On a rainy Thursday afternoon at university, I’m being transported to hazy, sunburnt Central Australia. Elizabeth and Simon are from the Warlpiri nation, a place where red sand stretches for miles. In order to navigate long distances across this landscape, the Warlpiri people sing a song about the Ngapa spirit at the time of the Dreaming. In this song, the Ngapa spirit moves west across the Ngalikirlangu landforms and into the Tanami desert. It takes the form of a cloud, bringing rain to the people as it gathers strength. To Elizabeth, this story tells her “how this land came to be … It is also who I am.”
All over Australia, Indigenous people have created songs, tracing out the tracks forged by ancestral spirits and creator-beings as they moved across the land. The paths they followed are called songlines.
Piecing together the songlines of different locales gives you a complete picture of the parables which form the Dreaming along with an uninterrupted network of stories and transit across the continent, stretching as far as the sea and as high as the night sky. “You can’t cut off any of those stories,” Elizabeth tells me, “because they go right across the land.” When you divide the land, you sever the continuity of these stories, and you infringe on the rich history that Indigenous people have maintained for millenia.
These songlines represent far more than just tradition. Dr Åse Ottosson, an anthropologist at the University of Sydney who specialises in Indigenous Australia, likens songlines to “a library, a repository of knowledge in the land.” As you progress with the song, you learn what plants can cure ailments, and those that you should avoid; how to fish; which places hold spiritual importance; how to welcome visitors to your country; and how to understand the health of the local ecosystem. “Some songlines tell you what birds and insects and plants go together. So if [the landscape] is missing one of those, something is not right.” Contrary to the Western tendency to classify knowledge into strict disciplines, the lyrics of different songlines and the places to which they lead contain information about topics as vast as the natural sciences, Indigenous philosophy and the creative arts.
In this sense, songlines are distinct from Western or Eastern myths and legends. Where Greek or Roman myths would give moral lessons through otherworldly tales, songlines are grounded in everyday knowledge that is vital to survival. In songlines, the land we inhabit is elevated from merely a setting in a story to a central component of that story. “The landscape itself is seen as a sentient being, because the ancestral forces themselves still sit in that landscape,” explains Ottosson.
In order to faithfully animate the grandeur and terror of the natural world, performers must also re-enact the movements of the ancestral beings as they sing. Some songlines can only be performed by particular persons, depending on their gender, their country and their place within the kinship system. It’s the combination of people and their roles within the performance which gives the words meaning.
It’s unusual, from a Western perspective, that art and music can be so practical and necessary to live on the land. Songlines have the power to connect people across generations and language groups as a stronghold of shared social and spiritual memory. This power can be extremely potent, even fatally so. “When people are ready to pass on, they sing this certain song to themselves,” tells Dr Jakelin Troy, Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney. “As a child, I was always scared of that … you hear those words, and you know.” They can heal, and they can hurt.
Songlines represent one of the oldest forms of oral storytelling; because of its geographical scale and musical quality, it’s difficult to preserve in written form. “In an oral culture,” where tradition is passed down through spoken and not written mediums, “songlines are where this knowledge sits,” explains Ottosson. Songlines didn’t just narrate the law at the time – they instructed people in creating the law. Even today, they remain the law to the extent they’re still adhered to and still function as a robust guide to the natural world, even after thousands of years and countless change.
Simply following where the song leads is an act of art and ancestry. The knowledge passed down forms a bridge between generations. For Elizabeth, the songlines of her country “were a really strong thing my father gave to us … he didn’t record it, but I keep it in my heart.”
But in today’s world, where all forms of communication are being largely superseded by modern technology, and which is moving increasingly towards the global and away from strong connections to a single place, is the tradition of songlines hard to preserve?
Ottosson believes that in an Australia where Indigenous languages are not taught in the curriculum, the passing down of songs becomes a “fragile” endeavour. “If they are not transferred in the Indigenous language, the meaning becomes empty. So if you lose the knowledge of how to use your own language, the knowledge is gone.”
In 2017, the National Museum of Australia launched an exhibition on the Seven Sisters songlines. The project, which combines audiovisual and virtual reality technology with Indigenous art and spoken word, was initiated and directed by senior custodians from across the central and western deserts. To Dr Georgia Curran, an anthropologist specialising in Indigenous ceremony and song, it’s heartening to see Indigenous creatives being given a platform to tell their history on their own terms. “There’s a lot of distraction in the modern world, but … young people absorb [these traditions] and, by practicing singing their songs, gain confidence to carry it on.” Troy agrees: “The way I see it, you do absorb by being around people … But more than anything, you learn to look.” You look for small wonders, and you look to nature to guide your philosophy.
But Ottosson introduces the idea that people, particularly outsiders, do not have an inherent right to take this knowledge from nature – you have to earn it and then pass it on to the right people. “We have this idea in Western culture that the more you share knowledge with each other, the better you understand each other. I had to rethink that completely. … You wait until you’re ready to be taught.”
For some songs Ottosson records as part of her oral history research, the performers sit in a soundproofed room. Ottosson can never hear those songs. “They sit in an archive at the Conservatorium, and only people who have given me that information already can access it.” She tells the story of an 83-year-old Indigenous man, who refused to pass on a treasured songline to his 58-year-old son, even on his deathbed. “He was saying, ‘It’s not my responsibility. He’s not ready to receive it. The songs will sit in the landscape, so maybe in the future someone will learn it.’ They trust this whole ancestral force in the landscape – it’s always there.”
But Elizabeth is optimistic that if older Indigenous people want to tell these stories, there are young ones who will listen. “I use the example of my son. Old people say, ‘scuse me Elizabeth, only your son listens to us! He ask a lot of questions, he ask about his own culture too. That’s why we want him to stand up for these young people – take a leadership role in the community.’ That’s when I feel proud when they told me. I really was feeling happy. I was crying inside me.”