Australian Aboriginal yawulyu/awelye

Yawulyu/awelye is an important ceremonial genre of traditional songs performed by women in Central Australia. Drawing on extensive published literature, our fieldwork in the area over many years, and a series of interviews which were conducted as part of the Sustainable Futures Project, various issues and ideas concerning the sustainability of the tradition are discussed.

Yawulyu/awelye ceremonies are not explicitly taught, and there are no institutional places of learning. Learning mostly occurs holistically through participation in performance. Concern was expressed by all generations about the difficulties younger people experience in learning. Many elders believe that young people have difficulty in learning because they do not have regular access to the country to which the ceremonies relate. Knowledge about their ceremonies can only be passed on to women by certain categories of kin (e.g., their father’s sisters). Another constraint on intergenerational transmission may be the learner’s shame and fear of making mistakes in this important domain of knowledge. While writing was not traditionally used, some younger learners make use of written song texts in association with audio and video recordings to facilitate private study. Lack of full competency in traditional languages is another factor threatening intergenerational transmission. Various government and community institutions may sponsor bush trips and other opportunities for learning and teaching yawulyu/awelye on an ad hoc basis.

Australia’s Indigenous people produce and participate in every imaginable variety of music and other performance genres today, from opera to hip hop, from performance poetry to traditional ritual performances. For the purpose of this project, we selected just one of many traditional ritual genres, the yawulyu/awelye ceremonial genre performed by women from various land-holding groups in central Australia. Music is only one (albeit essential) aspect of this ritual complex. Sustaining the musical future of yawulyu/awelye cannot therefore be separated from maintaining all the other aspects of its performance, such as dance, visual designs and associated narratives.

Yawulyu/awelye are performed by women only, but in some circumstances can be overheard by men. Since the 1970s they have been performed publicly for various events including legal proceedings, graduations, and arts festivals. Ceremonial performance constitutes a collective expression of knowledge surrounding the particular country, lifestyles and Dreaming stories to which the ceremonies relate, which are owned by particular clans of people. Each clan estate has one main yawulyu/awelye, usually named for the principal Dreaming (totem) of the estate (‘country’). For example, Yawulyu ngapa (‘water/rain’) is the main yawulyu for Kulpurlunu, a country belonging to one of the Warlpiri patrilineal clans. The Dreaming tracks may cross more than one country, in which case two estates may own a yawulyu named after the same Dreaming (such is the case for Yawulyu ngurlu ‘seed’). In such cases, however, particular segments of the track that pass through their country (equating to a sequence of songs naming places and activities of the Dreaming) are owned by the clan of the relevant estate.

Ceremonial knowledge is presented in different modalities including song text, rhythm, melody, movement (gesture, dance), ritual designs, ritual objects, and spatial organisation and orientation. The songs, dances and associated stories, objects, designs and ceremonial actions for each yawulyu/awelye are handed down within the clan from women to their brother’s daughters. The songs come from eternal Dreaming Law (jukurrpa in Warlpiri; altyerre in Arandic languages), a time-out-of-time in which Dreaming ancestors laid down the laws for humankind and formed the country and all beings that live upon it. Most individual songs within a yawulyu/awelye series are of unknown origin, though it is clear that others have come into the repertoire in living memory, usually through dreams in which songs (and associated dances, body designs, etc.) are revealed to the dreamer by an ancestral being (Dussart, 2000; Payne, 1992).

Traditionally yawulyu/awelye were performed in mutual exchanges, whereby each clan group in a gathering would take turns in performing for the others. In most contemporary performance contexts for non-indigenous audiences there is no expectation of reciprocity. While there are no professional musicians, for certain private ceremonies people known to be good singers are recruited to perform and may be paid in cash, food or tools. Success in this domain does not necessarily translate to more general social prestige. There is a lack of public transport in Central Australia, but social networks are more extensive than in the past so it is not uncommon for individuals to marry into communities far away, thus losing the opportunity for themselves and their children to participate regularly in learning through performance of their own ceremonies. Women’s knowledge transmission suffers particularly from lack of access to vehicles and resources to teach or learn from the right kin in distant communities. At the same time younger generations are increasingly engaged with mainstream media and technologies such as video games and smartphones.

Despite extensive social changes in the ways and means by which ceremonies occur, there is remarkably little cross-cultural influence on the actual music, dance and visual designs used in ceremony, which are consciously preserved and revered as originating in ancestral precedent. Across Central Australia, there are shared conventions in the music, poetry, dance, body decoration and song subjects, though each repertory has their own unique melody and stresses the Dreaming stories and places that are specific to that clan’s identity. This traditional use has extended in the last forty years to legal contexts where performance of yawulyu/awelye has been accepted as demonstrating native title to land. Significant threats to sustainability of yawulyu/awelye today stem from disruption of traditional languages and loss of access to country, combined with young peoples’ increasing engagement with the mainstream entertainment industry through TV, DVD, and electronic games.

Yawulyu/awelye ceremonies have developed a remarkably flexible and resilient performance practice requiring little material infrastructure, but heavily dependent on human infrastructure (knowledgeable elders and keen learners) and the resources to bring the right people together and support them during performance. The most important regulatory framework is Dreaming Law (jukurrpa or altyerre), which established the precedents for human behavior including ceremony and which continues as the primary point of reference for ongoing replenishment of the practice through dreaming of new songs, dances and stories.

Infrastructure surrounding yawulyu/awelye is minimal. Opportunities to practice and rehearse ‘out bush’ and preferably on clan country may be limited by lack of access to vehicles and resources, but once in location performances can be adapted to suit almost any outdoor area with suitable shade and cleared areas for dancing. Instruments (wooden clapsticks) are used by some groups. Ceremonial objects and materials for body painting are sourced from traditional sites and looked after by senior owners, sometimes with the involvement of male relatives in manufacture of wooden objects. Ownership of ceremonial knowledge is carefully guarded and formally handed on when necessary. In Australia copyright protection and guidelines developed by government bodies, in combination with traditional regimes of knowledge management, provide adequate legal protection. The main infrastructural requirements are resources to support bringing the necessary people together and feeding and housing them for the duration of the performance. Occasions for performance (and hence teaching and learning) are supported in an ad hoc way by a variety of government and commercial funding sources.

Yawulyu/awelye is not a commercial music genre and thus has only incidental presence in the broadcast media and little to no relevance to the music industry. On occasion more detailed information about songs and associated knowledge has been made publicly accessible through limited release of documentation initially compiled for teaching and learning purposes. Private recordings also circulate between teachers and learners. When ceremonies do appear in events open to the general public (such as arts festivals) there is little or no attempt on either side to explain their significance. Performers are mainly interested in educating their own future tradition holders, while commissioning bodies often include the performances as indicators of a general respect for Indigenous culture without any real interest in the music or the meaning of the ceremonies. Nevertheless demand for public performances of yawulyu/awelye has significantly increased the frequency of occasions for learning through performance. Although tourists may be present at such public events, attempts to mount regular yawulyu/awelye performances specifically for tourists have never met with a huge success.

While sustaining yawulyu/awelye has met significant challenges, it is not an impossible enterprise. The central issue is enabling support for intergenerational transmission of the ceremonies, with the right people being trained to take charge of the future of their own traditions. Past and current initiatives that have met with success include research projects, inclusion of song in language documentation and revitalization programs, commissioning of performances for festivals, support for private performance events such as women’s law and culture meetings, trips to country facilitated by arts and health organisations, incorporating teaching of yawulyu/awelye into state education projects, and employing performers to teach in University programs. Cultural centres can also be a focus for teaching and learning activities, but for various reasons tourism has not provided a successful context. Future or suggested initiatives supported by some of our interviewees include a government-supported digital recording and archiving program for Indigenous songs, research projects to document the songs in existing archives and collections and make them available to learners, regular festivals, and the creation of books and films to educate various audiences about the significance of yawulyu/awelye.

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