Rrawun Maymuru

rrawunsmokepg copyPhotography Wayne Quilliam

Electronic songlines reach new audiences

Daniel Browning for ABC RN – on air and online

Listen to the song here>> http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/awaye/the-eternal-loop:-reinterpreting-a-yolngu-songline/8498250

A haunting Yolngu songline from the Mangalili clan of north-east Arnhem Land runs through the electronic score to the Sydney Dance Company’s latest production.

It seems unlikely – but it’s not.

The unending ancestral story of a spirit lady who delivers the souls of the recently dead to the afterlife has been recited in the manikay (song) tradition for thousands of years by the Yolngu songmen.

The latest interpreter of the song though is a relatively young singer-songwriter who is best known as the lead singer of East Journey, a reggae-inspired saltwater band from Yirrkala.

Rrawun Maymuru is a custodian of the Nyapililngu songline.

“The story goes back to the time of beginning”, says Rrawun.

“In my world, when people passed away the spirit – Nyapililngu – will take them to the heavens. The song that I was singing [was] telling a great journey of spirituality.”

Rrawun inherited custodianship of the story, through his late father, from his paternal grandfather, Narritjin Maymuru – the Mangalili clan artist who represented the guardian spirit lady in his bark paintings.

Rrawun’s other grandfather – and this is significant – was the late Dr Yunupingu, the lead singer of Yothu Yindi, a highly respected cultural leader and a former Australian of the Year.

According to Yolngu cosmology, the ancestral spirit lady wanders the earth searching for the dead to guide their spirits to the afterlife – somewhere in the Milky Way.

As she walks, she sings out to the spirits of the dead to come out of the earth where they have been buried temporarily, urging them to prepare for the journey to the afterlife.

Rrawun obtained the permission of the Mangalili clan leaders to interpret the song for the Ocho score, just as his grandfather had done through his extraordinary barks.

“That’s where I got this strength to carry on his vision. You try to tell people through painting, through arts, and that’s what happened here – it’s a bit of art, it’s a bit of story.”

This ancestral story, of a great spiritual odyssey, is now part of a music score composed by Nick Wales, a Sydney electronic artist who has soundtracked the choreographic works of Rafael Bonachela, the artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company.

“It was just magic to record actually”, says Nick. “I put a bed down really quickly and then Rrawun came in and recorded really quickly. That was a really great sign”.

A former member of the post-classical electronic group Coda, Nick works closely with Bonachela, as well as collaborating in his spare time with another kindred spirit, the singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko.

“The song feels like it’s from nowhere and somewhere at the same time, it has this really beautiful ambiguity of place and time which I think is really powerful.”

But in a way, his collaboration with Rrawun began when Nick first heard the Mangalili man sing in the traditional manikay style.

“About six years ago I heard Rrawun singing at the Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin and I was with Chryss Carr, who’s his manager. And he was singing some manikay.

“And he started singing and I just got shivers. And I was like, ‘Chryss, who’s this guy?’ It’s just such powerful connection to the spirit,” says Nick, of Rrawun Maymuru’s vocal style.

When Rafael Bonachela approached Nick to score the new dance work Ocho, the choreographer wanted the final movement of the score to reflect an almost divine moment, almost like birth or death.

Nick knew he had already found the voice in the deep tones of Rrawun Maymuru.

“I just encouraged Rafael to really just embrace the song and to really be open to it, because Rrawun is behind it, and his clan’s behind it. It’s just so beautiful to bring his culture to a wider audience.”

Nyapililngu Spirit Lady is just the first song from the collaboration, with plans to record an album that’s more pop in its sensibilities.

“Rrawun and I are working on the first song, and it’s really exciting and we’re looking to record an album together in the next few months”, says Nick.

“I mean it’s a journey of discovery for the both of us. The work with the Sydney Dance Company was a little bit esoteric. I think we’d both like to explore that side of what we’re doing because there’s real power in that, but also make it a little bit more groove-based, and poppy, so we can have a bit of fun with it”.

Even though it’s been interpreted differently for the score, for Yolngu and particularly the Mangalili clan, the songline remains – like at eternal loop.

Rrawun Maymuru is the heir to sacred cultural knowledge which he’s been only too willing to share, in a conscious act designed to continue the legacy of his grandfathers – both of whom engaged in cultural diplomacy through art.

“Well I said ‘I might put Nyapililngu in’, just to tell them the story about the spirit, how beautiful she is from my perspective.

“She is still waiting for me in the heavens, unknown heavens. Only the song knows, that’s where the map is.”

 

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