ordinary Bininj Kunwok. Each species and then gender within the species had a special song name. Then other aspects related to hunting kangaroos were mentioned, and a particular word in the song text would elicit a further story about a single aspect of a kangaroo species: their movements, their behaviour, the scats they leave as evidence of their presence and more esoteric aspects of their relationship with humans. Antilopine Kangaroos (Macropus antilopinus) are the largest macropods in the Top End of the Northern Territory. They are powerful animals sometimes as big as those who hunt them and, until the introduction of water buffalo from Timor in the early nineteenth century, they represented the largest game animal a hunter could kill. Hunting them with the aid of fire was an important part of life on the Arnhem Land plateau. Successfully killing any of the large rock country macropods; antilopines, wallaroos or euros would provide enough meat to feed a large number of individuals, and their economic and religious significance is reflected in the morrdjdjanjno songs I was hearing for the first time at Djorlok.

Defining features of morrdjdjanjno Morrdjdjanjno are open-domain songs, not owned or composed by individuals as is the case with kun-borrk in western Arnhem Land (Garde 2006). Neither are they associated with patri-clans as are songs in the bunggurl or manikay tradition further to the east. Morrdjdjanjno are sung mostly by senior men, who accompany themselves with clapsticks but can be sung by groups as well as individually. For most morrdjdjanjno songs, there is no didjeridu accompaniment, only clapsticks. Some morrdjdjanjno with subject matter relating to Antilopine Kangaroos were sung with clapstick and didjeridu accompaniment though it seems that didjeridu accompanied morrdjdjanjno are now no longer performed, the last singer (81 year-old Bardayal Nadjamerrek) now singing them without the didjeridu accompaniment. There is no dancing which accompanies morrdjdjanjno.

The name morrdjdjanjno is composed of two morphemes morrdjdjanj+no, the second being a third-person possessor suffix. The word is found in both Bininj Kunwok and neighbouring Dalabon and in each of these two polysynthetic languages, the root morrdjdjanj belongs to a limited group of eligible nouns which are incorporable in the verbal complex (underlined in the following example):

(3) Djorrkkun kayakki, dja nabarlek, ka-karrme morrdjdjanjno. Ka-karrme morrdjdjanjno. Nani Wamud ka-bengkan ka-morrddjanjkadjung.

The Rock Ringtail Possum (Petropseudes dahli) doesn't have a morrdjdjanjno song. But the Nabarlek does. Wamud [Bardayal Nadjamerrek] knows how to chant morrdjdjanjno songs.

In Bininj Kunwok dialects Morrdjdjanjno are not 'sung' but literally -morrdjdjanjkadjung 'followed' or perhaps a better translation is 'chanted'. Thus, the verb to sing--wayini in Bininj Kunwok is used in relation to kun-borrk genre songs but not for morrdjdjanjno where the appropriate term is--kadjung 'follow/chant' suggesting perhaps a preordained text. Other metaphorical uses of the verb--kadjung include the reflexive--kadjurren 'to act together in accord', 'to share' (Example 4 below) and 'to be of one family', which is consistent with the fact that morrdjdjanjno song texts can be sung by a group in unison.

Morrdjdjanjno are said to have existed from the earliest times and were instituted by nayuh-yungki 'the first ancestors. It is most likely however, that morrdjdjanjno have their origins in the Ubarr ceremony (2) (Berndt and Berndt 1970: 128-132; Taylor 1996:123), which is a rainbowserpent-cum-kangaroo totemic cult ceremony indigenous to the Cobourg area of north-west Arnhem Land, the Arnhem Land plateau, the Goomadeer River region and areas east as far as the Cadell River south of the present day township of Maningrida. The Ubarr ceremony is now defunct, with the last performance at Oenpelli in the early 1970s. The local popular view on its demise is that the Ubarr was overtaken by the

Kunabibi, another regional cult ceremony which, although already well established in eastern and southern parts of the west Arnhem cultural bloc, was pushed further northwest to Oenpelli and the eastern Cobourg peninsula into the last remaining stronghold of the Ubarr in the 1950s, assisted by the urging of anthropologist Ronald Berndt who requested the first performance of the Kunabibi at Oenpelli in the 1950s. (3) One focus of the Ubarr is the spiritual and economic importance of kangaroos and according to Bardayal Nadjamerrek, it has links with the Bula cult of the Jawoyn language group to the south. Any detailed discussion of morrdjdjanjno with Kalarriya or Bardayal, the last two singers of morrdjdjanjno, (4) invariably ends up with reference to the sacred morrdjdjanjno of the Ubarr ceremony, although many morrdjdjanjno sung today are unrelated to the Ubarr and are performed in public for everyone to hear.

(4) Nani na-[wu] morrdjdjanjno nungan kunj nani yi-na yirridjdja. Bad kumekke ka-kadjurren Wubarr, na-djamun, nungan.

These morrdjdjanjno songs, these [I've just been singing] are about kangaroos, yirridjdja moiety [i.e. Antilopine Kangaroos]. But the Ubarr ceremony songs which are closely related (or'shared' with these), they are secret.

Morrdjdjanjno songs about kangaroos that are in the public domain relate to the kangaroos of the Arnhem Land plateau and surrounding rocky environments. These include, as already mentioned, the Antilopine Kangaroo, the Black Wallaroo and the two small rock wallabies, the Short-Eared Rock Wallaby and the Nabarlek, the latter two for the purposes of morrdjdjanjno song subjects being grouped together. The one important missing species is the Euro (Macropus robustus). Morrdjdjanjno relating to this species are all restricted to the Ubarr ceremony, none of which are in the public domain as Bardayal indicates in (5) below:

(5) MG: Kalkberd ka-karrme morrdjdjanjno? Does the Euro have a morrdjdjanjno song?

BN: Kalkberd nakka Ubarr kure. The Euro, that's in the Ubarr.

[i.e. morrdjdjanjno relating to it are from the Ubarr ceremony and not in the public domain]

Morrdjdjanjno song subjects are not restricted only to kangaroos. Other animals featuring in songs recorded to date include the Oenpelli Python (Morelia oenpelliensis ), a goanna ( Varanus panoptes), Long Neck Turtle (Chelodina rugosa) as well as numerous bird species such as the Partridge Pigeon (Geophaps smithii) and the Grey Butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus). These song subjects still retain a religious significance in the sense that they are discussed in relation to mythological events of religious import. For example, the songs concerning the Oenpelli python relate to a site in the Durlmangkarr clan estate and a mythological event which tells of a giant protean Oenpelli python which bit and consumed the woman Ngalyangdoh as well as her child and their two dogs Kuwarral and Nabokarnbo. A performance of the song is often accompanied by the telling of the detailed story of Ngalyangdoh and her misadventure. The following (Example 6) is a brief reference to the full story:

(6) Nawaran kun-nguya ka-karrme, na-rrurlmangkarr, na konda djang kurrmerrinj namekke. Namekke duruk ben-bayeng berrewoneng duruk bininj boken, Belinj Bangardi, name duruk berrewoneng ngalngamed Kuwarral, Nahokarnbo. Namekke kabirri-djarrkmudjkenhyo, bolkki weleng birri-marnburrinj ngalyod. Konda Kudjaborrng. Morrdjdjanjno ka-karrme.

The Oenpelli Python has a clan, the Durlmangkarr clan and the sacred site placed itself there. It bit their dogs and those two persons, Belinj and her son Bangardi [subsections]. Their dogs were called Kuwarral and Nabokarnbo. They all lie as dreaming in the landscape and today they have turned into rainbow serpents. Here at Kudjaborrng. It [Oenpelli Python] has a morrdjdjanjno song:

[Oenpelli Python song text 1] Namurlurddjangka wardi nganako Namurlurddjangka wardi nganako Berd berd berd berd berd berd

[Oenpelli Python song text 2] Nayelenjdjele wardi nganako Nayelenjdjele wardi nganako Berd herd herd herd

... ngamed birri-yimeng korroko. Wanjh namekke yalarrmi djang. Everywhere rayinj nawaran. Ka-karrme morrdjdjanjno, yi-morrddjanjkadjung, bonj ka-yarlarrme ka-re.

That's what they would sing long ago. And so the dreaming would increase the numbers all over the place. The Oenpelli Pythons would go everywhere. It has its own morrdjdjanjno song and when you sing it they increase and go everywhere.

Another type of morrdjdjanjno are those of least sacred significance or those which I will refer to as secular morrdjdjanjno. The song subjects of these are still mostly about animals, but they are sung more for their didactic and entertainment value. Older men will sing these to teach younger persons about the behaviour or characteristics of a particular animal. Songs are sung when the topic of conversation turns to a subject for which there is one of these secular morrdjdjanjno or when an actual animal is encountered and talk about the encounter follows. In (7), a secular morrdjdjanjno about a species of goanna (Varanus panoptes) is also accompanied with actions. As each part of the song that mentions a compass point is sung, the singer motions to this direction and in the second part of the song text, the singer and audience make a movement with their hands imitating the goanna raising and withdrawing its claws:

(7) Koyek ka-herrengol, kakbi ka-herrengol, karri ka-berrengol, walem ka-berrengol kumardidjdja kumaburdub kumardidjdja kumaburdub.

It looks to the east for clouds, it looks to the north for clouds, it looks to the west for clouds, it looks to the south for clouds,

kumardidjdja kumaburdub kumardidjdja kumaburdub

A musical example

The following is only a cursory discussion of some of the musical features of one of the short duwa moiety kangaroo songs. Morrdjdjanjno texts are typically very short in length but are usually repeated many times for a single song performance. The transcription of a performance token of the second basic spoken text given in (6) is given in (8). In this example, the text is repeated but in the final line both the voice intensity and pitch contour gradually disintegrate. The final spoken line 'berd berd berd etc.' was not sung in this particular performance. The duration of the song was thirteen seconds. As the performance was unplanned, the clapsticks were represented, as mentioned above, by the tapping of a pipe against a tobacco tin. For many morrdjdjanjno (but certainly not all) there appears to be a lack of strict syllabic rhythm and in this example there is a progressive skewing of the relationships between text and percussion, which is very different from other western Arnhem Land song genres such as kunborrk, which have a more regular relationship between rhythm and the structure of the text. This phenomenon needs further analysis to determine how widespread it is for the various types of morrdjdjanjno. A feature of many of the morrdjdjanjno sung by both Bardayal and Kalarriya is the progressive loss of pitch definition towards the end of the song. This feature also needs further investigation to see if it is characteristic of a particular set, such as the kangaroo-hunting songs. Based on the examples recorded so far, secular morrdjdjanjno that are sung for children do not appear to have such progressive degeneration of pitch definition.


Clapstick solos upon termination of the singing are a further feature. In the example given in (8) the stick solo involves a distinct tempo change.

Morrdjdjanjno song language (5)

The language of morrdjdjanjno is a mixture of special song language (such as ritualistic names for animal species) and ordinary Bininj Kunwok. Some texts are all in a register that is non-standard while others are the reverse, that is, mostly everyday forms. In discussing the song texts, the two singers who are still knowledgeable about morrdjdjanjno (Jimmy Kalarriya and Bardayal Nadjamerrek) were able to give meanings for special morrdjdjanjno song words. Ritualistic names for kangaroos for example are used in morrdjdjanjno songs (and in other contexts, also Telfer and Garde 2006:388), and examples of these are included in Example (2), where the male Black Wallaroo usually referred to as barrk or nadjinem in ordinary register is called ngalyedngurldjarri in this particular morrdjdjanjno. In the second song text in (2), the subject is the female black wallaroo, which in ordinary register is called djukerre. However, Kalarriya's commentary here extracts the short song text kawolhborromdi midjanjdjanj for which he provides a more literal meaning of 'it takes shelter [from the cold] in the Acacia gonocarpa groves' and places it into an expanded sentence in order to give a fuller sense of the song (Figure 1 has a photograph of Acacia gonocarpa). Bardayal sings the first word of this song as kawolhborrombi but in eliciting the text for analysis he says either kawolhborromdi or kawolhborrombi. (6) Bardayal's commentary on the other hand provides a direct translation from morrdjdjanjno register into ordinary Bininj Kunwok:


It sits in the Acacia gonocarpa groves and kawolh-borrombi [means] it sits inside. Kawolhborrombi that means [sheltering from] the cold.

(9) midjanjdjanj ka-ni kawolhborrombi ka-ni-ku-rurrk kawolhborrombi Acacia gonocarpa 3-sit [song.text] 3-sitLOC-enclosure [song.text]

kune ka-yime kun-bonjdjek DEM 3-do/say IV-cold

This song text (from Example 2) is very similar to a kun-borrk genre song (cf. Example 10) from the bongolinj-bongolinj series originally sung by the Dangbon songman Djorli Laywanga. As other morrdjdjanjno song texts are found in bongolinj-bongolinj songs, it seems that morrdjdjanjno were the inspiration for some of Laywanga's songs. This is an interesting example of songs sourced from one genre finding their way into another.

(10) kore midjanjdjanj kani man-ngurlubburr kani

'It sits in the Acacia gonocarpa grove. It sits in the crevice of the rock.'

Kalarriya is also able to give a direct translation from morrdjdjanjno to ordinary register for some of the words in the two Oenpelli python morrdjdjanjno texts given above in (5):

(11) Ngarrih-ngeybun nawu Namuluddjangka na-kimuk nawaran. Nayelenjdjelenj, na-yahwurd.

The name namuluddjangka [in the song] is for a very large Oenpelli Python and nayelendjele is the name for a small one.

Some morrdjdjanjno have texts almost completely in ordinary register. The first part of the song given in (7) concerning compass points and the word for 'cloud' is an example. The final section of the song text kumardidjdja kurnaburdub kumardidjdja kumaburdub is not ordinary Bininj Kunwok, however, and is said to be the language of the goanna.

Certain morrdjdjanjno finish (after the end of clapsticks and singing) with ideophonic interjections not used in ordinary Bininj Kunwok as in the following example:

(12) kurradj nga-nani kurradj yalele blood 1-seePasImp blood ? kuwik bokbobowk Interj. Interj.

The subject of the song in (12) is blood of large male Black Wallaroos that is either the result of spearing one or performing kangaroo sorcery with the aid of juice from the fruit of Antidesma parvifolium. Kurradj is both song language for 'blood' and also the term for blood used in the Bininj Kunwok affinal kin respect register kun-debuy. It is also the normal register word for blood in Dalabon. The second word nga-nani is perfectly normal Bininj Kunwok, 'I was watching'. The text line is made up of a pair of couplets, but Bardayal did not have a direct translation for the word yalele in the second couplet, except to say morrdjdjanjno nakka 'it is the morrdjdjanjno [text]'. The fruits of an-yuku grow only in the rock country, in the kind of habitat where Black Wallaroos are found, and have a dark purple juice that is symbolically representative of kangaroo blood. The hunter finds a fresh wallaroo track which the animal has just left. The juice of the fruit is then sprayed over the tracks and this morrdjdjanjno is sung. The animal, it is explained, will gradually suffer from frozen joints until it will come to a standstill and be easily speared, the singing of the morrdjdjanjno making the spearing of the animal an inevitability. Bardayal's analysis of this song text is as follows:

(13) LBN: Kurlba karri-yame, kun-kurlba karrimen anngamed anyuku, bu ka-kurlba, kuwik ka-yime ka-kurlbakan.

The blood after we spear one, and whatsit, the blood of Antidesma parvifolium fruit, it will bleed when we spray the juice 'kuwik' [said without vocalisation in imitation of the spraying] (7) and it will then hop off bleeding.

MG: Bokbobowk njale? What's the word 'bokbobowk' mean?

LBN: Ka-warddemelme njamed bokbobowk wanjh borok borok ka-madwokdi, dengeno, madbarnno, borok borok borok ba-yimeng.

It hops on the rock 'bokbobowk' and the pads on the heel make a sound 'borok borok' on its feet, the corner of the heel, they make a sound 'borok borok borok'.

At the end of some of the yirridjdja moiety morrdjdjanjno with song subjects relating to the Antilopine Kangaroos (those for Black Wallaroos are duwa moiety), there are the ideophonic interjections kuwik kerhkeker. The former word is the same as that described above and the latter is the heavy breathing sound that the Antilopine Kangaroo makes, especially after being speared as it lies dying.

As the song texts contain many words not in the ordinary register, speculation might lead to the consideration that some words may be archaic and no longer analysable. One problem with this hypothesis is a morrdjdjanjno that has as its subject the buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), first introduced to northern Australia from Indonesia in 1822 with further introductions continuing up until 1866 (McKnight 1976). The song is mostly performed for children and the text is almost all in special morrdjdjanjno song register:

(14) djabbongorlingorli djabbongorlingorli kardakkarra djumbarldjumbarl maningorli maningorli djayikngun djayikngun djayikngun djayikngun murnunuddjarra welewk mundurddjarra mundurd.

Although the singers do not give a word-for-word translation from song register to ordinary Bininj Kunwok, the song is divided into sections for which a theme was provided by the singers (Bardayal Nadjamerrek and Otto Campion). For the first three lines in (14) the singers stated that the theme was ka-re 'it [the buffalo] is walking', for Line 4, the buffalo is eating, the text containing the everyday verb--ngun 'to eat' as a formative segment of the word djayikngun. The theme in Line 5 is ka-marrwe 'he is hungry' and the final line is ba-worrkminj 'he is full up'. According to Bardayal Nadjamerrek, buffalo did not spread across the plateau until about 30 years ago. This particular morrdjdjanjno is most likely only a few generations old and therefore not old enough for the kind of language changes that could result in a song text language that might be described as 'archaic'.

Functions of morrdjdjanjno

From the discussion so far, some functions of morrdjdjanjno are already apparent. Closely associated with the hunting of particular game, morrdjdjanjno are chanted as an aid in catching such game. The performance of the songs brings the prey into contact with the hunter.

(15) Dja anbu korrko barri-kadjungi ngadberre morrdjdjanjno ngarri-malakakdongi ka-djamdi. Ngarri-kayi ka-lerrngbak, ngarri-kukkurrmi ngarri-yawoyhreyi ngarri-nani ka-djamdi lerrngbak ngarri-kukkurrmi munguyb. Waleng ngarri-welengkukdurndiweyi morrdjdjanjno bi-bebkeyi.

A long time before, they used to sing morrdjdjanjno for us. We would rise before dawn when kangaroos were active. We'd go and get them, spear them 'thud', we'd leave the animal there and go after another where we'd see them and again and again, spear them 'thud'. Then we'd take them back with us to the camp, the morrdjdjanjno songs having made the kangaroos appear.

As well as success in hunting, morrdjdjanjno are performed as an increase ritual for certain species.

(16) Morrdjdjanjno ka-karrme nawaran.

The Oenpelli Python has a special hunting increase song: [song text:] Namurlurddjangka wardi nganakko Berd berd berd berd berd berd (8)

... ngamed birri-yimeng korroko. Wanjh namekke yalarrmi djang. Everywhere rayinj nawaran. Kakarrme morrdjdjanjno, yi-morrddjanjkadjung, bonj ka-yarlarrme ka-re everywhere.

... that's what they would sing long ago. And so the dreaming would increase the numbers [of pythons] all over the place. The Oenpelli Pythons would appear everywhere. They have their own morrdjdjanjno song and when you sing it they increase and go everywhere.

The belief that a performance of morrdjdjanjno songs can effect changes in the world sits within an Australia-wide tradition of singing having cosmological power to bring about a particular state willed by the singer. Increase rituals (Morton 1987) and the songs which are part of them, have been occasionally referred to in the musicological and oral tradition literature (Strehlow 1971; Clunies Ross 1986; Moyle 1986) but rarely dealt with in any detail.

Morrdjdjanjno song texts may have been influenced by the belief that performing these songs can bring about success in hunting. Ritualistic or song register names for animals otherwise known by an ordinary register name can arise in response to the belief that an animal which is being hunted must not hear its own name. (9) Aboriginal religious tradition posits that, in an era of creation, animals were once humans and, as a result, animals today are accorded human-like sentience. The Oenpelli python (Morelia oenpelliensis), which was once a favourite food source for humans on the rocky Arnhem Land plateau, must not hear hunters uttering its common name, otherwise it will realise it is under threat and seek shelter deep inside crevices inaccessible to humans. Jimmy Kalarriya explains:

(17) O birri-reyi yika ngarri-yimi marrek ngarri-ngeybun nawaran, ngarri-yime, nabadyalk ... ngarri-marnekaybrae nabuyika bininj, kure ngarri-nan cave ka-yo, wanjh ngarri-marnekayhme. Ngarri-marneyime yimray, nabadyalk nani woy ngarr-bun, ngarrngun, nakkan nawaran. La name nawaran yi-ngeybun wardi ka-ngeybekkan bonj ngun-bawon ka-re kelekele. Namekke. Kuk-kelekele namekke. Nawaran. Ngun-bekkan. Kun-wok ka-bekkan. Yiman bininj nakka, kun-wok ka-karrme. Ka-ngeybekkan nawu balay ka-ngimen nawu kururrk cave munguyhrnunguyh marrek mak ngarr-ngalke.

Or sometimes they'd go and we say that you shouldn't call the name of the Oenpelli Python, we instead say 'rock honey' ... when we sing out to another person when we see a python in a cave and we sing out to someone else. We say, 'Come here, let's get this rock honey here, let's eat it [the Oenpelli Python]'. If you say the name 'nawaran' then it will be too late and it will leave you behind and go off in fear. That's it. It is a very timid animal the Oenpelli Python. It can hear your speech. It is like a human and has its own language. It can hear its name and will take off a long way and go inside a cave and you'll never find it.

Another important function of morrdjdjanjno already mentioned is their role in teaching and maintaining shared cultural knowledge about relationships between particular places and mythological histories. The first time I heard Bardayal Nadjamerrek singing the morrdjdjanjno for the waning moon it was a spontaneous pre-dawn performance at Kabulwarnamyo on the Arnhem Land plateau. The last crescent of the waning moon had appeared in the night sky and Bardayal sang its morrdjdjanjno, the text of which follows:

(18) mernkarn kayayorle mernkarn kayayorle barraman kayoyorle nadjakarn kirnungkirnu nadjakarn kirnungkirnu nakolodirdkolo nakolodirdmorno nadjakarnkirnungkirnu nadjakarnkirnungkirnu aaa: [voiceless flow of air from the mouth]

The text is repeated many times and there appears to be certain variation allowed in the order in which the various segments are sung. There are almost no ordinary Bininj Kunwok words in this particular song but the singer, Bardayal Nadjamerrek is able to give glosses for some of the words such as Line 2 in (18) above barraman = ka-lirrkkurrme (ordinary register) 'he places the lunar crescent'. The normal Bininj Kunwok word for the moon dird, (or perhaps dirdko 'moonlight') appears as part of both words in the third line. The root mo 'bone' also appears in nakolodirdmomo, the bones of the dying moon being significant in moon mythology and some associated sacred sites. For other words Bardayal was unable to give an ordinary register translation and merely stated dial morrdjdjanjno nuye dird 'it's just the morrdjdjanjno [language] of the moon'. In fact, in one performance he interpreted some of the words as he was singing, thus giving the ordinary register equivalent or 'translation' to his younger audience while maintaining the melodic contour of the song. This particular morrdjdjanjno has minimal melodic variation and is the closest example of a monotone chant accompanied only by clapsticks. After the text is cycled through a few times the clapsticks stop and the singer makes a sound in imitation of the moon dying, which is a voiceless but audible breathy flow of air to indicate the moon's death or as Bardayal explained it aaa: ka-ngolekyawarren "nga-rrowen' ka-yime darnki 'aaa: he is searching for breath "I am close to dying" he says'.

The commentary Bardayal gives on the moon morrdjdjanjno can be very detailed. It relates the story of how the moon and the quoll argued over the fate of humanity when as ancestral spirit beings in human form. The moon wanted to instigate a monthly cycle of life and death, while the quoll wanted humans to die once and remain dead. Unable to resolve their differences, the moon left the earth for his heavenly abode and the quoll imposed his will on humanity. There are numerous sites in western Arnhem Land that relate to this story: one is a rock-art image, one is a rock formation representing the full moon, another is a traditional site where the bones of the dead are interred, and a final site is in Jawoyn country where the bones of the moon spirit are said to be located, visible only to marrngkidj 'people with "cleverness" or supernatural ability'. Telling the complete story with reference to all of these sites and their locations, clan affiliation and mythological details takes quite some time and, on the numerous occasions I have witnessed Bardayal singing this morrdjdjanjno, the associated stories and the explanation of related cultural information are a usual accompaniment.

Such commentaries accompanying morrdjdjanjno are in fact an important part of their performance. Song texts that are not in everyday language provide opportunities for cultural knowledge about places, the natural environment and mythological histories to be shared and explained. What might initially appear as a semantically opaque or untranslatable term in 'song language' can often be teased out in discussion and a translation from song language to ordinary language can be worked up. These translations can then be expanded by placing them into their cultural context. In more recent times this might involve discussions with an audience about why the songs were sung in the past and how hunters used them to ensure success in catching macropods or Oenpelli pythons for example. In morrdjdjanjno, cultural canon is distilled to the most minimal of mnemonic devices as songs that both reproduce cultural knowledge and at the same time, empower singers to influence the world around them. When musical traditions such as these are fragile to the point of being on the cusp of disappearing forever, their disappearance includes not only the songs and the musical traditions themselves, but aspects of the detailed histories of whole communities and the places important to them in the Australian landscape.


Thanks to Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO from Kabulwarnamyo, and Jimmy Kalarriya from Kamarrkawarn, the last two singers of morrdjdjanjno who have been so enthusiastic in sharing their intimate knowledge of this song tradition. The title of this paper is taken from a comment by Bardayal Nadjamerrek during his explanation of the moon morrdjdjanjno. Thanks also to Otto Campion for his interpretation of the buffalo morrdjdjanjno. The transcription of nayelenjdjele, the Black Wallaroo song, was made possible with the assistance of Linda Barwick. In addition to providing helpful comments on various musical features of this particular song, she also corrected and completed my initial draft transcription and typeset the final notation. Finally, thanks are due to both Allan Marett and Nicholas Evans for their incisive comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


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Murray Garde

University of Melbourne


(1.) The universe in western Arnhem Land is divided into moieties, both matrilineal and patrilineal. All living things, places, land, clans and natural and various supernatural phenomena are classed into either of the two moieties. In the patrimoiety system these two halves are known in Bininj Kunwok as duwa and yirridjdja.

(2.) Some dialects of Bininj Kunwok such as Kunwinjku (which prefers consonant-initial words), pronounce this ceremony as Wubarr.

(3.) Bardayal Nadjamerrek personal communication August 2006. I have been told the same thing by many other Bininj in western Arnhem Land. The historical details of this claim are presently being further explored and documented as part of a larger historical project in the context of the repatriation to western Arnhem Land communities of Ubarr-ceremony film footage recorded by members of the Australian American Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948.

(4.) There are, however, still some younger singers who can perform what I describe below as 'secular morrdjdjanjno'.

(5.) Our discussion is restricted to songs in the public domain which basically excludes songs used in the Ubarr ceremony.

(6.) Changing the word from kawolhborromdi to kawolhborrombi (the 'b' being homorganic with the preceding 'm') may be an example of the evolution of a sound change in a song text. Phonotactically and morphologically, ka-wolhborromdi is a perfectly acceptable Bininj Kunwok word as there is a class of verbs with the formative -di ending 'to stand/be' and the ka- is a third person singular pronominal prefix. The '-wolhborrom-' formative is not semantically transparent. Although the verb ka-wolhborromdi is not used in ordinary Bininj Kunwok, and as far as I know, it is only attested in this song text, it otherwise looks like a well formed Bininj Kunwok verb. The word midjanjdjanj is ordinary register for 'in Acacia gonocarpa grove'.

(7.) This interjection is related to the verb--kuykme 'to spray (e.g. a liquid blown out of the mouth to form a spray). The kuwik form is an artifice of the devocalisation.

(8.) The text berd berd herd spoken after the end of the sung section is structurally similar to the interjections discussed in Example (8). Berd means 'tail', and the repetition of the word at the end of the song may be a reference to the many python tails which will appear as a result of singing morrdjdjanjno.

(9.) This linguistic phenomenon is not restricted to Australia; Lynch (1998:259-60) has provided a description of similar situations in many Pacific languages and cultures.

Murray Garde is a linguist and anthropologist who has lived in western Arnhem Land for the past twenty years. He is presently an ARC Post-doctoral Linkage Fellow at Melbourne University but spends the northern dry season months at Kabulwarnamyo outstation on the Arnhem Land plateau.

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Author:Garde, Murray
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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