Tony’s Notes From The Bony Novels (Part 14)

Posted on Wed 04/20/2011 by



The Role of Music in Aboriginal Language.

I mentioned in the earlier Post that the aborigines had no written language, that there were literally hundreds of separate languages, and even hundreds of dialects of the one base tribal language, so that even in the one tribal area, there might even be language difficulties among smaller families and groups of the one overall tribe. There would have been language difficulties in those local tribal land areas, let alone at times when different tribes would meet from areas bordering upon one another.

They were not the warring nations that has sometimes been made out when white history has recorded that aboriginal history. They were a people who in the main let their fellow aborigines get along in their own small groups situations.

There were times when smaller groups gathered together as one large family, and probably even times when groups from different families in different land areas also would have gathered. At times like this language would have been a problem, but there also would have been ways that these larger groups could in fact have overcome part of this language barrier, and one of those would have been with the use of music.

The aborigines did have music, and it may be that we look upon this from a different perspective than the way we might perceive it in this day and age. It would have been used more as a tool of communication rather than as a form of entertainment as we look upon it today. It still would have been used for some form of entertainment, but in the main, it would have been for the purposes of communication.

Those musical instruments were again, basic, mainly numerous shaped and crafted pieces of wood that were clapped together, similar to percussion implements, and different sizes and shapes would have been employed to generate different sounds.

The main non percussive instrument used by the aborigines was the Didgeridoo.

The didgeridoo is a hollowed out thin log. They are usually hardwood and made from endemic Australian hardwood timber. A suitable log is placed in an area where Termites are active. The termites prefer the soft wood, and they act to hollow out the softer wood in the middle of the log.

They can be anything from 3 to 10 feet in length, usually around 4 to 5 feet.

Differing lengths and differing amounts of hollowing gave different tones.

After being hollowed by the termites, the bark was removed, and the outer hardwood smoothed. It was sometimes left plain, and at other times decorated.

A tribal ‘musician’ would probably have had access to a few different types of didgeridoo, and would have used them for different occasions.

The instrument was played mainly by tribal elders who had years of practice to achieve the different tonal qualities needed for its use. It was played basically in the same manner as for a trumpet, but that would be the closest way of describing it, because a didgeridoo is a wind instrument all on its own.

As simple as the instrument may seem to be, it requires some expertise to be able to play it, and it is in fact quite a difficult instrument to play. This is mainly a breathing thing. It requires a ‘lot of puff’ and because of that, there needs to be a constant stream or air down the ‘barrel’ and that entails having to be ‘blowing into the instrument all the time while playing it, so now you see where the difficulty lies, hence players of the instrument need to be able to be constantly blowing out, while having the ability to breathe in through their nose while still blowing out through their mouth over the instrument.

When played correctly, what seems on the surface to be a simple instrument produces a surprising tone and range.

There is proof that the aborigines here in Australia have been using the didgeridoo, in one form or another for more than 1,500 years.

The only way their history could be handed down was by word of mouth. This history then became these dream time stories that was the history of their tribe. This history was often reinforced, and mainly around the fires at night, with the use of those didgeridoos, and here, Upfield went into great detail on one occasion to explain what was actually happening.

In this explanation, the tribe was gathered around, and the chief was gently warbling on his didgeridoo. Bony had secretly gained entry into the area where this tribe was camped, and that of itself was a difficult thing, as tribes were very good when it came to the security of the area were they were camped.

Bony was hiding behind a tree, just listening in to what was happening. He could sense in his own mind the story that the chief was telling in his playing of this instrument. His translation of the story was slightly different to what the others were interpreting it to be, but the general gist of the story was there. Upfield had Bony almost in a trance like state as he listened, dreamily reverting to his mothers roots as the tale washed over him.

Again, there is always the possibility that we would find this difficult, if not completely impossible, to believe, and in so doing, we might tend to pass it off as being something that has been made up, and we as white people, finding it hard to believe, pass it off something that cannot be done.

However, think about it a little, and try to imagine how this could be done by thinking of it the way that we as white people might consider it.

For an example, let’s take a look at three modern songs.

Firstly, let’s look at Bing Crosby’s song ‘White Christmas’, supposedly the biggest selling song in history. Bing sang the song in English, but it must have been translated into numerous languages. All those people who cannot understand English still know the story that is being told in that song, because it is being sung in their own language.

The same could be said for a second song, The Beatles song, ‘Yesterday’, supposedly the song that has been recorded by the most artists in history. The same can be said for this song. Each of those artists has translated the song into their own language, and everyone who hears it knows what the story behind that song is, and can understand it.

The third song is by Elvis Presley. He took the song ‘Wooden Heart’ from another language, translated it into English, and then sang it in that language. Now, we as English speaking people understand the story of that song. These three songs are only examples.

If you were in a foreign country, and heard any of those three songs being sung in that foreign language, the tune remains the same, and even though you have no understanding of that language, you translate it in your own mind into your own language, and you can still understand the song and the story behind it.

So, why can’t the same prove true for all aboriginal songs being played with the didgeridoo. The tune is basically the same, but the story has been translated into a language that they can easily understand.

From a novel that I read as a boy, and recently came across again, ‘Booran’ by M.J. Unwin, the story is told of a large gathering of aboriginal tribes, where there was such an interchange of stories and dances and the like. We know these as corroborees, and this is where different tribes gathered for a feast and to tell each other their stories. At these gatherings, each of the tribes put on a display of dance or a play. You can imagine that those of the songs of the history of one tribe, the dances or plays that created a really good effect, might then be thought of by other tribes as worth knowing about, so they translate it into their own language, and then learn it themselves. In this way those stories are then passed from tribe to tribe, and even though the story might differ slightly from tribe to tribe, the basic gist is still the same. The same would then apply for songs being warbled on the didgeridoo. The tune is the same. The only thing that is different is the slight changing of the wording, but the story is still basically the same.

In the case of the Bony stories, what the chief was doing was telling them all a story, of something that had happened recently. This then became the accepted version of the story, and, upon completion of the story, the remainder of the tribe seemed to come out of their trance, and then go about their normal things that they did. All the chief did was to place the instrument at his side, move the sticks about in his own little fire in front of him, and then light up a smoke. The chief was now fully aware that if any member of the tribe was questioned about the matter, they would all say, to a man and woman, exactly what the chief had told them via the playing of the didgeridoo, in the full belief that this was the whole truth of the matter. This was just one of the ways that tribal stories, and their history, were handed down through the generations. These stories were treated in the same manner as we treat our own written history. They were verbatim truth, not mystical airy fairy stories the way we perceive them as being.

A direct analogy that can be drawn from this tale told with the use of the didgeridoo is that this method could also have been used as a form of communication between tribes of differing languages. When Bony was listening to the chief playing out the story on the instrument, he translated the story into his own language. The story was not the exact story that the rest of that chief’s tribe heard, but was a relatively close approximation of just that same story. So, conversely, we could comfortably assume that stories could be told at a great gathering of many tribes where language was indeed a problem, and the stories could then be translated by the others gathered around, because they had versions of the same story.

So we see. The playing of the didgeridoo is not  just related to the making of a form of music. It was used as a functional form of communication, another example of where we have come to misunderstand the aboriginal culture.