Saturday, September 11, 2010

Aboriginal And Melanesian Music

This Blog is a listening guide to the many
listeners of our four Internet Pacific Islands
Radio Stations:

The Blog will focus on issues relating to
Pacific Island music. It will also embrace
some of the exciting changes taking place in
the Internet Radio Revolution, as well as
updated information on our Pacific
Island Artists, Programming and Playlists.


In this edition of our Pacific Islands Radio
Newsletter (Island Music), it is my great
pleasure to be able to focus on some aspects
of the traditional music of Melanesia and to
introduce some exciting Melanesian artists
who have now been incorporated into our
Playlists. In subsequent editions, it is my
intention to focus on aspects of Polynesian
music and musicians, followed by music
and musicians from Micronesia.

In this respect, I would like to share with
you some thoughts on the music of the
Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait
Islanders. Their music is very much part
of the social fabric of their life, their
history and their culture.It has a haunting
and mysterious quality that draws the listener
into the history, culture and the ancient
dreamtime of the Aboriginal people.

Among the earliest inhabitants of the
Oceania region, it is generally accepted
that the indigenous Australians - the
Aboriginal people - entered Australia
from the Indo-Malaysian mainland via
New Guinea, taking advantage of the
land bridges which stretched most of
the way through Asia. These land bridges
were exposed during the ice ages, the
Pleistocene epoch, when water levels
dropped hundreds of metres. New
Guinea and Cape York Peninsula were
once joined by the Sahul Shelf.

The oldest settlement so far recorded
in Australia is radiocarbon-dated to
about 50,000 years ago. This settlement
around Lake Mungo is where humans
camped around inland lake shores and
dined on fish, shellfish, emu eggs, small
marsupials and - almost certainly - a range
of wild seeds, roots and fruits. The first
human remains found at Lake Mungo are
all homo sapiens - the modern human type
to which present-day black and white
Australians all belong. More than this, the
remains are among the oldest of this type
in the world.

The first archaeological discovery at Mungo,
in 1969, was a skeleton of a female who
had been cremated and placed in a small pit.
This cremation is dated to about 24,000 B.C.
Other burials in the Mungo region are of bodies
laid out flat and not burned, but all have some
kind of goods with them in the grave. These
goods include stone tools, shells and animal
seeds. At this time, we do not know the beliefs
of the mourners who made these offerings,
however, their presence most probably recorded
a complex set of beliefs about the spiritual
world. It seems likely that aspects of the
"Dreaming", the all-encompassing historical and
cosmological structure that is a cornerstone of
modern aboriginal life, were already present all
those years ago.

Although there were variations in the customs
and skills of the hundreds of different
Aboriginal tribes across the vast continent
of Australia, they all lived in equally close
community with their environment. The Dreamtime,
the Aborigine's spiritual guide, encouraged their
intimate involvement with the landscape, whether
their home was on the lush coastal plains or in
the harsh interior. They knew what to eat, how
to prepare it, where and when to find it and,
most important, how to protect their resources
for the future. What the elders knew about
survival, they passed on by example, legend
and ritual. Along with this, there were songs
for every occasion - hunting songs, funeral
songs, gossip songs and songs of ancestors,
landscapes, animals, seasons, myths and
Dreamtime legends.


Indigenous Australian music, in this context,
is taken to include the music of the Australian
Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who
are collectively referred to as indigenous
Australians. Music has formed an integral
part of the social, cultural and ceremonial
observances of Australian Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander peoples, down through
the millennia of their individual and
collective histories to the present day.

Aboriginal people throughout most of Australia
believe that in the beginning of time, in the
Dreaming, there were no visible landmarks; the
world was flat. As time progressed, creatures
emerged from the ground and had the power to
change at will from their animal to their human

The kangaroo ancestor may now be described, in
songs particularly, as the kangaroo; the form of his
life essence is a matter of little consequence. These
original ancestral beings created all the features of
the landscape in the area in which their lives were
spent, and also populated the entire region concerned.
By their actions, they laid down the rules of conduct
for all their offspring.

Throughout their lives on earth, they left inseminating
powers in the soil; they also created, and taught to
others, many songs including those recounting the
history of their own lives, songs for healing the
wounded and the sick, injuring the enemy, including
rain, arresting the flood, or causing the wind to turn

The inseminating powers left by these ancestors
are doubly important to the present people:
firstly, because the propagation of their group
is dependent on this power to create human
offspring in the likeliness of the human elements
of the ancestor; secondly, because the food
source of the group is dependent on this power
of each ancestor to ensure the plentiful supply
of recreated forms of the animal or plant element
of the ancestor's being.

These powers become most accessible to the
present inhabitants of the area on those
occasions when the spirit of a particular
ancestor is drawn towards his own identification
marks of the song, acts and designs which he
originally created and which have been
meticulously preserved ever since.


A song is sung as a series comprising
many short verses, each of which tells
about a particular event or place associated
with the ancestor; or the performance may be
a full ceremonial one which includes portrayal
of relevant events in the performance of
dances accompanied by the singing of the
appropriate verses.

The song associated with any one totemic "line"
will have the one melodic form throughout. This
means, in the case of very long "lines" of songs,
where the ancestor is reputed to have crossed
thousands of miles of territory, that the
characteristic melodic form will be found in
areas with different languages and musical

Because of the latter differences, an outside
observer may well fail to recognise extreme
sections of the one song-line as conforming
to the same musical pattern, but that they
do conform has been repeatedly stressed by
performers and shown by a number of detailed
analyses. The concept differs from our
experience of melodic sameness; it consists
of repetitions of sections of melody for a
set proportion of the time the total verse
takes to perform.

Because this technique allows flexibility in
those areas of musical expression which tend
to change from one tribe to another, the basic
information can be kept intact even though
the total history may be retained, section by
section, in many different tribal areas.

This means that, even when a visitor from afar
is unable to understand the language that the
locals are using in a song, he can determine,
from the musical structure, to which totemic
line the song belongs.

And, because his own totemic song has been
very strong conditioning agent in the total
processes of his education to adult status in
the community, the recognition of his own song
in another area will have very deep significance.
These history songs link the time long past with
the present; the singer is part of a continuum;
he is reliving events of another era, and is yet
part of them.


The Australian Aboriginal people developed a
number of rare, unique and interesting musical
instruments. These include the didgeridoo, the
bullroarer, and the gum-leaf. Most well known
is the didgeridoo, a simple wooden tube blown
with the lips like a trumpet, which gains its
sonic flexibility from controllable resonances
of the player's vocal tract. The bull-roarer
is a simple wooden slat whirled in a circle on
the end of a cord so that it rotates about its
axis and produces a pulsating low-pitched roar.
The gum-leaf, as the name suggests, is a tree
leaf, held against the lips and blown so as to
act as a vibrating valve with "blown-open"
configuration. Originally intended to imitate
bird-calls, the gum-leaf can also be used as
a musical instrument.

The didgeridoo originated in Arnhem Land on
the northern coastline of central Australia,
and has some similarity to bamboo trumpets and
even bronze horns developed in other cultures,
though it pre-dates most of these by many
millennia. The characteristic feature is that
the didgeridoo, which is a slightly flaring
wooden tube about 1.5 metres in length, is
simply hollowed out by natural termites
("white ants") from the trunk of one of the
small trees of the region. After cutting down,
the instrument is cleaned out with a stick,
the outside refined by scraping and then
painted with traditional designs, and the
blowing end smoothed by adding a rim of

The predominant sound of the didgeridoo is a
low-pitched drone with frequency around 70Hz,
but depending significantly upon the length of the
instrument and the flare of its bore. In traditional
use, the didgeridoo, with clap-sticks for emphasis,
accompanies songs or illustrates traditional stories
about ancestors and animals Recently, however,
its use has spread into the popular music domain
and has had world-wide influence.

The bullroarer consists of a simple wooden slat,
30 to 40cm in length and 5 to 7cm wide that is
whirled around in a circle on the end of a length
of cord. The slat rotates under the influence of
aerodynamic forces and generates a pulsating
sound with a frequency typically around 80Hz.
This sound is an important feature of Aboriginal
initiation ceremonies. The instrument itself is
by no means unique to Australia, as similar
instruments have been used by populations as
diverse as those of ancient Egypt and Northern

The gumleaf is altogether more primitive as a
musical instrument, since it consists simply
of a leaf from one of the various species of
Eucalypt trees growing throughout Australia,
which held against the lips using the fingers
of both hands. It does, however, have a long
tradition and culture. Although it takes a good
deal of trial and error for a beginner to even
produce a sound from a gumleaf, a skilled
player can control the pitch with good accuracy
over a range of more than an octave and play
simple tunes with ease.

As in most cultures, the Aborigines also used
percussive instruments in their ceremonies.
Often these were simply two boomerangs
clashed together, but they also made special
shaped sticks for this purpose. Because the
wood used is a fine-grained hardwood, the
clapsticks are physically long-lasting and
produce a sharp and well defined sound.

In their usual form, these sticks are about
200mm in length and 20mm in diameter and
are shaped to a long point at each end. One
stick is held in each hand and they are struck
together at about the mid-point of each. The
pointed ends ensure that the fundamental
transverse vibration has a high frequency,
so that the percussive effect stands out
well above the low-pitched drone of the

The musical instruments of the Australian
Aboriginal people have come into world
prominence because of the popularity of
the didgeridoo, both as a tourist item and
as a musical instrument. It is only recently
that we have begun to have an appreciation
of the acoustical subtleties associated with
performance on this and the other ancient
instruments of the Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Island people.

By the way, I am very pleased to be able
to say that our Playlists now include
beautiful tracks from Yothu Yindi, Becim,
Wasi Ka Nanara, Ok! Ryos, along with
Elisa and Julie.



Originally from the Loyalty Province of
New Caledonia, Ok! Ryos are certainly
one of the most talented and the most prolific
bands in the country. Their songs, mainly
sung in "Nengone" language, are true jewels
of melodies and vocal harmonies. Traditional
without being folkloric, contemporary without
losing its soul, the musical cocktail of Ok!
Ryos charms our ears and our senses, bringing
us, for a moment, to the lagoons and atolls of
the South Pacific.


The first album from the backup singers from
the group "Ok! Ryos." Elisa (25 years old)
and Julie (21 years old) momentarily left their
older brother (Édouard Wamejo) to record
this album. "Ciroi," meaning life, is sung in
French and in Nengone (the language of Maré,
the home island of the girls in New Caledonia).
All the pieces, except one written by their
brother, were written and composed by Julie
and Elisa.
"This is an album from and for girls that
talks about life, love, peace, and acts as
an encouraging message." However, boys also
are invited to listen to this album that
combines two young voices in magnificent


The music of Wasi Ka Nanara is indigenous
to the Solomon Islands, especially on the
island of Malaita. One never sees women in
the group, for the music and dance is
exclusively the business of men. The musicians
make all their instruments themselves out of
bamboo. One particular instrument connects
many pan pipes together to form a kind of
collar which the players manipulate with a
turn of the neck.

The music of the group comes from the first
century of their era, a time of the Lapita
culture, enriched later with contacts with
Polynesia, the Aborigines of Austrailia and
other islands of Melanesia.


From the South Pacific Island of New Caledonia,
Becim presents a collection of reggae and
pop-influenced island music. Mixed with Latin
percussion and beautiful vocal harmonies, Becim
gives an unexpected look at Pacific Island music.



Yothu Yindi have their origins in the Yolngu
homelands of the Aboriginal people Arnhem
Land, on the north-east coast of Australia's
Northern Territory. This is an area that the
Yolngu have occupied and protected since
their people first arrived on the vast Australian
continent perhaps 40,000 years or more ago.

The Yolngu members of the band celebrate
their deep spiritual connections with the land,
connections that are kept alive through song,
dance and ceremony. These are reflected in
the band's recordings and live performances
which are essentially a pleasing fusion of their
traditional music and dance with contemporary
western music.

The name of the band translates as "mother
and child", and is essentially a kinship term
used by the Yolngu people of the Northern
Territory's Arnhem Land. The group's central
figure Mandawuy Yunupingu and clansman
Witiyana Marika gathered other aboriginal
musicians and dancers to form Yothu Yindi,
a troupe initially created to perform at cultural
events both in Australia and internationally.

Yothu Yindi's first album, 'Homeland Movement'
comprised politicized rock on one side. The
other side of the album concentrated on
traditionally based songs like 'Djapana' (Sunset
Dreaming), written by former teacher Mandawuy
Yunupingu.Mandawuy's family has a long and
proud tradition in the struggle for aboriginal
land rights. Mandawuy Yunupingu was named 1992
Australian of The Year.

Yothu Yindi are a unique group that will always be
Yothu Yindi. No matter how you combine Yolgnu
culture in pop, rock or dance music what counts are
the lyrics and the unique access to 40,000 years of
Aboriginal history and tradition. This is what makes
the groups contribution to popular music culture
such a valuable one.
* * * * * * * * * *
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Thank you everybody. I wish you all a great day!

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