The traditional song speaks of the Waak or crow, the dance to follow celebrates the octopus or Ngarrpiya. Four dancers put down their woomerahs and swap their yellow nargas for four striking colours, each dancer represents a different clan to whom they are tied by blood through themselves, their mothers or grandmothers.
In Yolngu lore, Ganambarr explains, the octopus lies beneath the reef, his tentacles capable of summoning the wind, while a sighting of the elusive sea creature is a portent of a red sunset.
Jamieson marvels at the dancers’ extraordinary expressiveness and adaptability in turning a solo performance one day into a collaboration the next.
Buŋgul, a Yolngu word meaning meeting, is a performance of Dr G’s album Djarimirri or Child of the Rainbow, posthumously released after the legendary’s singer’s death at age 46 in July 2017.
Violins, violas, cellos, harpsichord, clarinet, French horn, trumpets, trombones, and percussion of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra underlie the rhythms of the traditional didgeridoo and clapsticks.
Ganambarr says the Djarimirri album could be read as a book about Dr G’s people, with each song symbolic of a different page.
“The world didn’t know he was talking about his people, his music, his land, his art and the ceremony lines that link to his song,” he says.
We can feel him still there, watching us. Sometime when we are thinking of him, he is telling us a story.
Don Wininba Ganambarr
The music of Dr G, says Jamieson, is a meeting of Yolgnu and western culture at a very sophisticated level but “these aren’t just songs and music”. ‘They are culture, they’re the backbone of which this incredible country has built itself,” he says.
“At this point in our history when we’ve got 2 million hectares out there destroyed, we’ve got a billion animals out there that have died, hundreds and hundreds of people have lost their homes, you’ve got businesses going bankrupt because of what is happening to our climate and our land and the way we have treated it the last 230 years, this is the moment to listen. Having this incredible culture is a chance to lead us out of this blind alley.”
Ganambarr says he feels the spirit of Dr G during rehearsals. “We can feel him still there, watching us. Sometime when we are thinking of him, he is telling us a story.”
Buŋgul is at the Sydney Opera House, January 25, then to Perth and Adelaide Festivals.
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald