Monique Grbec on Buŋgul, a breathtaking opening to the Perth Festival’s all-Indigenous first week
Buŋgul is the Yolŋu (North East Arnhem Land) people’s word for ceremony. It’s an expansive, tactile, living, breathing, dancing, singing library that has imparted the knowledge of land, plants, animals, people and spirits to the Yolŋu over millennia. Like a suite of music, the buŋgul is made up of manikay, a series of songs and movements that tell the Yolŋu where they have come from and where they are going.
In the Perth Festival commission Bungul: Gurrumul’s Mother’s Bungul, Gurrumul’s Grandmother’s Bungul, Gurrumul’s Manikay at The Perth Concert Hall, directors Don Wininba Ganabarr and Nigel Jamieson present land, painting, dance and song to show us the meanings of the songs from Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupiŋu’s posthumous album and musical legacy to the world.
‘All together, like a school of fish, the audience, dancers, orchestra are transported as one, soaring through the rushing waters as a living, breathing culture’
This multi-award-winning album debuted at number one. It merges the two worlds of Indigenous and European orchestral culture to celebrate and canonise Yolŋu life and the interconnected relationships of all living creatures and elements of the earth. The recording of Gurrumul’s voice feels distant through the orchestral sound, an echo from above. What connects us to the stage and buŋgul is the harmonised chants of the Yolŋu Songmen.
Front stage is a large circle of sand. In its centre, like a large nipple, is a protrusion made out of paperbark strips. Conducted by Eekki Veltheim, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra – strings, brass, percussion and keyboard – fan out across the back of the stage, and a video screen backdrop projects images of desert landscapes and coastal waterways.
Yolŋu stories are revealed over 12 movements, using videos of landscape, traditional painting styles, face and body painting, and the drama and humour of the Yolŋgu dancers. The stories move from Bäru (crocodile) who gives fire to the Yolŋu, to Wäk (crow) who descends from the heavens with knowledge of kinship. We hear of the Djärimirri, the rainbow serpent of birth, and Gapu, the fresh water manikay and dance belonging to Gurrumul’s mother and her Galpu clan. This journey follows the universal story of life: born from fire, we are released to the world with the force of clear running water. Clear, fresh, pristine and powerful: where will we travel?
Gopuru, a large saltwater fish, takes flight with the orchestral strings. Carving out the sand, the dancers’ feet take us gliding over land, through the water of Mic Gruchy’s video design, Paul Shakeshaft’s cinematographic images and the lightning-bright movements of Mark Howett’s lighting design.
All together, like a school of fish, the audience, dancers, orchestra are transported as one, soaring through the rushing waters as a living, breathing culture. In sync with the video projections, the tremor of brass instruments burrow in to slow the pace. This time slowing speed is infused with the essence of the ebb and flow of tidal movements. This is the beauty of buŋgul, the reality of how Yolŋgu culture and lore, embraced by each generation for millennia, is imprinted into the psyche.
‘The power of the music to capture the essence of animals and landscapes unites the passion of those listening’
There are many moments like this in the European orchestral tradition, where the power of music to capture the essence of animals and landscapes unites the passion of those listening. The Bäru and Wäk movements sometimes felt reminiscent of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Carnaval des Animaux (The Carnival of the Animals), prompting a tantalising joy of recognition. As Gurrumul’s Djarimirri story evolved from the loving embrace of family through the cultural millennia of dance, artwork, landscapes, and chanting, the sense of transcendence was tangible.
In this place of interconnection, where ochre, born from the land, is painted on the dancers’ bodies in diamond patterns that reflect the image of fire, the scales of Bäru and aerial images of dry cracked earth, nothing is expendable. Even the importance of trading relationships are woven into Gurrumul’s story with images of Mayayarr – the flag pole or mast of a sailing ship – and Galiku, a calico fabric for flag making. The flags, which are coloured to indicate different clans and used for buŋgul, are flown at burial sites.
There is so much to learn from this culture: a world spanning tens of thousands of years, where the intrinsic love and enthusiasm for a shared experience is strong and vibrant. Unlike the passing phases of mining and quick profit, or the rhetoric of religion that offers only prayers to empty stomachs and the dying, this culture builds on relationships founded in the real world. And in this world, sustainability and the good life co-exist.
Bungul, Gurrumul’s Mother’s Bungul, Gurrumul’s Grandmother’s Bungul, Gurrumul’s Manikay, music by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupiŋu, Erkki Veltheim and Michael Hohnen. Directed by Don Wininba Ganambarr and Nigel Jamieson. Designer Jake Nash. Cinematographer Paul Shakeshaft. Video Designer Mic Gruchy. Lighting Designer Mark Howett. Sound Designer Steve Francis. Performed by Yirritja Philip Yunupiŋu, David Yunupiŋu, Robert Buarrwanga, Nebuchdneear (Nebbie) Nalibidj, Nelson Yunupiŋu, Dhuwa James Gurruwiwi, Terrance Gurruwiwi. Western Australian Symphony Orchestra Conductor Erkki Veltheim. Perth Concert Hall February 8-9 for the Perth Festival. Closed.