For the sake of song and language

20 February 2014

Wagon Dumoo, composer of 'Kubuwemi', sings at the circumcision ceremony in Wadeye in 1988. Photograph by Mark Crocombe, reproduced with the permission of the Dumoo family.

The songs and threatened languages of one of Australias most prominent genres of Indigenous music, wangga, from Australias Top End, have been presented in a new book published by researchers at PARADISEC (The Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures).

Songmen from the Daly region of the Northern Territory who created and performed songs for their communities and general public over the past fifty years are the subject of the book, For the Sake of a Song: Wangga Songmen and their Repertories. Published by Sydney University Press, the book is accompanied by a website streaming the songs.

For the Sake of a Song is the culmination of more than 20 years research by authors Emeritus Professor Allan Marett, Professor Linda Barwick and Honorary Associate Dr Lysbeth Ford.The trio worked closely with the songmen and their families and drew on a rich archival record of photographs and recordings from the communities of Belyuen and Wadeye in the Daly region.

The languages of wangga are all under threat of being lost forever. Some of them have as few as one or two elderly speakers, said Professor Barwick. With the languages will disappear the specialised knowledge contained in the songs. The book and website present and explain the songs, which are translated for future generations to interpret and pass onto their descendants.

Over 225 years ago when Europeans first arrived on Australian shores there were over 250 Indigenous languages. Today there are as few as 145 languages still spoken, the vast majority of which are severely or critically endangered. Only around 20 are considered to be healthy with respect to being spoken by all age groups, but even some of these languages are in great jeopardy.

The book is the first phase of a multimedia publication project that also includes a website and a forthcoming series of CDs, which will be released later this year. Until then, the Wangga songs can be streamed from the website.