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28th January 1933 cont. - Nãllae and the duck flying away song
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...always an opportunist he tried to screw a bit of flour out of us, but went away unrewarded and quite happy, the natives going with him. We wondered if his visit was some sort of watch on us by the mission and felt sure that it was. At least he could have reported that we didn't touch black women, which was apparently their main concern with visitors, though how one could have co-habited with a black woman was beyond my understanding. Both he and Hezekiel seemed put out about all the blacks, not part of their flock perhaps. Titus lost no time in moving on in order to get some distance away. It rather confirmed the corroboree theory, which might have brought the wrath of Albrecht on their heads, if they took part. But we could get nothing out of either of them, though they must have known what was going on.

Towards sunset a party of Nãllae arrived, big mob, about 50. The men were plastered with red ochre and clay and a smelly sort of oil, probably emu fat and had wonderful designs worked on their chests in lime or feathers stuck on with blood. These people were the real untouched variety of native and very friendly, one boasted that he could talk English, but it was a rumour.

1933 photograph: two Aboriginal men (Nãllae) standing with painted chests and faces
Nãllae painted-up

We kept them amused in various ways and managed to persuade them to camp the night, which they did. We also shot a few more rabbits and gave them to them, and in the evening we organized a sing-song in which we led off with a few and then listened to some of the corroboree songs, the duck song and many possum songs.

Some of them posed for pictures and others brought in animals. The barriers were broken down, by our inharmonious and raucus efforts to give them the idea. Our common repertoire was pitifully limited and off key and ran little beyond one verse of God Save the King and Waltzing Matilda. I wished I had brought my gramaphone and some Bach, Mozart and Schubert songs to watch the natives reactions. However our efforts gave them the idea and reduced them to almost helpless laughter. We heard one of the most fascinating and unforgettable nights entertainments possible. Their corroboree songs or whatever they were, were so old that some of them were sung in a different language.

1933 photograph: Aboriginal men and boys (Nãllae)

It seemed that some songs were common to all tribes, and they could all join in. Others were purely tribal so that only the tribal groups knew them and the rest just listened. The older language ones were by far the best and had a repetitiive form almost like a sonata or canonical form. These songs were not usually accompanied by action, whilst the rather tedious noise of the local ones were explained by an appropriate dance mimicing animals, war, hunting etc. In many cases the sounds had lost any meaning for the singers, and were either archaic or distorted beyond their own recognition but each song had a meaning and there was no need to tell even the white man what it was.

We heard amongst many others the duck flying away song. It is impossible to describe, but it was rather frighteningly effective. Rhythm was paramount and the pitch tended to rise to a crescendo while the pace quickened in most of the verses. Forms were inverted and the character of the black man's voice gave it all something indescribable, at any rate we all knew that the ducks were resting on the water, were surprised, and took off clumsily then flew off and away but returned with a swoop at terrific speed to disappear into freedom again and peace.

When it was over I made it clear to the leader, a man of over 50 (as far as one could tell) that I knew what it was about, by signs, and gestures, flapping elbows, duck noises etc. He was delighted and I presented him with a stick of tobacco and went and woke Hezekiel, after some toing and froing he found a spectator who could talk to the old man then back to Hezekiel, then Hezekiel to me. All this took a long time and there was always a high chance of misunderstanding. In a nutshell, I gathered that this song and a few others, was in a very old 'dream time language,' that they did not understand the words, but that all the tribes knew the old words and the song.

sketch of Kudungra by Arthur Murch 1933
Kudungra by Murch

The implications of this are very profound to me and raise many questions. Were the blacks once a uniform people? How long does it take to develop a new language? Why are there so many quite different languages in such a small area? Did all the common laws and customs come from the dreamtime? etc We made them sing it (the duck song) again and again and raucus, primitive and unpolished as it was I am sure no music ever told a story more vividly or charmingly. Of course once having shown our real interest the blacks were quick to know it and on and on they went into the small hours song after song rhythm after rhythm working themselves up until they were dancing with it in the light of the fire.

After this night I will always respect the blacks as the custodians of a real culture, wherever it came from and however debased it is today. As they left the camp fire they all took a burning stick and walked through the grass back to the lubras, swishing it about their ankles to keep off the devils that come with the dark. During the night I tried hard to get some knowledge of how they managed to call a corroboree and arrive at the right time and how, if at all, they used the stars and moon, but the results were sparse and so unreliable that they are worthless. Hezekiel was bent on sleep and soon left, and my 50 year old could not grasp what I was after.

1933 photograph: Aboriginal with Murch painted medal
medal painted by Murch

Next morning we amused them by organizing sports at which they showed little ability. Murch painted a few of their faces and sketched them, which he is very clever at, and some of them brought in animals for Larnach to cure and preserve. We gave the king a medal painted by Murch which seemed to please and honour him. He strutted around vainly and certainly seemed to get much kudos and admiration from those around him. They nearly all went away in a mob to show it off to the larger gathering further off.

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