Sunday, 29 August 2010

Book Review - Singing Saltwater Country

Singing saltwater country : journey to the songlines of Carpentaria by John Bradley with Yanyuwa families.

Published in 2010 by Allen & Unwin  ISBN 9781742372419

In 1980, John Bradley went to town of Borroloola in the Gulf country as a teacher. I imagine he had little inkling of what that decision would mean for the rest of his life, and that this book would come thirty years later. We find little in the book of John Bradley's life before he arrived, and of why he decided to go there in the first place, and it is to the benefit of the book as a whole that we don't.

What we do gain, through Bradley's experiences, are insights into the songlines, or kujika of the Yanyuwa people. Bradley's is the first book I have read that manages to explain to Western minds what songlines are, and their purpose.

John Bradley turned up at Borroloola at a time when the old men of the Yanyuwa had come the the realization that they were the last of their line who knew all (or most) of the kujika of their people. The younger men had moved away for work, or were not interested in learning songs that seemed to have little relevance to their current way of life. Bradley, with his interest in Aboriginal culture and tape recorder, was soon seen as a way for the Yanyuwa to preserve their kujika, and to perhaps gain some legitimacy in the white world - there is a moving piece in the book when Bradley, after having written down a kujika, finds his Aboriginal friends very excited that their Law was now written down just like the White Man's.

Bradley has cleverly constructed the work as a tour through several kujika, with each chapter talking about a particular kujika, as well as opening up other subjects, such as land rights, and the tragic early death of many Aboriginals in outback Australia.

Of course, the most important subject of the book are the songlines themselves. Bradley struggles throughout the work to give what he feels is an adequate explanation of just what a kujika is. Having read Bruce Chatwin, and some other works, I had an understanding that the songs were a way of Aboriginals finding their way across country. Bradley shows us that it is much, much more. While description of country is one purpose of the kujika, they are also stories of the dreamtime, stories of real ancestors, stories of family, and ultimately stories that come out of the earth itself. Bradley is at pains to explain that the Yanyuwa believe that the kujika exist within the earth itself, so even if no-one is singing them, they still give the land it's life. They are, for the Yanyuwa, their epic poetry, their religious text, their family tree, and, in a sense, their creation.

Bradley points out that it is, in the end, impossible to truly explain just how important the kujika is for the Yanyuwa, because a knowledge of the Yanyuwa language is indispensable for the true meaning to be conveyed. By the end of his journey as it is portrayed in this book (2008), there are only five speakers of Yanyuwa left alive, and Bradley is one of them.

Because Bradley has been accepted into the Yanyuwa people - and being a man - he is one of the very few white people who has been able to attend and understand many of the ceremonies of the Yanyuwa. He makes the point that the sacred and secret kujika can have the same lyrics as one that is publicly known, but with a different melody, or with some different verses interspersed between what is publicly known. Indeed sometimes the words and the melody are the same, but the words themselves can have more than one meaning, and only the initiated can know the sacred meanings of the words in question.

There are two fascinating aspects to this book for someone brought up in the white world. One is of course the kujika themselves, what they are and the role they play in Yanyuwa society, and the other is just how recently the traditional Aboriginal life in the Gulf has passed away. The old men Bradley talks to in the 'eighties remember their childhoods as ones of tradition and law, not living in town camps or working for the stockmen. We can sometimes think the destruction of the Aboriginal way of life happened long ago, but Bradley puts the lie to that.

This book is in fact a description of a part of history that is no more - the old men were right, the kujika are slowly disappearing from the country, as the old men and women die. Bradley has managed to capture many of the kujika before that happened, and is trying to re-introduce them to the young Yanyuwa people. I hope he succeeds.

If you are at all interested in the history of this country, or Aboriginal life, you should read this book. Check it out at your local library, or you can get it at The Book Depository.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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