Thanpa is a repertory (song-set) of approximately 100 songs composed and performed by men and women of the Dimirnin, Nangu and Maniny clans.

The first composer was Robert Kolumboort, who started thanpa off in the early 1960s. Other songs in the series were composed by his siblings Harry Luke Kolumboort, Rosie Kolumboort and Lawrence Kolumboort, by their fellow Dimirnin clansmen Joe Malakunda Birrarri, Theodore Bunduck, Barty Perdjert and Charlie Kurawurl, and by Nangu clansman Johnny Ninnal and his wife Anna Maria Ninnal.


Thanpa dancing at a circumcision ceremony, Wadeye, 1992. Photo: Mark Crocombe.

Many of the songs are about the honeybees and other totems associated with the Kunhpinhi area near Wadeye. There are also some 'church thanpa' songs specially composed to be sung in church liturgy.

Most song texts are in grammatical Murrinh-patha, with some special features such as a high proportion of reduplicated words. They are often quite cryptic in reference, and to understand them we rely on explanation by a knowledgeable person.

Song Text of thanpa 11
This song text, composed by the most prolific composer of thanpa songs, Harry Luke Kolumboort (1913-1980s), has been translated and glossed by Joe Blythe with assistance from Michael Walsh and Nicholas Reid, based on conversations in 2004-2005 with singers L. Kolumboort, Felix Bunduck, Elizabeth Cumaiyi, Lucy Tcherna, and Mary Bunduck. The basic text is set out in Table 1.

Table 1: Text of thanpa song 11 (transcription and gloss by Joe Blythe, 1 November 2005).
Free translation: Kardu Ngarim, son of Thakuny, is digging holes at that place.

This text refers to a particular thanpa ancestor, named Kardu Ngarim (‘Bee Man’ – kardu being the nominal classifier for humans). With the animate nominal classifier ku, ngarim is also the name of a species of native bee with a yellow body, also known as ku tiriwun. Kardu Ngarim is the son of another thanpa, Mayamunggum, nicknamed Thakuny ‘left-handed’. Ngarim is digging at a particular place.

Most of the species of native bee found around Wadeye make ku thithay ‘honey’ (or ‘sugarbag’ in Australian Aboriginal English). Ku ngarim sugarbag bees are one of the main totems for the Kunhpinhi clan estate, which is where thanpa ancestors reside and where Dimirnin clanspeople return when they die. Each clan estate has several ngakumarl (‘totems’, or ‘dreamings’), which are associated with particular ngugumingki ‘creation sites’ within the estate.

Musical style
Thanpa songs are strophic, with a variety of text repetition patterns within each verse. Singing by a mixed group of men and women is accompanied by clapsticks (mirnka) and handclapping. Each verse is started off by men, and finished by women, with a period of overlap between the two groups in the middle of the verse.

The repetition pattern of one verse of thanpa 11, and its musical setting is set out below:
(part 1)
aa ngarim thakuny marramarda nhinirda karrirndurtuy-ye
aa ngarim thakuny marramarda nhinirda karrirndurtuy-ye

(part 2)
aa karrirndurtuy-ye
ngarim thakuny marramarda nhinirda karrirndurtuy-
ngarim thakuny marramarda nhinirda karrirndurtuy-ye
ngarim thakuny marramarda nhinirda karrirndurtuy