So what makes Arnhem Land different from other recordings of aboriginal music? Not much, musically -- it's all rhythm sticks, vocal chants, and didgeridoo tones. A lot, historically -- these field recordings from the A.P. Elkin Collection are the first ones of aboriginal music to be released commercially in Australia. The original two LPs came out in 1957 and were reissued on CD as part of the 1993 Indigenous Peoples year celebration. These recordings were made by anthropologists for other anthropologists, ages before ravers adopted didgeridoos en masse and a decade or two before Australia began taking serious note of aborigine culture contributions. A dry, social scientist voice introduces each track with its name and recording location and the 14-minute "Wongga" has some abrupt edits -- we're talking 1957 tape splices here -- in the chants/rhythm sticks/didgeridoo equation. There's variation in the sound, an ebb and flow in intensity, but it's mostly repetition obviously, because it's a ritual, a male youth's initiation rite in this case. "Gunborg" follows that model fairly closely but some vaguely native American elements mark "Nyindi-Yindi," with its massed vocals and tromping and clicking. The nagging, obsessive quality of the vocal chants come into play on "Gunbalanya Bunborg," and the rhythm sticks pump up and drop down the tempo to give a nice sense of dynamics. The "Men's Djarada" features metal-sounding percussion, more like pots being beaten, and fairly intense vocals that still are no match for "Women's Djarada." That track is no-nonsense or messing around from the start, the voices taking off at a racehorse pace with brief spurts and bursts of music and no didgeridoo at first. This trip to Arnhem Land doesn't offer anything dramatically different from what you'd expect of field recordings of aboriginal music. It is what it is and its value lies as a pioneering historical document that wasn't catering to anyone, or anything, other than recording examples of aboriginal music for posterity.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Don Snowden