Allan Marett: Songs, Dreamings, and Ghosts — The Wangga of North Australia

WanggaFirst, a brief demurrer: “Ethnomusicology” can be a really scary idea, drawing together, as it does, the formal study of music and its forms, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and possibly a couple of “ologies” that I’ve overlooked, all discrete disciplines in Western thought and each by itself incapable of leading to any real understanding of cultures. By the same token, I found this book fascinating, but it is extraordinarily difficult to discuss sensibly in anything as brief as a review, particularly since I am not really a scholar (honestly, I’m not — I can prove it, at least insofar as one can prove a negative), and thus I have no scholarly axe to grind, so there’s nothing I can even dispute. I think one of the chief difficulties in this regard is simply that the book is successful: it is an intelligent and detailed look at an attitude toward music and performance outside Western traditions that really does a magnificent job of making the subject clear, which simply means that the conceptual base that I or anyone else who has incorporated those Western traditions bring to this study simply does not apply.

With that said, a definition is in order. “Dreamings” are a particularly Australian thing that finds parallels in other cultures but has a distinctly unique flavor. Marett discusses Dreamings quite clearly as a phenomenon that has to do with the spiritual and the eternal, most commonly expressed in the Daly region, the focus of this study, as “that which derives from the eternal, uncreated, springing out of itself.” This is pretty much in direct opposition to Western thought, which has difficulty dealing with the idea that something just is, and has been. It is symptomatic of the unified conceptual framework of the Aborigines that the meaning can be danced as easily as verbalized, and the dance will probably carry that meaning more clearly than the words.

Aboriginal ritual springs from the need to acknowledge and clarify the relationship of the group to the land, which includes origins, traditions, and the relationship of the living to the dead, the dead having gone back into the land with the potential of being reborn. Wangga represents a particular tradition in ritual, localized in the area around the Daly River in North Australia, particularly Wadeye (formerly Port Keats) and Belyuen (formerly Delissaville), somewhat south and west of Darwin. It is one of several traditions in the area, and it is interesting to note that these several traditions actually serve to facilitate relationships between the various groups: because wangga, lirrga, dingirri or dhamba are owned by certain lineages or certain groups, if a particular form is needed for a ritual, those lineages are approached to perform, adding an element of reciprocity that facilitates interchange among the various groups. The concept of someone “owning” a ritual may strike us as strange, but it is something that I’ve run into in other contexts. I find parallels, for example, in North American Indian ideas of certain families being entrusted with the care of the band’s pipe. It is not really so far removed from the idea of a priesthood, which, after all, at least in the Abrahamic religions, began as a hereditary caste.

Performers receive the songs from the Walakhanda, the ancestral dead. It seems, however, that the song is not given as a finished product: Marett relates testimony and his own observations of singers “working” the songs until they take shape. In broad terms, wangga are performed as part of ceremonies that have to do with death and rebirth, which include not only what we would term “funerals” — those ceremonies that conduct the recently dead into the realm of the ancestral dead — but also circumcision ceremonies, which mark the rebirth of the boy as an adult.

Marett has a highly instructive section on the conventions of performance, the formal aspects of wangga, in which he develops a vocabulary that is quite helpful. Because of the associations of songs with particular ancestors and particular locations, the melodies are able to describe strong associations between people, their country, and their Dreamings. The role of rhythm is equally complex, being descriptive as well as providing a structure for the dance that is an integral part of the performance. The formal elements of wangga are necessarily complex: consider that they include not only the structure of the melodies and the rhythmic patterns, but also the patterns described by the words and the dance. There are discrete forms of wangga, along with variations. Happily, Marett explains it all very clearly.

The Aboriginal concept of space is a fascinating topic in itself: the land as a living presence that is intimately tied to the group is not so far from the ideas of other societies, but the way it is expressed in Australia is unique. The ancestors, for example, are identified with specific sites to the extent that they are those sites. It is critical in this context to remember that wangga texts have not only a literal meaning, but also serve as localities — places — for the interpenetration of states of being. There is not, for example, the kind of separation that we ascribe to death; it is more a matter of progression than separation, although separation is a component: one enters a new status in relation to the group, leaving the old status behind. The rituals also encapsulate identity, history, and legitimacy. I ran across a similar idea, strangely enough, in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, in the natives’ fears regarding the dislocation imposed by government rules: there was deep concern that neighbors not be separated, because if no one knew of your previous history and remembered you as being from their village, how could you prove who you were or that you even existed? (It’s a pattern that has become somewhat subliminal in contemporary America, since we are in large part a society based on dislocation. Think, however, about how we form our own networks of friends and colleagues, and how we rely on “networking.” Who you know is, indeed, very important, not merely in terms of career, but even more in terms of identity.)

Marett spends about half the book in a detailed analysis of the various repertoires of wangga, which is most likely going to be of interest to ethnomusicologists, if not the general reader. The book also comes with a CD of the songs he discusses, which is a blessing for those of us who no longer read music. It is, without doubt, a scholarly book, but it is also, as I noted, fascinating.

(Wesleyan University Press, 2005)


Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

More Posts - Website