Performing ‘deceased’ languages: Solomon Nangamu’s Manangkardi mirrijpu (seagull) songs and the living tradition of kun-borrk in western Arnhem Land

Brown, Reuben
Brown, Reuben
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Kun-borrk is a song and dance tradition of Bininj (Aboriginal people) of western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. Bininj inherit languages and dialects through their father’s country, however the name kun-borrk comes from the Kunwinjku language, which has become a lingua franca in the community of Kunbarlanja and surrounds. Kun-borrk songs are accompanied by dances for men and women and are commonly named after animals, plants and spirits that live in the country associated with the songs. The songs are passed down from individual song men to their male relative or relatives. Song men who are the custodians of the songs may also conceive of ‘new’ songs in a dream, gifted to them by spirit intervention. These songs usually comprise of the same song texts and similar musical features as those that came before. They are added to the song set and performed in ceremony in a dynamic process that enables the continual renewal of this musical tradition. Kun-borrk is sung in a variety of different languages, reflecting the multilingualism of Bininj people in this region. Sometimes the text of a single song item may consist of two or three languages, or of fixed syllables that cannot be translated, generically referred to as ‘spirit language’ (O’Keefe, 2007). In this presentation, a Bininj song man (co-presenter) discusses the meanings of a number of song texts including mirrijpu (seagull), associated with Manangkardi language from North Goulburn Island, which is no longer spoken. The co-presenter lives in the community of Kunbarlanja, where the author recorded his songs from 2011 to 2012. In 2006 and 2007 musicologists Isabel O’Keefe and Linda Barwick recorded the co-presenter’s brother (now deceased) singing mirrijpu at Goulburn Island. This presentation compares different performances of the same song items, examining the extent to which song texts change or stay the same over time and whether recording songs affects this process. It also address the question: how does writing down song texts influence both Balanda (non-Aboriginal people) and Bininj people’s understanding and awareness of the language of this region? We will conclude by considering some of the challenges to sustaining the tradition of kun-borrk and the methods that singers such as the co-presenter are employing to ensure that their children can still sing and dance the songs of their ancestors and thereby keep their own languages and cultural expression alive and strong.
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