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Yolngu Manikay: modern performances of Australian aboriginal clan songs

Version 2 2017-04-27, 06:13
Version 1 2017-04-27, 05:20
posted on 2017-04-27, 06:13 authored by Jill Stubington
Manikay are the stick- and didjeridu-accompanied clan songs of the Yolngu of north-east Arnhem Land. Particular myths referred to in these songs are associated with particular areas of land and particular social groups. These songs, therefore, provide a link between myth, land and social organization.

Manikay musical style is examined through an analysis of tape-recorded performances. Complete song sessions are taken, wherever possible, as the units for analysis. Thirteen such sessions, selected from three field collections of north-east Arnhem Land music made in 1952-53, 1964 and 1973-75, are reviewed. They include performances by musicians from the Ngayimil, Rirratjingu, Djapu, Djambarrpuyngu, Dhalwangu and Gumatj linguistic groups. The circumstances of each session, as far as they are known, are outlined and the individual items which make up the session are listed and briefly described. Specific items within each session are selected for notation and detailed analysis.

In the discussion of musical style, various structural features of the voice, stick and didjeridu parts are isolated and some aspects of the relationships between the parts are pointed out. The great diversity of musical and textual shape and form indicates that performances are to a considerable extent improvisatory. Musicians have at their disposal a range of motivic elements, such as particular tonal structures and rhythmic patterns. In the selection and combination of these elements, each manikay performance generates its own stylistic momentum giving each session its own individual character. The structure of any one item is not determined by the subject of the text or the clan of the singer: it has a primarily musical purpose related to its place in the session.

The literature on the Yolngu is examined in order to reach a more complete understanding of manikay. The Yolngu recognize a purificatory function in these performances and use them in mortuary, and sometimes circumcision, ceremonies. Being non-secret, however, they are also used on many different occasions. Their relationship to individual clan groups, though clearly and frequently referred to in the literature, is discovered to be complex. Song subjects are found to be moiety-specific, but within each moiety, particular subjects are used by a number of linguistic groups. Either inter-group ties allow very wide access to myths, or individual clan ownership of song subjects is not as strictly defined as suggested. It may be that the singing of manikay is one of the ways in which men may advance a claim to certain rights and obligations associated with particular totemic objects and activities.

Manikay are tightly-structured musical units requiring a high degree of cooperation between at least two musicians and giving a vehicle for the exhibition of technical virtuosity and musical creativity. This subtlety in musical form is reflected in their relationship to wider Yolngu society.


Principal supervisor

Trevor A. Jones

Additional supervisor 1

Margaret J. Kartomi

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Department, School or Centre

Department of Music


Doctor of Philosophy

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Campus location



Faculty of Arts

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