an NFSA website

Tribal Music of Australia (1953)


These songs, or manikay, are a series of songs passed down through generations from the ancestral beings that originally shaped and named the Yolngu homelands of north-east Arnhem Land. Accompanied by bilma (clapsticks) and yidaki (didjeridu), these manikay series are sung at ceremonies and contain ancestral knowledge essential to the Yolngu way of life. The recordings were made by Dr AP Elkin between 1949 and 1952.

Curator’s notes

These sacred ritual songs are about the land and the plants, animals, people and spirits that inhabit it, and are performed by Australian Aboriginals from the Yirrkala district in far north-east Arnhem Land. Mokuy, the ancestral ghosts, are everywhere in the landscape and mediate the transmission of the manikay. Their teachings offer a glimpse of the deeper ancestral treasures held in each Yolngu homeland.

The track selected, 'Djedbang-ari’, is taken from the first available LP recording of traditional Aboriginal music, released on the well-known Ethnic Folkways label in the United States. It consisted of ethnographic recordings made by Dr Adolphus Peter Elkin (1891–1979) between 1949 and 1952 in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Elkin was an Anglican minister and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney (1933–56), as well as a strong supporter of Aboriginal causes of the time.

Accompanied by a seven-page booklet, the vinyl album contained a wide variety of previously unheard material: sacred songs, corroboree music, even several versions of the same song-text. It also contains some of the earliest authentically annotated recordings of didgeridoo (didjeridu) playing, bringing the music of one of the world’s oldest surviving civilisations to the notice of the contemporary world for the first time.

While the music is of ongoing musicological interest, little regard was given at the time to cultural sensitivities regarding ownership and who has the rights to listen to this music. The National Film and Sound Archive now actively consults with the traditional owners to determine whether to make such recordings publicly available.