White ears and whistling duck

IN YOLNGU CULTURE – the Aboriginal language group of north-eastern Arnhem Land – there is a song sequence for the small, anchovy-like fish that lives, uniquely, around the estuarial brackish where ocean water marries fresh in a long, deep kiss. The fish is called gunmarra, and its song describes the fine-boned animal and its foamy habitat. Although sacred, this knowledge is no secret: Yothu Yindi sing the sequence on their 1989 debut album, Homeland Movement (Mushroom Records International).The cover of Homeland Movement is illustrated with a fine white lattice, each diamond interior coloured yellow or reddish-brown or black. This is the gunmarra's home – that churning body of water where the fresh, embracing the salt, is pulled out to sea called ganma.

The gunmarra sequence is one part of a broader narrative; like two numbers logically fitted into the eternally expansive pi, it is sung in its place, after songs about rain and brolgas, and a woman's connection to the water of eternal life. But where pi is an immutable chronology, Yolngu song cycles are sprawling maps of scientific encyclopedias, rhythmic astrological and seasonal charts, glossaries of language and its semantics, spiritual tomes of ancestry, and practical guides for human survival. Songs about ecosystems are their own ecosystems: heterarchies of spiritual, geological and cultural knowledge that comprise human substance. To sing gunmarra is to fill up with, and focus briefly on a moment of being, and relive its purpose. It is a story of much more than where to find a small, bony fish in an estuary.

From birth, Yolngu people develop a knowledge of land, law, language, ceremony, autonomy, balance, responsibility and family through song. Music becomes a tool for navigation: of the self, and of all other things.

White music is different. I was put into piano lessons to learn the European art of how to make sounds that feel easy for the ear to swallow. Perhaps I would come to appreciate the great revolutions and oppressions that led to the narratives my fingers could reweave as they worked the keys. Maybe I would eventually memorise the characteristics of each musical era – a linear evolution from modes to scales, Bach to Mozart to Philip Glass. On yellow-lit stages I came to accept that the ability to communicate feeling through an ephemeral talent and technical perfection is the pinnacle of a musician's function. Fifteen years later, as a music teacher in training, I discovered music is not merely an aesthetic skill or esoteric text; it is a vector for teaching patience, perseverance and vulnerability. This secret is not always wise to impart to a parent who has just exhausted seven thousand dollars for a full size cello in the name of a virtuosic dream.

IT'S SEPTEMBER AND the cicadas have arrived. Their throb warns we will have fires in the mountains soon. Thousands of their split shells form strange glaciers up the lengths of pine trees in the local park, each marking the end of a seven-year entombment for a double drummer, or a black prince, or a green grocer. It's a braille we know. It tells us that this is the year of cicadas.I sit in a warm car outside my mother's house, driver's-side door hanging open, absorbed in their shrill. I'm preparing to go and ask a woman of the Darug Nation – the Aboriginal language group of the lower Blue Mountains – permission for something. The next two years of research hang on her answer.

A new cicada starts up somewhere nearby. It rattles twice quickly, clearing its throat, before joining the anthropoid pulse. I soak in the warping call, and imagine Ross Edwards standing on a verandah, out the back of a studio he visits, hidden somewhere on the edge of this national park. The Australian composer is famously fascinated by the innate patterns and drones insects communicate with. He has used their cyclical and yet elusively irregular rhythms to compose a legacy of ecstatic soundscapes. When asked about the inspiration, he speaks of moving away from European music in the late 1970s, and trying to draw on an ecology of natural sound. The result is a gesture towards the continued emergence of an Australian cultural identity that aspires to be genuine, reformed and uncringing. For some of these compositions, Edwards titles the work with invented words: Enyato and Maninya are not found in any Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or South East Asian dialect despite Edwards' connection to Australian landscape, and his use of South East Asian scales, which permeate his Maninya music. Others of his compositions have emerged with titles that allude to some Aboriginal connection, like White Cockatoo Spirit Dance, Mass of the Dreaming and White Ghost Dancing, which contain oblique references to what Edwards calls 'Aboriginal chant'.It is this murky territory between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal that finds me in the car, unfolding a piece of paper and re-reading an address I scrawled down two weeks earlier, with a phone clamped between my ear and my shoulder. I drop the square of paper in my lap and pull the car door shut.

There is only the pummelling gallop of the car against the highway as township welcome signs sporting short catchphrases like 'The Garden Village' pass my window. I slip a CD into the player and a Mozart piano sonata politely meanders around the car. My shoulders ease into the sound. The first time this happened, I was ten. We were travelling home from a fruit market in my parents' white Subaru Outback with an A to Z of Classical Music CD taking its virgin turn in our six-stack player. The opening notes of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Sharp Minor – three thunderous octaves – staggered down the piano and rumbled in the breath after. And in the Subaru, those brooding, restrained chords that followed Rachmaninoff's first three booming notes unfurled something. My throat ached for the sound. When we arrived home, I snuck out to the car with my parents' keys and sat in the driver's seat, thighs sticking to the leather with the car interior on a slow bake, and Rachmaninoff on repeat. Initially, I listened upright, eyes wide and glazed, focused on a place neither inside nor outside the windscreen. In quieter moments, I reached to hear the tender placements of the pianist's hands. I listened tightly, the way people pause and perch to anticipate the soft prickle of rain arriving, and when it did, it came in the form of quick, three-note chromatic patterns that trickled down the piano and swelled at the lower register of the instrument. My shoulders and mouth softened, and in the murky wake of beaten keys, as the CD turned itself back to the opening thunder of the piece, I pressed my head against the seat and wept for myself.

For five years after I'd cried in the car, piano exam lists were collaged around my irreconcilable need to play tender, bereft, storming and sonorous repertoire. When that was exhausted, my teacher produced a piece she had never worked on before, titled Djilile. It was by an Australian composer – Peter Sculthorpe. The only note accompanying the score was written by Sculthorpe himself.

This is one of a number of landscape-inspired works which I have based upon the Indigenous Australian chant 'djilile' meaning 'whistling duck on a billabong'. The chant, in its original form, was collected by Professor AP Elkin during a field trip to Arnhem Land in the late 1950s. While it is still sung today, I have found that aborigines in the area do not seem to recognise it in any kind of instrumental form. To them, it appears only when it is sung, a quite wondrous concept.

While the note illuminated the history of Sculthorpe's composition, what the song was truly about eluded his short address. The piece seemingly combined European instruments and Italian score markings with Aboriginal heritage in an aesthetically profound way. Djilile, in all its singing, ebbing beauty, seemed to reassure the listener of the emergence of a unified Australian sound – a revelation pioneered by the gently worded and musically insightful Peter Sculthorpe. But the original story – that of a song sung for thousands of years by the Dhuwa moiety of the Yolngu people – was selected out of this musical recount, leaving only an aesthetic, absolved of its original cultural obligations, yet entirely reliant on the cultural genuineness of its blackfella ties.

Djilile has become a cornerstone of Sculthorpe's musical legacy. Its incarnations haunt Sculthorpe's national portraits, like his iconic audio-scenic recount of Kakadu National Park: a stunning invention laced with violin bird calls and waves of Djilile, premiered in Washington DC, and conjured purely from photos of the place and a commission from an American, Manny Papper, who wanted to give his wife an anniversary gift.

Port Essington (1978), Sculthorpe's recount of the failed settlement of the Cobourg peninsula in far north Australia, summons Djilile in a new, panicked strain. While a string trio depicts the early colonial settlement of Port Essington, timidly playing refined clichés, Sculthorpe's musical depiction of the bush, in full string orchestra form, crashes over the trio, drowning out their European music and with it, the attempted settlement. The depiction is clear and sinister, and at the wild, driving heart of his recount, Djilile is the voice of that harsh and untameable bushland. To the listener, there is a distinct 'us' and 'them' binary throughout the musical story of Port Essington. Sculthorpe says that, in writing Djilile into the piece, one of his intentions was to raise awareness of First Nations land rights, and several elders thanked him for the piece after its first performance in the Sydney Opera House. But nowhere – in notes on the score, or in additional documentation – does Port Essington state this intention. There is no mention of those First Nations who encountered the settlement. A cover of the Port Essington score for strings, painted by Russell Drysdale, depicts a bleak sky washed with grey-yellows and blues, one white chimney standing sentinel on the brink of a nothing place, and the black bones of dead trees splitting the scene with their shattered limbs. The place is absent of all life. By contrast, during the Port Essington settlement, in a hut on Black Point, one Father Angelo Confalonieri produced two publications: Manner of Speaking or Short Conversation with the Natives of P. Essington, N. Australia(1846) and its 1847 counterpart, Specimen of the Aboriginal Language or Short Conversation with the Natives of N. Australia, P. Essington. One manuscript is archived in New Zealand, the other is stored in the Vatican. The language Confalonieri was transcribing is listed as the 'Limbakaregio dialect', a mixture of Garig and Iwaidja, two closely related neighbouring languages of the region where Port Essington was established. Iwaidja is now an endangered language, with about a hundred and fifty speakers. Garig is no longer spoken. There is starkness to this region that has little to do with raw land and white victims.

For his time, Sculthorpe's approach to Aboriginal music was a revelation. In encompassing Yolngu song in his musical portraits, his work founded a previously uncut path between two cultures. Despite intention, in the process of drawing inspiration from a song once heard on an LP, the heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is left behind: djilile is not just a whistling duck on a billabong – a wistful and lamenting portrait. Like ganma and gunmarra, djilile's songs are laden with sacred lessons about the land, community, and the self. But the original djilile and its story is harder to find than a track on a Yothu Yindi album. Those hushed audiences who listen intently to the beaten history of Port Essington, and a child learning Djilile's haunting intervals on a piano do not know this.

Like Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards has also sourced Aboriginal material from recordings. Edwards has spoken about using a 'hint' of Aboriginal chant in his music, '…not actual Aboriginal chant but based on recordings I've heard: the gestures, the drones, the sound world are all integrated.'

Alongside his invented titles, Edwards has used Aboriginal words to name some of his works. His 1989 composition Yarrageh – Nocturne for Solo Percussion and Orchestra was inspired by a walk along a Pearl Beach fire track in spring, and named after Edwards' understanding of the Aboriginal word 'Yarrageh'. Edwards has admitted to not knowing the word's origin, but the popular dictionary he consulted defined the word to mean the 'spirit of spring'. But Yarrageh is different from a folkloric spirit of season. In a story titled 'Spirit of the Flowers' the one mention of Yarrageh does appear within a story about the arrival of spring. But Yarrageh is as much the spirit of spring as it is the east wind which brings the bees to pollenate, and from this comes honey and flowers. In the book where this story has been transcribed – a collection of Australian legends published in 1898 – there is only one hint as to where Yarrageh might come from. Toward the front of the book, its author, Katie Parker, acknowledges and thanks the Euahlayi language group of north-western New South Wales and south-western Queensland. Two weeks before the arrival of spring this year, the Euahlayi Nation declared independence from Australia, asserting its own governance in the name of eradicating the poverty they find themselves restricted to under an Australian government. While the Euahlayi People's Republic reject the colonial nation built around them, Yarrageh is immortalised and embraced as some emblem of a diverse and genuine Australia – its background dismissed compared to its new place in the Australian classical canon.

These composers, in their depictions of a deeply spiritual and evocative landscape, begin to reach beyond the European musical aesthetic. They wade into a territory that churns with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal soundscapes. And in the foaming mixture, they dip their hands into fascinating whorls, and emerge with shards of Aboriginal song and language glinting between their fingers. They are, in their own ways, mosaicking a sense of the Australian. Both artists speak only of respect when working with the Aboriginal counterparts of their classical inventions, but their embrace seems mysteriously curbed. They speak of hinting at, or borrowing ideas – contorting songs into unrecognisable motifs, and bringing words that were not formed with western syllabry into the national lexicon, for poesis. In their explanations of cross-culture, the original knowledge these songs and words hold disappears from the popular eye. We are left with some remnant of a sound of Aboriginal knowledge, but not what it means. We are left to think that the primitive has found a use in our complicated expressive ways.

A WEEK AGO my mother called. I was sitting at a desk in Canberra, wondering how all of this land and music had found me nestled in an institution, staring into a pale monitor with white A4 print-outs collaged across my desk. The skin around my nails had grown ragged and bloody as djilile seemed to continually alight from wherever I had seen it settle. Finding the word 'djilile' in a search engine alone proved almost fruitless. In my office, far from Arnhem Land, the words of the song, and the original recording by AP Elkin were seemingly untouchable. I received an email from the National Film and Sound Archive stating they'd decided against allowing me to listen to the one recording of Elkin's that I was convinced held the song, because the material was restricted. I would only have been searching out familiar sound shapes and durations using Sculthorpe's interpretation anyway. This song was not my country to explore or know, and staring at the back of a grey work cubicle, I put down Djilile and picked up the phone.

My mother's voice had the kind of lilting song to it that suggested she had news, but she wanted to plan its arrival. She'd taken up the sport of divining extensive family history. Our lineage led to her attend a sudden constellation of events commemorating the bicentenary of the first Blue Mountains crossing, whereby the ancestors of the three explorers corroborated at a variety of points marking the original trek over the blue-dusted plateau. It was an exercise in familial repatriation: we had never met any other descendants of my extensively great-grandfather, William Lawson. The history of the mountains is stiff with cultural tension and forced dispossession. The Darug Nation – a language group spread from Sydney to the foothills of the mountains – was one of the first to encounter the colonial stronghold and its genocidal tendencies. Growing up in the loose veins of suburbia that petered out into bushland, my sisters and I learnt that the mountains, in some places, feel tense and warped – there is a sick unrest to pockets of land, as though the trunks of eucalypts press themselves against trespassers, and squeeze into us a gutteral unease. At night, if the wind is blustering and hissing the trees up, in the permacultured town of Leura where the streets are wide and sparsely populated with opaque streetlights, that pushing, shooing feeling pervades all things. We are reminded of our newness.

My mother explained she'd met someone who wanted to hear from me. Her name was Jacinta Tobin. She was the keeper of the songs of the Darug Nation. They met at an explorers luncheon, where Jacinta sang. After her set, my mother approached her.

'I didn't know how to explain exactly what you are doing, but she was very interested and said she'd be happy to talk to you about the songs of the Blue Mountains and the Darug nation, if that would help.'

I sat upright, 'You know, it would actually.'

My mother continued to chat buoyantly. 'She's actually got an interesting story, because she didn't know she was Aboriginal for a long time – her family never told her. So she's had to learn everything later in life.'

I pulled a pen from a loose stack of paper, and drew a box of lattice on a notepad wedged beneath my wrist. At the top of the oblong I drew an arrow in one direction, at the bottom, an arrow in the other. One arrow was Jacinta – wading through her culture, learning the songs of a diaspora to realise her homeland and herself. The other arrow was a woman sitting in a university office, wading through her culture, trying to find ways to communicate a gap between Aboriginal and western knowledge.

MOZART ENDS ON a perfect cadence. I pull up on a median strip, outside a red fence with the number of Jacinta's place on it. A corrugated roof sits on top of the tall wooden palings like a hat. I thrum my fingers against the steering wheel and reach behind me for my bag. There's nothing in it that I need – I won't be producing my laptop and reciting anything, but I take it anyway. I might look more prepared for whatever it is I need to be prepared for. I take a breath and open the car door, raspberrying the air out between my lips as I step onto the grass. I'm nervous about getting this meeting wrong, and upsetting or insulting Jacinta in ways I am oblivious to. But I know better than to wallow in this strange white guilt, alleviating myself of any behavioural or cultural responsibility by allowing someone else to decide how I should be treated. The goal here is not to be the most powerless: I can't decide to be disempowered, that's a luxury only an empowered person can afford. The day is warm, cloud-pocked and glary. I straighten my shirt.

Through the gate and up a paved garden path, Jacinta sits at a table, shaded by a back porch. The structure is propped up with a brick floor, wooden pillars and a corrugated roof. She has a baby in her arms. A wide-shouldered boy sits at the table opposite her, chatting to her and shuffling a deck of cards. She stands when she sees me coming. She throws her voice toward me, 'I forgot you were coming today!' and puts her daughter on a mat, ducking inside. 'I'll be back in a minute!'

I reach the porch and introduce myself to the boy, who looks about eleven years old. He has a soft, round nose and his cheeks are full, curving gently over the mantle of bones beneath. Small freckles sit on the subtle bridge between his eyes. He's wearing a red T-shirt and a pair of shorts, his olive feet are comfortably bare. His hair is short and bed-tousled. His name is Jasper. He asks what I'm doing here.

'I'm here to talk to your mum about a project I'm doing. It's about finding culture.'

'Oh, alright. That's cool. Hey, do you know how to shuffle cards?'

I tell him I'm no good at it.

'I'm really good. Here, I'll show you.'

The baby, in a soft pink one-piece, swims her way over to where we are seated. She helps herself up into a standing position using her brother's seat. Jacinta re-enters wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Her dark brown hair is thin. It sits across her back, and she sweeps it out of the way.

'Today was a lazy day,' she says, scooping her daughter up. She suggests we take a walk in the backyard. Jasper stands with us, and runs over to the neighbour, who is working in her adjoining garden in a pair of cut-off jeans and old runners. There is no fence between the two backyards. The neighbour calls out and says he's welcome to grab a shovel and help. She's covering up some open plumbing work – filling trenches with dirt. Jacinta shouts hello and turns to me.

'Our neighbour just found out she has Aboriginal in her, too.'

This isn't unusual – Aboriginal heritage is an ongoing realisation for many in areas populated by colonies and their explorers. As we walk, Jacinta traces her own cultural diaspora. She grew up unaware of her Aboriginality, told instead that she was Australian and Irish. Her mother, as a child, had her olive skin explained away as a flicker of Spanish somewhere in her otherwise Irish blood. Jacinta's grandmother ironed for a nunnery so her children could attend school. Though she was aware of her Aboriginality, she secreted her culture away in the hopes of protecting her children from racial vilification. Jacinta can trace her culture back to her great-great-great-grandmother, who, in the early nineteenth century, was the first girl to be placed into a native institute. Her father was a Karraji man of the Darug tribe, called Yarramundi.

Like Jacinta's connection to culture, many of the Darug tribe customs have disappeared. A westernised landscape and dominant language catalysed a loss of sacred sites, stories, and a lexicon of songs. As Jacinta's grandmother learned, survival lay in a denial of Aboriginality. In an effort to paste together a body of knowledge, people of the Darug nation have co-ordinated social groups designed to help Darug people find one another and exchange stories. At the same time, her grandmother's protective gestures meant living her culture was a trial: for years after discovering her heritage, Jacinta's fair complexion and limited comprehension of the Aboriginal way acted as a barrier to accessing information about her culture. She was of both people and neither. Jacinta stops. She reaches down into the grass and presents me with a four-leaf clover. Her short fingers are fair, skin lined, nails trimmed.

She tells me about meeting Nations further inland, that when she explained to them her Darug blood they thanked her for taking the brunt of colonial invasion. We stroll back to the shade of the porch. I take a seat. Jacinta stands, explaining she needs to get her daughter, Killimai, to sleep.

'So what's the project?' she asks, swooping her daughter around, patting her bottom and sing-saying, 'Nangami, nangami' (Sleep, sleep). Killimai coos. She has no resting plans. I frown.

'I guess it's about music, and understanding Aboriginal culture and ways of knowing. I want find ways the two cultures can connect and also look at what Australian music is, or can become.'

Jacinta keeps listening.

'And what I need is – well – your permission or…is this a good idea? Do you want this researched? Do you think it's worth researching, and would you be comfortable with helping me?'

We are gunmarra. This estuary I'm beating myself against makes me blindly vulnerable to criticism. I have to trust that my sense of direction is worth pursuing. We both are steeped in our culture – we can't absolve ourselves of it by apologising for it or testifying on behalf of it.

'What are you writing?' she asks.

'I don't know what it is yet,' I flounder. 'I don't know what it's going to be.'

'What is your framework?'

'Ganma,' I say.

She nods.

'But I meant to ask first – ganma is from up north, right? Is there an equivalent that the Darug Nation use? Because I want to be respectful in my use of knowledge from different language groups.'

Jacinta rocks her daughter, 'Well you know the water from up that way flows down here so I think ganma can too.'

Jasper returns to the house, hot from tossing soil over a pipe. I explain I have to catch a bus back to Canberra.

'Keep in touch,' Jacinta says. 'But for future reference, usually I'm
no good with emails and written things – I'm a bit dyslexic. I'm better to talk with.'

We agree I'll call. Despite our mutual preference for the spoken word, before I leave Jacinta hands me three essays she completed during her masters degree. We shuffle through their coversheets, plastic sleeves crackling and slapping as we move between one, then another, on her sitting room table. The essays are devoted to cultural psychology, song, and lived experiences that punctuated Jacinta's discovery of her culture. She also gives me a CD of songs to listen to. She recommends they'll be of use: a good place to start. We hug and laugh and I walk back to the car twirling the stem of the clover between my fingers and biting the inside of my cheek.

ON THE TRAIN to Sydney I pull out the CD Jacinta handed me. It's a collection of her own songs, titled Yarramundi and the Four Leaf Clover. This is her coming to culture: her own songs functioning as evidence of her genealogy and identity. She sings to Yarramundi, telling him of the survival of his blood despite euphemised genocide and paled skin. She sings about growing up on the plain of the Darug people, unaware of her connection to culture. Strewn throughout her lyrics and chord progressions are Darug songs, sounded out in their language.

As I scan over Jacinta's CD cover notes and her essays, the written work is strewn with small errors in spelling, a new paragraph without a line break, or an occasional comma missing from its place. In the world of education and professional function, abnormalities in the use of this sign system are commonly scrawled over with red markers. What I read, beyond Jacinta's dyslexic academia, is a system that does not always fit its communicator. Like the djilile in Sculthorpe's palatable western narratives, the 'other' of this continent is reminded that there is a place for it, within a romantic and limiting role. I smile at Jacinta's work, and appreciate I'm not alone in my struggle to navigate a balance between elegantly using traditional academic form, and communicating knowledge that was not developed in conjunction with, or to fit, the western logics of academic structures and outcomes. Despite this, what Jacinta writes is no less pertinent:

Let those who have been the ones whose voices have been silenced tell their stories. It is only when we start to hear and understand different ways of thinking and being will we be able to comprehend being whole – honouring all tilts of spin.

On the bus from Sydney to Canberra I sit beside an elderly lady travelling home to Cootamundra via the ACT. She tells me her son spent some time at the army base outside of Katherine in the Northern Territory. She says the 'Aboriginals' out there don't like the army people – the hostility is tangible. I don't tell her I once knew a man who lived out on that base, and his mates called his beat-up Holden Commodore a 'coon car'. She tells me that her son said it doesn't matter if the government give the Aboriginals houses out there, they just take the place apart and make a fire out of it and sleep under the stars. She says it's so sad that they don't understand the way of life we're offering them. She guesses they must be happy in their primitive way – they are, after all, real Aboriginals, not like those city Aboriginals. I wish I could tell her something that will change her. It's difficult to articulate a story that spreads like a bruise, not a linear slice of the skin. Instead, I think about the cicadas: seven years underground before they emerge with something to say.

My thanks and deepest respects to Aunty Jacinta Tobin, her family, the Nation of the Darug people, and their country, and their elders, past and present.

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