White engine against black magic

Aboriginal song poetry and anthropology

Iconic flag showing the many hundreds of tribes in Australia prior to British settlement. The flag was flown at Camp Sovereignty in Melbourne, March 2006, where an indigenous Australian protest movement organized against the Commonwealth Games.

A conversation between Robbie Wood and Andrew Dowding about Taruru: Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara, recorded on September 16, 2010. 

Robbie Wood: Maybe we could start by talking about your relationship to song poetry and your connection to it, perhaps as a contemporary claimant of it in some way, and also about your relationship to it as an anthropologist and an Aboriginal person.

Andrew Dowding: The poetry that’s in that book [Taruru: Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara], some of it is really quite spiritual and quite ceremonial, but then there’s also another side of it. Some of it I’ve been connected to through a ritual that all young men go through, which is like an initiation into manhood that all young guys have to go through. But there’s a whole other side of the poetry in that book, which is really just a creative kind of passing-the-time form of poetry and song. I guess my connection with this ceremonial and spiritual side has been —

Wood: Has been more personal and embodied?

Dowding: Yeah.

Wood: But in terms of the sort of aesthetic, time-passing poetry that’s in this book, some of it is by uncles of yours, or great-uncles of yours, or your grandfather. It’s a sort of family poetics, it’s a sort of oral tradition in that sense, of people telling tales, and stories, and songs.

Dowding: Yeah, it’s told through a rich sort of storytelling tradition. When I was born, my granddad was pretty old. I think he was about eighty, in his mid-eighties. Unlike most Aboriginal people, who only live to about mid-sixties, in the hard life that he’d had, the age that he reached was a testament to how strong he actually was. But I never really got to interact with him, although I would have heard these stories, probably, when I was a tiny little kid.

But the people who really would have heard his stories, all these elders I talk to in my work through doing anthropology up in these areas, they all know his storytelling technique. I’ve got these tapes of his, which are basically recordings of those songs, of all those poems. As soon as I put those tapes in the tape deck, people just sit back. It’s like this kind of relaxing pastime. You can see that they remember how he spoke, and then they hear it again on the tape and they’re just back in that time, you know, back in that day, and he’s sitting around the old reserve and telling them some stories.

Wood: These recordings were recordings done by Carl von Brandenstein, who is a German anthropologist. Were they among the first recordings, oral recordings of Aboriginal song in Australia? Or just in the Pilbara? Western academic and intellectual tradition has taken a lot from Australian anthropological studies, for example, Freud’s Totem and Taboo, that’s Aboriginal people from the southern desert, then there was a whole host of other early anthropologists with Pitjanjatjarra peoples, which was then expanded into various anthropological theories. But were these the first actual oral recordings rather than transcribed notes?

Dowding: No, these recordings were done in the early seventies, late sixties, so I think there would have been other people going through the area with similar recording devices. But I think that von Brandenstein was the first to actually concentrate on song poetry and song structures, and songs, basically. And dances as well, he recorded a whole lot of dances moves that go along with some of the songs. So, I think there were earlier ones, I think there were linguists who went through much earlier than these anthropologists went through. But von Brandenstein’s field kit would have been pretty sizeable, it would have been strange recording because he probably would have used reel-to-reel tapes. So he would have had to lug that thing around.

Wood: Not like the digital stuff now.

Dowding: Quite a big physical machine to take around! It would have been so interesting to see the reactions of people on the way, because in some of the tapes it sounds like people are just yelling down microphones. Also, von Brandenstein didn’t just record songs, he recorded messages for people; he recorded messages to take to other groups, or other family over in a different area. He traveled huge distances, covering a huge area from the Kimberleys all the way down through the Gascoigne, recording songs. I remember finding this one little snippet — in the thousands and thousands of hours of tape, I luckily pulled out this one tape and it had a message for my Auntie Jean, a message from my grandfather, because she was living in Perth.

Wood: This is your mom’s sister?

Dowding: Yeah, my mom’s sister, she was living in Perth. von Brandenstein had told my granddad that he would see Jeanie down in Perth. So he sent this song to her, he sent this lullaby song, plus just a “how are you,” and he was describing where he was sitting and you can hear kids in the background, and it’s this intimate little moment. When I played it for my Auntie Jean, she was just in tears because she’d never heard it.

Wood: She’d never heard it?

Dowding: No, she’d never heard it, she never got the message in the end because von Brandenstein would tape thousands of hours.

Wood: So, he’s got these poems, Taruru, about daily life and Western development, and then there’s also a whole archive which is just actual daily life moments which are more historical, rather than put into the aesthetic sphere?

Dowding: Yeah, and then there’s a whole raft of rough cuts, where [my grandfather] Bob Churnside is singing a song, and then all of a sudden stops. He must have been a smoker, because he’s hacking up his lung, he’s spitting up his lung, and he’s like, “Sorry, where was I?” and he gets back into the song. I have edited a lot of these tapes, so I’ve heard all the rough cuts.

Wood: I wanted going to ask you about being Indigenous and being an anthropologist, and that sort of relationship, whether you could give a brief account of Aboriginal people’s relationship to anthropologists initially and how that’s changing now, and the implication of the anthropologist’s role socially.

Dowding: I think there was initially a real interest from Aboriginal people in these men like von Brandenstein, O’Grady and other early European anthropologists who came to Australia, a real interest in these strange European guys who would come and want to know the intimate details of culture. They’d actually want to explore knowledge with these men, because a lot of Aboriginal culture is knowledge-based.

It’s just not that it’s knowledge-based, it’s also that it’s held by a small group of men, and they’re always challenging each other over how much knowledge they have, how many songs they can remember, trying to outdo each other with perfect dance moves. The thing that was interesting for these Aboriginal guys was that the anthropologists would go and try and find the men of the highest degree, and they would always say to their Aboriginal informants, “I’ve talked to such-and-such and he’s been telling me about this,” and then the next Aboriginal informant would say, “Oh, I want to outdo that guy, and I’ll tell you as much as I can. I’ll display my cultural knowledge to you.” That was the initial relationship, this kind of outdoing each other.

A long time passed, probably about thirty or forty years, before anthropologists came back to the region. There was nothing up there, just Aboriginal people and pastoral stations and that’s it. But when anthropologists returned they returned with the mining companies and mining began. The anthropology that’s done within the mining companies is very different — it’s a measuring skulls and trying to save the culture kind of thing. There was never a real interest in the beauty of cultural forms; it was always this late-eighties idea that the Aboriginal race is going to die. I think people were very wary of those kinds of anthropologists coming in because they were always backed by mining money, that’s who they were paid by, whereas the older anthropologists were just guys with really obscure grants from universities.

That was a huge change in the view of anthropology, in how people saw anthropologists. And that type of anthropology is still going; it’s funded by mining companies performing these things called heritage surveys, which are basically just to go across bits of country looking at artifacts and archaeological materials. Very rarely when anthropologists go out under a mining company’s instruction would they ever ask about how a song connected to an area. I think that that’s been a sad thing. Now it’s slowly changing, now that there’s a second mining boom going on, I think that Aboriginal people have realized how dangerous it was to hand over certain information to anthropologists because they ended up in the Native Title process, fighting for Aboriginal lands.

When the Native Title process came through in the early nineties, anthropologists ended up being pitted against each other. Different academic anthropologists were brought in to rip each other apart, basically. They’d go out and do field work with Aboriginal people, find as much information as they could about a certain area, or some group’s connection to country, and then a different anthropologist would be asked to go out and review that work and then pull it to pieces.

Wood: So, within a longer historical view, beginning from when these poems were written, the relationship between anthropologist and informant was initially sort of like a dialogue, there was a bit more mutual respect on a cultural level, and there was a genuine, almost naïve interest on both sides. I mean, von Brandenstein would take his guitar and play folk tunes and things like that. It seems there was a certain naïve sharing, even though the material relationship was uneven. And then with the advent of global capitalism, the change in the last forty years, there was a shift in which the field of anthropology itself in became part of corporations, of corporate mentalities of competitiveness. And that became enshrined in the nineties. In the eighties there was a change in the field of anthropology, and in the nineties it got its legal comeuppance. Do you think that’s a fair way of understanding the relationship over past forty years or so?

Dowding: Yeah, definitely. I know that when von Brandenstein went up and asked people to sing songs and show him dances, he told people when he recorded them that he wanted to co-publish. It was never about an anthropologist coming up and collecting this work for themselves. It was always, “This is your cultural expression, and you should be proud of it.” The big change was these mining companies and anthropologists coming in and saying, “We’re going to pay you $500 to tell us what your heritage is, and that will be the end of the relationship.” That was the introduction of a different kind of personality.

Wood: The struggle to get tenure and all of these things must have gone into it as well.

Dowding: It’s been very slow in Australia, but now I think there is a recognition that the artifacts that people were recording, that these stone artifacts that were being recorded for years and years and years from the late eighties until now, mean nothing to Aboriginal people now, they mean less than nothing. It’s like the rubbish, the stone artifacts which were always held up as being the artifacts of a culture —

Wood: The proof, the material objects —

Dowding: That is being swept away, it hasn’t been swept away just yet, but it’s slowly changing to a realization that it’s the songs that meant the most to people, and we should be asking people if they remember this stuff.

Wood: Is that recognition happening on the side of anthropologists, or on the side of Aboriginal people?

Dowding: I think that’s where my conflict is. I know from an Aboriginal side that people are quite happy with the way their culture is going. They don’t see a huge amount of disturbance, because, I mean, how do you gauge that? There are big communities up there, thousands of people, and they still speak a form of the language, they still practice the kind of ritual that’s been going on for centuries. But my anthropological side thinks, “But it’s not as rich as it was. You don’t practice all the different ceremonies that you used to practice. You don’t speak seven different languages, which is what my grandfather would have spoken.” I don’t see corroborees happen in public places any more, which is what used to happen when they were alive. What about that stuff? Isn’t that important? But I know that people who live in the community think, “Well, we know it’s important, but that’s something for us.”

Wood: The idea of “we don’t necessarily have to practice it” suggests that the religious aspect still maintains itself, but the rites and rituals and cultural aspects have changed. The real influence in the communities, it seems, is pop culture internationally. If you want hip-hop, go to those communities — Akon, Kanye, Ludacris — those guys are big as cultural phenomena, and they sort of take the place of the poems, of Taruru, in these public displays. Yeah?

Dowding: Yeah, it’s like that. And I guess that’s a worry of a lot of people too. It is a worry, I guess, that people underestimate how deeply American commercial hip-hop would penetrate the youth. A lot of middle-aged Aboriginal people, a lot of older Aboriginal people don’t realize how deeply that stuff has gone into kids in the communities.

Wood: Or how, I guess, colonial processes have been successful, in that sense. Even though the development of a racial consciousness is significant, it has its origins elsewhere and not necessarily part of the culture.

Dowding: It’s a really hard thing to try and explain. Because I know that cultural forms like these songs and poetry that were done for pastime and entertainment, those kinds of cultural forms have been replaced. It’s very rare that I ever hear people singing in language while we’re fishing or while we’re hanging out in an area in town or anything. The songs that I do hear them singing like when we’re driving or something are ceremonial war songs. Those are the things that people have held onto, and the youth of the communities, they have exposure to the ceremonial aspect of those kinds of songs. They know those things, and I think that’s the reason why a lot of elders are quite happy with the way the culture is going, with the way that the religion is going, in a sense. Because the younger men and women know the ceremonial songs and they know that they can continue that culture, they feel kind of confident that those young people are getting enough of that exposure.

Wood: So, these aesthetic songs come and go, but the religious aspect, I guess, maintains itself and is necessary; hence religious life becomes a reinforcing aspect of the culture.

Dowding: The other thing is that all of those song men who sang those poems and made those poems, they were all strong lawmen/loremen and religious priests, the high priests of the culture. So I think that the elders would have a feeling that if that religion is still there, there will be men and women of a high degree who would have the ability to recreate these cultural forms if they want to.

Wood: Not the other way around; so the religion gives people strength, and then they might be able to express some cultural form. For example, you could do hip-hop or whatever as opposed to these forms of song-poems.

Dowding: I shouldn’t say that these song forms don’t exist. I’m sure that they do. Probably it would be a middle-aged, kind of early-forties to late-fifties age group of people who were exposed to these song forms a lot when they were younger, and they would carry them. But I don’t know what it is — they’re not as brave, or they have performance anxiety about it, or they think their kids won’t value it?

Wood: Anxiety of influence, or something like that?

Dowding: I’ve never, never heard them, whereas my understanding is that people would ask for these poems, these songs, they would request them all the time.

Wood: Like a jukebox or something like that?

Dowding: Yeah: “Tell us that story about the first plane to Roebourne, tell us that story about this and that.”

First Plane to Roebourne

Tabi in Karierra
by Ngalbijurangu, Tjarnadan’s brother

My people wait for the stranger
            to arrive from the west.
All stand and wait. What time would he come?
At last they came, circled high above,
            the two pilots.
High up they circled, let the roar fade
            and landed in the haze.

These poems were probably not as stable as they are when you see them as text; they probably would have been much more free, and they probably would have been embellished for a long version or a short version, probably a lot of improvisation.

The Truck

Tabi in Njijapali
by Dingo George 

There he is, the Giant, shifting back and forth,
The brand new engine, shrinking the country
Along the gravel roads.
Now the engine hums
In the great thing!

The First Truck at Tambrey

Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Wiliguru Pambardu

The strange thing comes closer,
            coming into view for inspection.
The strange thing comes closer,
            coming into view for inspection.
The strange thing comes closer,
            coming — view for inspection.
The strange thing comes closer,
            coming — full length into view.
Now we have seen you, stranger,
            coming — full length into view.
Now we have seen you, stranger,
            coming — full length into view.
Poor fellow you, stranger,
            — your transparent eyes reaching everywhere,
You stand there, fire spitting: eedj!
            — your transparent eyes reaching everywhere.
You stand there, fire spitting: eedj!
            — your transparent eyes reaching everywhere.
You stand there, fire spitting: eedj!
            transparent. — With its splutter
Inside below the engine
            is built — with its splutter.
Inside below the engine
            is built — with its splutter,
Inside below the engine
            is built — the starter,
Chirping “njeen njeen” in the front
            like crickets — the starter.
Chirping “njeen njeen” in the front
            like crickets — the starter,
Chirping “njeen njeen” in the front
            like crickets. — Up and down
Smell the petrol going through
            by the big end! — up and down.
Smell the petrol going through
            by the big end — up and down!
Smell the petrol going through
            by the big end! — Bubbles,
See them suddenly blown high,
            boiling — bubbles!
See them suddenly blown high
            boiling — bubbles!
See them suddenly blown high
            boiling. — Both shaking
.  .  .  .  .  .  you two,
            clever men, — both shaking.
.  .  .  .  .  .  you two,
            clever men, — both shaking
.  .  .  .  .  .  you two,
            clever men, — in the sleek cabin
Sitting on a seat to drive,
            all gadgets! — in the sleek cabin.
Sitting on a seat to drive,
            all gadgets! — in the sleek cabin
Sitting on a seat to drive,
            all gadgets! — The noise swells,
When they accelerate along the road
            to a rumble — the noise swells.
When they accelerate along the road
            to a rumble — the noise swells
When they accelerate along the road
            to a rumble — a buzz sets in.
The wheels make miles,
            at a proper speed — a buzz sets in.
The wheels make miles
            at a proper speed — a buzz sets in.
The wheels make miles,
            at a proper speed — the tyre marks spin
Around in the dust like mad,
            like firesticks — the tyre marks spin.
Around in the dust like mad,
            like firesticks — the tyre marks spin
Around in the dust like mad,
            like firesticks — its sides rattle,
  Jerking when a load is pulled
            by the truck — its sides rattle,
Jerking when a load is pulled
            by the truck — its sides rattle,
Jerking when a load is pulled
            by the truck. — The ground whirls past,
When you look out front it is swaying,
            running straight — the ground whirls past.
When you look out front it is swaying,
            running straight — the ground whirls past.
When you look out front it is swaying,
            running straight — the roar’s like a meteor
Blundering from star to star,
            running through the bend — the roar’s like a meteor.
Blundering from star to star,
            running through the bend — the roar’s like a meteor
Blundering from star to star,
            running through the bend — fading far away
The noise making miles
            like a firestick — fading far away.

Wood: In that way, I suppose this song poetry is not necessarily the main cultural form of our historical era. The conflict is similar to what you were saying about anthropology romanticizing certain aspects of Aboriginal culture — we miss the era of knowing seven languages, we miss the era visiting places where no one has been, I missed the chance to be von Brandenstein by living in the current historical and financial moment. I guess the main concern now is that with the shift of the anthropological field into studying song rather than spears or artifacts, it could potentially overlook, or give up on being against mining processes. Do you think anthropologists have begun to assume that mining is a fait accompli for a lot of aboriginal communities? Partly because that assumption exists at a kind of structural level — rather than the dying race theory, there’s a dying country theory — do you think because of that assumption people don’t necessarily want to work with anthropologists? Do you think that’s a reasonable question or a reasonable conflict?

Dowding: I definitely think that the role of anthropologists has changed now. It’s become more of a protective field; it’s become like a buffer, a translator of concepts and ideas between mining companies and communities. It’s evolving now and it’s changing a lot. There are a lot of old-guard anthropologists, a generation moving on. And younger guys like me, or like my boss, Nick Green, who’s just turned fifty and he’s kind of retiring, I don’t know how to put it really … we’re just the buffer between the full-on mining company executive board and the Aboriginal community which has different forms of governance, different responsibilities towards land. Our job is just to translate between the different worlds, the two different worlds.

Wood: The change is basically globalization; now anthropologists are buffers between multinational companies and local communities, who in this case are Aboriginal, whereas previously everything was national in scope. National governments made decisions about welfare, about land use, and hadn’t given up mining leases, necessarily.

Dowding: Well, a lot of the anthropologists who went out in the early eighties were actually with institutions, they were with museums and the Department of Indigenous Affairs. Nowadays it doesn’t exist, anthropologists don’t come through those channels at all, they’re all private contractors. And like I was saying there’s a generational change: guys forty and over all came through those institutional structures — they use semi-bureaucratic kinds of processes, lots of forms, lots of boxes to tick, a lot of processes people don’t understand. And I don’t know what the next step is, because I’m being exposed to those kinds of anthropologists, but I don’t know exactly what way we’re going to go in the future. My background would be more toward a Native Title background, which is —

Wood: Legal?

Dowding: No, it’s not so much legal. Native Title is basically a recognized land title, which says that Australia was managed in a certain way by laws and traditions before Europeans came here. So now we are trying to manage our Native Title; we have to manage these lands within our traditions, which obviously have changed from European colonization, you know, different types of living on the land, being sedentary, cattle stations. This is how I’ve always thought the field of anthropology should start helping people manage Native Title. It should be devoted to understanding what our traditions have always said about how we manage resources, and how we manage communities, and how we manage youth.


Tabi in Karierra/Ngarluma
by Tjabi

There he sits, bald as an egg
And wants to tell us
That railway tracks will criss-cross the desert,
                                    the liar!
They’d even cross the Pilbara, near Warden’s Pool.
So he lies, the idiot!
Sand is all he’ll find up here
To wipe his arse with,
                                    the big-shot from Perth.

Wood: So the function of anthropology, not its place, not where it is in an institution or in a mining company, but the role of the anthropologist has changed from one of fascination. Retrospectively, I think people take fascination to be part of colonialism, not giving Aboriginal people enough credit where it was due, and in the oldest and most ignorant sort of understanding of anthropologists as going forth and conquering cultures —

Dowding: And bringing them back to the anthropologists’ club.

Wood: Yeah, exactly, and now perhaps you’re starting to see the possibility of anthropologists having a political connection, the possibility that anthropologists can act in a sustainable manner, or help to translate traditional lores and cultures into something sustainable. That’s not necessarily to reduce Aboriginal culture to some mythical and romantic ideal, but to say that sustainability is an important thing in regard to land management, in regard to song poetry, and in regard to religious rituals.

Dowding: They’re very much tied up, because a lot of the ceremonial songs that we have and hold have encoded information about the management of land, the management of people, and governance. They’re instructional songs, basically, but when you read the song texts, you don’t get that. It’s not like, “you must do this.” It’s kind of an interpretive thing; people would say that these two spirit-figures would fight in a certain way, and there would be a kind of moral of the story, and it’s the interpretation of that moral that would be the instruction.

Wood: Your grandfather has a song, “What Albert Did”:

What a careless way to burn off the spinifex!
The fire crept on, smoked like mad
And came right round in a circle

In the song text he doesn’t mention Albert’s name, and [in the book] the title of the song is given by someone else, so the moral is separate from the person in that sense.

Dowding: It would have to go with the story, you can’t separate that, that poem tells you nothing. It’s so stripped back that you can’t even understand: you understand that there was a fire, and that there was some guy called Albert, but that’s about the extent of the whole text that’s given to you.

Wood: I guess the instruction from it is moral as well as practical — rather often the two go together: if you’re a good person you fish in a certain way, or you take the fish, rather, in a certain way. So in that sense the role of anthropology in general is to help translate that, would you say?

Dowding: A lot of it is just providing the context. That’s almost the same with that song, of that poem about Albert, about spinifex. You read it, and without any kind of knowledge of the context of that situation, it means absolutely nothing to you. An anthropologist almost fills in that story; he colors in those little blanks for people. Why were they burning spinifex? What the hell is spinifex?

Wood: It’s like this poem too:

White Engine Against Black Magic

Tabi in Njamal
by Lando

You steer the plane with both arms
Sending it straight through the air.
Inside, what a noise!
We are nobody with all our cleverness,
Against the whitefellow.
He can read, and write, and sure enough,
Drive the big things in the sky —
Magic? — He doesn’t need it.
Our medicine-men, the whole lot,
Are utterly useless.

For me that clinches, that establishes the sort of the fight, presumably on the side of the romanticizing anthropologist who misses the halcyon days when the magic men he did know were enough.

Dowding: When the magic men ruled the skies.

Wood: Yeah, that’s right, and it was easier to understand, perhaps, what was happening then. That’s the colonial process, right, how differently Indigenous people view different things, in terms of being in awe of scientific inventions and so on. But your grandfather worked with a number of different anthropologists, had a different view about people who could be seen as handmaidens to colonialism, among them von Brandenstein?

Dowding: I found out that he actually did work with quite a few, and with quite a few linguists as well. I’ve done quite a lot of reading of von Brandenstein’s footnotes, where he talks a lot about Bob Churnside as being one of his best informants because he’s so open to sharing his knowledge, and he’s got such deep cultural knowledge of his own people and the traditions that he’s inspired or inspiring. I’ve heard a lot of recordings of those guys talking together and they just sound like they’re mates, they’re friendly, very friendly.

They just have casual conversations on the side of talking about some pretty intense cultural knowledge. So … what was the question?

Wood: I was thinking about your grandfather’s relationship to anthropology as an entire field and thinking about him as one of the main informants, and trying to re-understand the relationship between, let’s say, “White Engine Against Black Magic,” and how that might come down to just one relationship. Like you’re saying, von Brandenstein’s collaboration, his co-publication was a sharing of cultural knowledge that was accessible to people and allowed them certain latitude: it was not “White Engine Against Black Magic.” So, von Brandenstein was not seen as some interloper, he has a function and a place in Aboriginal society as an Aboriginal person, if you want to put it that way. In a certain way, von Brandenstein’s whiteness is unimportant; what matters is his role in the society, and hence he becomes Aboriginal.

Dowding: I think that’s right. In “White Engine Against Black Magic,” that guy is in total awe of white culture and supremacy, he’s been told over and over, and seen the physical forms of superiority, the planes and cars and stuff. But I think that Bob Churnside always had this confidence in his own culture. I think he almost thought that European culture was kind of shallow and superficial, and that he had some really deep understanding of what it is to be, some really deep understandings that come from being a person and being a human. And I don’t say that lightly, because we’re talking about cultural links that this guy would have had to really old culture, to language and song that go back thousands of years, and unbroken too; culture that would have only changed minimally, I reckon.

I reckon that in himself he was a very confident guy and I can tell from the tapes that he has with von Brandenstein that he’s just totally superior in that relationship, he just feels so confident in displaying how rich the culture is. He’s got days and days of recordings with von Brandenstein — probably more than days, he’s got weeks of recordings, there are thousands of tapes in archives in Canberra — and he just talked the whole time. von Brandenstein prods him every now and then, but he’s just giving this library of information.

Wood: That’s the thing about being from an oral tradition and having that knowledge stored in your mind. There’s a very different and I think perhaps a deepening or enabling of your mind in a structural way, so that your memory is better from an oral tradition. All of this kind of mapping, all of these kinds of aspects of your mind have a very different relationship precisely because you have had to rely on it.

Dowding: As an example, I remember this one section of a tape where Bob Churnside is naming the pools in the river. We’re talking about a really harsh landscape, we’re talking temperatures in the high forties, above a hundred degrees, and we’re talking about a time when there were no motorcars so you were either on horseback or you were walking, and if you didn’t know where the next source of water was, you’d die, basically, of thirst. And his map, this mental map that he has in his head — the tape stops in this recording, but he names over eighty pools, and he sings these little songs in between but he names each of the pools and he describes the area around the pool and he does that for all the different river systems in his country. The amazing mental map that he has is all due to the oral tradition.

I’m not sure about how von Brandenstein would have seen his role in this, and I always think when I listen to these tapes that they both sound kind of naïve in the way that they’ve recorded them.

Wood: Both so excited, perhaps?

Dowding: Yeah, I think that’s probably part of it. Excited and …

Wood: Excited and well-intentioned?

Dowding: Yeah, definitely well-intentioned. Because I know that Bob Churnside took von Brandenstein around to introduce him to all of these different men who wrote these different songs, these poems. So he was the connector, he was main informant who took him all around and explained to all these men of high degree, Bob Churnside would say, “Look, this is what he does.” I would have loved if the tape had on at that point so we could hear how Bob Churnside would have explained what von Brandenstein’s purpose was, how Bob Churnside saw it.

Now, for the relatives of Bob Churnside, there’s a kind of rift through the family as to what should be done with these materials. Bob Churnside’s position in the community was that he named himself as a leader of the community, but in today’s communities, there’s not really one leader, no one proclaims themselves to be a leader any more. There’s anxiety about being the leader; no one’s reached that high degree. So everyone says that these materials are very dangerous — if you don’t know how to control them, if you can’t carry them properly, other people will get them, or you might misuse them, and they could become quite dangerous.

Wood: Is that why you said the tapes between von Brandenstein and Bob Churnside are quite naïve? Because there’s not this sense that it’s stolen knowledge, but it’s shared, it’s communal, people can participate in it, unlike when anthropologists speak with people now. But this goes more for religious artifacts and religious songs than for cultural songs, right? People aren’t as worried about the stealing of those songs?

Dowding: That’s right. There’s a section in one of the tapes that I found: I was sitting with a really old guy, an Aboriginal guy from Roebourne and we were listening to these tapes together. Some parts of them aren’t in English at all, so I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t speak fluent enough Ngarluma to understand what’s being said. I saw the old fella who I was sitting with, I saw his eyes light up and he looked really alarmed. I was like, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” He was like, “You’ve got to stop the tape.” And I thought, “Obviously it’s some really full-on cultural knowledge that’s being told, it’s being sung.” I’ve heard hours of these tapes, and in this one section where it’s almost like information is just being downloaded from my grandfather’s mind, because he doesn’t stop to do any explanation, he sings for about four hours, there’s about three or four tapes where he’s just constantly singing. And the reaction that I saw from this old guy’s face …

I still haven’t found out what’s on those tapes, but I showed it to one of my cousin- brothers, one of the eldest males in our family. By traditional rights, he should have control of those tapes, and he’s taken it from me and he’s never given it back. They’re also down in an archive, but he feels like his control of those tapes is a form of control of that information. I’ve always wondered whether Bob Churnside was naïve to just download whatever he did onto these tapes and give it to a stranger, or if he was putting it there because maybe he thought that it needed to be safe.

Wood: Safeguarded because of the material processes that are happening. Perhaps that’s why there’s so much fighting over the songs, because so much control has been ceded in the process of mining rights? Do you think that the way of reclaiming a form of power, self-confidence, or whatever you want to call it comes through the song tradition because precisely because you’re not on country as much anymore?

Dowding: That’s the crux of Aboriginal culture in this area. The higher you are in your song tradition, the higher you are inside the culture. To become the leader you need to have acquired a huge repertoire of songs not only from your area but from seven different languages. So I think that’s one of the reasons why older people don’t worry so much that this public song form is not being displayed enough. I think people know that there aren’t that many men or women who have reached the level where they can be confident in singing public songs and displaying their prowess in these kinds of forms when they might not have such a prowess in the cultural and the ceremonial form as well.

But the fact is that there’s a possibility that someone can rise up inside the ceremonial form of the song.

I do know examples of younger guys, like mid-forties, who can sing these kinds of songs, these tabi songs. There’s a guy down here at the University of Western Australia in Perth, studying science. He sings tabi whenever they have an Indigenous cultural day at the university. He’s only a very young guy but he has learned these songs, the ceremonial songs, he has learned the texts of them, so I think he feels that he can sing the kind of public songs as well. He always dedicates them, he always says, “These are my grandfather’s songs, or such-and-such’s songs, I’m not composing them, I’m just singing them like they did.” They are public songs, songs for uninitiated people. He’d be the only blackfella in the room when he’s singing those songs. They’re not for communities’ sake, for an Aboriginal community’s sake, they’re for him to feel that he’s confident enough in his own ritual.

Wood: Even within Aboriginal communities, you can’t hear certain songs, but you can always hear these cultural songs. You can hear tabi all the time but you’re not going to hear law/lore songs. In that sense, what can be heard is quite distinct, it’s also quite different from the European tradition, the Euro-canon, especially the secular tradition, where secret, sacred knowledge is quite hard to come by in a legitimate way. You can work for the knowledge, you can have access to it or initiation’s not applicable as a concept.

The other thing in these tabi is just how a lot of it is just working-class, poor reflections on daily life. I think that’s changed a lot now with mining companies as well because it’s just big money flowing in to Indigenous areas. And so, sure there is still gambling, still sex in the bushes, but that’s one aspect of the colonial process that seems to have changed in the last fifteen to twenty years is just the separation of class at the level of monetary economy.

Gambler's Lament

Tabi in Karierra
by Maabin

My name is “feet for money.” Up and up,
Will another risk return it to me?
Another chance tried — nothing yet. No luck, no lucky card for me in
                                                                                                  hand —
            and the sun sinks out of sight in the sea.



Tabi in Karierra
by Tjarndai

In the scrub he slowly starts riding her crossways
                                                and gets into her,
In the scrub he slowly starts riding her crossways
                                                and does it deep into her.


Gambler's Worry

Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Ned Tjinabii

It’s on my mind, those people talking;
It’s on my mind: someone’ll win the lot!

Dowding: Yeah, the work that people do up there now is so different than what their families did fifteen, twenty years ago. We’re talking young guys entering jobs where they are paid $120,000 to drive a tractor or drive a loader or something, compared to their families fifteen years ago who would probably have jobs through the government or Aboriginal Welfare with highly controlled pay — they wouldn’t even have bank accounts. The pay that they would have received would have been through food vouchers, they’d have a government-controlled savings account that would be accessed through letters. You could access your money by going into the local post office with your checkbook and asking the post office guy, the local pay-master, to write you a check. So, huge changes, huge changes: access to paid work, amazing freedom, the free market and paid work.

There aren’t many young guys who would stick with these jobs for years. They’re just going for six months or even less; they earn $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 and then they leave, because that’s the extent of their experience with that amount of money. They would never have had a family member who earned $100,000 in a year and that amount of money is like six or seven years’ worth of money coming in three months. Those changes are just so dramatic. It’s a very different era from these songs. In the fifties and sixties, the type of work that was available to those guys was hard labor, loading boats, loading trucks, manual labor on mines rather than big machinery.

Road Work

Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Tommy Tjinakurrudhu

Here they dig away further in the cutting,
Shovels beat like wavelets on the rise,
Ring round the corner of the edge
                                                     — edge — edge,
I am tired
                — tired — tired.

Wood: Pastoralism too, right?

Dowding: Pastoralism, which is all manual labor: digging wells, riding for days on horseback. Just a whole world away. What’s crazy, what’s really hard for these younger guys is that they’re still in the same location. They’re still surrounded by pastoral stations and mines, but the change in the work has been so dramatic, the change in the pay scales, I think, has been too much for some people. I don’t know how it could have worked out. I think it’s only in the last few years that younger people under twenty-five have understood work in these new, emerging forms of employment —

Wood: Abstract and bureaucratic, right? So many older forms of work were just immediate, face-to-face: a new guy walks up with this type of animal called cattle, and you go and work with him, partly to watch him because he is on your country.

Dowding: All done by watching him, really, all the work would have been done; none of this sitting in a classroom and doing a ticket to drive a truck or anything. But the interesting thing about that face-to-face is that people always ask, “Who’s your boss? Who’s your nyabali?” If you don’t know that person, if it’s some CEO of a company, it’s so abstracted for some people. They really don’t understand where that guy is, where that person actually exists; he could be in London, he could be in Perth, he’s so far away that people really don’t know who they’re working for, therefore you get people working only for a short amount of time. There’s no connection. It’s like, “I don’t want to go in today,” and the boss won’t tell you off because you don’t know your boss, whereas in the old days the boss would be there every morning getting you up out of your swag. I think that’s been a huge change for people.

I’d love to hear some of this kind of poetry come out of Roebourne today. What people would like — the equivalent of Taruru.

Wood: Yeah, “First Internet in Roebourne,” or “Gary Watches Pornography,” that sort of daily life. I guess hip-hop’s replaced that, right?

Dowding: There’s a big country and western song tradition where people will select a country and western song which expresses these modern themes that they’re feeling, these emotions that they’re feeling.

Wood: In this sense this poetry is at a crossroads, at the decline of these traditional languages in daily life, and their movement to religious language. In that sense it’s a real crossroads that’s historically very, very important and stylistically quite important, too.

Dowding: I don’t think you could get people now who could express those kinds of actions or stripped language well enough to express [the equivalent of] what those guys say. I don’t think people know the structures of sentences well enough anymore to construct nice stripped back poetry. It would sound infantile, because people have lost the real, deep sense of the language, completely lost it. There are people who can switch back and forth in English and different languages, who can code switch. There are a few older people who speak really deep Ngarluma, who don’t have to switch back and who don’t feel tired of speaking it at the end of the day.

Wood: Is there a correlation between that daily life language and traditional religious language? If you’re a good linguist in daily language, are you a good song person?

Dowding: Oh yes, definitely. Because the songs are twisty. The language in the songs is twisty, it makes your tongue go all over the place. If you’re reared up in English like I am, the songs are doubly hard. They’re just so hard, and the fact is that those songs are not even everyday language. The way that they’re structured is that a word, a word like “wind” would be “wi-lala-nd,” so it would be punctuated by a whole lot of what they call song-language. There would be reasons for that, but the bits of song-language mask the actual word that you’re trying to say, so it’s harder to understand what is being sung. And you have to be back at those ceremonies every year to kind of break the code, it’s kind of a coded song. You’re just singing what you hear from the guy next to you, but every year you hear more and more of the song.

Wood: So the repetition would be an important way of learning. But also I imagine there’s a possibility that the repetition, those phonetic structures come from everyday knowledge, traditional everyday knowledge. So, you say the word “wind” a certain way because that’s how the wind says itself to you at certain points in the day, so if you’re out on the plain killing a kangaroo or something, the wind is going to make a certain noise. You’ll hear that song and then sing it so you’ll go hunting better and with more luck, and that’s the relationship.

Dowding: I’ve read articles and heard good examples of songs sung about an area of land and then when that area of land changes in topography, the song changes tempo and it changes structures. And so it does mimic the land and the experience of walking across that land. If you’re singing the song about this bit of land, you can tell that it’s sandy or that it’s hard to walk through because the song is slow and it’s intonated. If it’s a rocky sort of area the song’s changed to match the geography. So I think there’s aspects of that stuff probably in some of these public and in the tabi songs as well.

To the Roebourne Races

Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Ned Tjinabii

Under the wheels the road runs away
As we bounce across the country.
Look at the dust, churned up behind us!
It’s like a wall, you can’t look through it.
Hey! What a speed! Such a bouncing!
There goes Mount Targurana on my left.
Ay! We’re winding down round Minjarna Hill already.
One more ridge and we reach my open plain.