The songs that went viral through the desert

Songs from the Stations has been published by Sydney University Press.

Please note, this story contains the names of people who have passed away.

In modern terms, it would have been a chart topper, a pop smash-hit, a viral YouTube clip.

The ‘Laka’ song set, performed by the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory, travelled an extraordinary distance. There are records of performances in Marble Bar, Norseman, Roebourne, the Eucla and Port Augusta.

Ronnie Wavehill attributes Laka to a song man named Yawalyurru, who worked on Sturt Creek and Gordon Downs stations as a milker.

Pintupi man Patrick Olodoodi Tjungarrayi recalls his parents singing Laka on their traditional lands between Kiwirrkura and the Canning Stock Route.

And Patrick Smith and Marie Gordon learned Laka in the stock camps of the Kimberley. On a visit to Alice Springs from Balgo in the 1990s, Patrick Smith recalled hearing an old white stockman—who’d worked on Sturt Creek Station—singing the song. Patrick jokingly said that the stockmen had stolen a blackfella’s song. Marie retorted that Patrick had stolen the Stockman’s Slim Dusty!

The Laka song set is one of five analysed in the Sydney University Press publication Songs from the Stations. Drawing on detailed knowledge from the main performers Ronnie Wavehill Wirrpngayarri Jangala, Topsy Dodd Ngarnjalngali Nangari and Dandy Danbayarri Jukurtayi, the book maps the origins of these songs, as well as describes tempo, breath takes, language and the tremolo effect of clapsticks or boomerangs—all in a bid to help people learn the wajarra today.

The term ‘wajarra’ is a Gurindji word which loosely means to ‘play about and have fun’. In musical terms, it’s a genre of music. Wajarra (like its equivalent ‘junba’ in the Kimberley) is freed from the restrictions of sacred songs and can be performed anywhere and by anyone.

The five song sets detailed in this book were most frequently performed between 1913 and 1967 in the Victoria River District—on stations straddling the WA and NT border.

While considered the ‘pop songs’ of the era, these days the songs can be tricky to learn. With communities saturated with television, radio, and Netflix, the frequency of wajarra performances has declined. There’s also the issue of language. While many singers can recite a song perfectly, they don’t always know the meaning of the lyrics.

The knowledge in Songs from the Stations has been carefully compiled—with Ronnie Wavehill’s account of learning wajarra told both in language and English.

It’s not a book for the generalist.

The research is rigorous, specific and would be of interest to Gurindji people eager to learn about wajarra, linguists, teachers and historians. It would also be of particular relevance for Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians studying the renaissance of Aboriginal classical music. The analysis of the rhythmic texts of the five song sets—Mintiwarra, Kamul, Freedom Day, Laka and Juntara—is sophisticated, requiring a detailed understanding of music.

Songs from the Stations is an important work—an invaluable work. It’s the first time that these public songs, as performed by the Gurindji, have been documented in detail.

Recordings of the song sets can be listened to online here, while Songs from the Stations can be purchased here.

By Madelaine Dickie

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