Singing the dead to life - 'wangga' of northern Australia

11 November 2005

“I fell in love with it,” said ethnomusicologist Allan Marett, Professor of Musicology” at the University of Sydney. He was talking of wangga, a major ceremonial genre performed by the indigenous people of the Daly region of northern Australia.

His recently published book, Songs, dreamings and ghosts is the first in-depth study of this particularly melodic and poetic genre which he has come to know intimately through almost 20 years’ research and personal experience with the Daly people.

“The melodies are extraordinarily beautiful and probably the most elaborate you have in any traditional Aboriginal songs,” he said. The 28-track CD, included with the book, bears this out.

The style of the didjeridu accompaniment is, as he says, “enchanting”: “It exploits the tonal capacity of the instrument and the parts are extremely rich in terms of the sonorities.”

Unlike many Aboriginal song texts which are ambiguous or esoteric, wangga texts, while not direct, are in the style of everyday speech utterances.

Articulating themes of death and regeneration, wangga is performed at ceremonies marking profound change for an individual, the primary occasion being the mortuary ceremony, designed to take the recently deceased across to the society of the dead, Professor Marett said.

Ambrose Piarlum dances as a Walakandha at a circumcision ceremony at Wadeye. Photo: Mark Crocombe (1992)
Ambrose Piarlum dances as a Walakandha at a circumcision ceremony at Wadeye. Photo: Mark Crocombe (1992)

Circumcision is another major occasion, when a boy ‘dies’ to boyhood and is reborn a man, but wangga repertories are also nowadays performed at tertiary graduations and even openings of major new buildings.

Significantly, given its role as a mediator of profound change, wangga emerged as an important musical form in the 1920s and ‘30s, as older ceremonies were destroyed by the impact of white intrusion, Professor Marett said.

He analyses four main repertories from different language groups in his book, two of them - Walakandha wangga and Ma-yawa wangga, from Wadeye - named after what each group calls their dead.

For it’s the ancestral dead who give the songs to the living in their dreams, then call on the living to perform their songs and dance with them in the ceremony.

“Some people say the living actually transform into the dead in the course of the ceremony, then back out again,” Professor Marett said.

Following the mortuary ceremony the deceased travels in reverse order, becoming an old person again, then gradually younger to babyhood, then to baby spirit who is reabsorbed back into the living, sentient country, Professor Marett said.

“I’ve called it an existence cycle but the metaphor they use is tide.” It was an exciting day for him when he woke from a dream in which the ‘tide’ metaphor for the reincarnation process at the heart of wangga was made clear to him, and confirmed later that day by ritual leader Frank Dumoo.

“Finding that out, and through dreaming, was one of the best things for me,” he said. “No one was going tocome out with a direct explanation; that’s not the way you learn in this culture.”

More recently his own ability to sing wangga has developed to the point where he has been invited to sing alongside songmen at minor ceremonies.

While it is men only who sing, women also have dreamt songs, he said, usually passing them on to their husbands.

The Aboriginal people Professor Marett works with were “rather baffled”, he said, at the undervaluing of their music, compared to their visual art, by the non-Aboriginal world. It is a misconception that Aboriginal people don’t want their music to be known – most of it is public, not secret. But you needed good texts to explain it, well documented CDs and films.

His book, published by Wesleyan University Press, is a major contribution to this area, as is his ongoing ARC-funded work with senior research fellow Linda Barwick and others, setting up digital archives and returning recordings to their communities of origin.

For more on Songs, dreamings and ghosts: the wangga of North Australia, see


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