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Joe Gumbula, the Ancestral Chorus, and the Value of Indigenous Knowledges

  • Aaron Corn EMAIL logo


Joseph Neparrŋa Gumbula (1954–2015) had an atypical scholarly trajectory. Born into a long line of Yolŋu leaders in the remote town of Milingimbi in the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reverse, he left school in his mid-teens for the neighbouring town of Galiwin’ku in 1971, where he joined the country and gospel band, Soft Sands, as a singer and guitarist. Through his passion for making music and admission to Yolŋu ritual leadership in 1997, Gumbula discovered a new calling in researching the documented legacy of his family history in ethnographic collections around the world. This pursuit set him on an unprecedented path towards leading national research grants supported by fellowships at various universities. His research would return to Arnhem Land rare and precious ethnographic materials dating back as far as the edge of living memory in 1920s, and exemplify how Indigenous heritage collections can be grown, managed and made accessible with broad benefits. Paralleling the emergence of affordable digital media technologies, his research interests progressed accordingly from isolated local databases to clouded mobile delivery platforms. The interdisciplinary networks that Gumbula built were far reaching and have left lasting impacts. In this article, I expand upon my Gumbula Memorial Lecture for the 2017 Information Technologies and Indigenous Communities (ITIC) Symposium in Melbourne to explore how Gumbula challenged his students and colleagues to think and work beyond the conventions of disciplinary and professional methodologies, thereby transforming our understandings of knowledge itself and encouraging us to act as proactive agents in the world.

Appendix. Lyrics from Djiliwirri (Gumbula, dir.) translated from the Gupapuyŋu patrilect of Yolŋu-matha to English by Joseph Neparrŋa Gumbula and Aaron Corn in Sydney on 4/26/6

Introduction (Chorale)(Mum’mum, ….) Gä

(Bubbling water, …) Aim
Ŋunhi bili muka, dhuwala reŋgitjtja
Exactly the same indeed, this here ceremonial alliance ground
Ŋunhi, ŋayi ganha watthurrunha, lakaranhaminha “Djirriŋgay Wäpana”
There, it was calling, proclaiming “the Paperbark Tree”
Dhukun-bumarra (Gä) ŋarranha, ŋayi Burralanha (Wa!)
Bark and Splinters struck (Aim) from me, the Paperbark Tree (Strike!)
(Gä) Dhukun-bumarra ŋarranha ŋayi, Burralanha (Wa!), ŋarranha
(Aim) Bark and Splinters it struck from me, the Paperbark Tree (Strike!), from me
Yambuŋala, ŋayi ŋarranha Wukulu Djirrwarryurrunha (Gä) Bunbun Giyalgiyal Ŋulumu Yarrayarra (Wa!) Wadulwadul (Gä)
The Lance, it is thrust into me by my (Aim) Women’s Children (Strike!)
Dhukun-bumarra (Wa!) ŋarranha, ŋayi Djirriŋgay Wäpana Malulay Gubarraytja Djirriŋgay Wäpana ()
Bark and Splinters struck (Strike!) from me, the Paperbark Tree (Aim)
Wo, (Wa!) Gaykamaŋu
Oh, (Strike!) Honey of the Daygurrgurr Gupapuyŋu clan
Verse 1Ŋarra ganha nhinana, Ganbirrŋura
I was sitting at the Beehive
Ŋunhiliyi, wäŋiya Gurŋan Yalundu
There, in the country at the Beehive
Rirrakay ŋarra ŋäkula watthunawuy
I heard a voice calling
Ŋunhili, “Djirranygay Wäpana”
There, “the Paperbark Tree”
Ŋayinydja waŋana lakaranhamina
The country, it proclaimed
“Ŋarranydja likan Gaykamaŋu,” wo wo
“I am Honey of the Daygurrgurr Gupapuyŋu branch,” oh oh
Chorus 1Wa! Djiliwirri ganha dhärranhana, wäŋa limurruŋgu
(…) Djiliwirri is standing, home for us all
Galŋa ŋarranha, Yambuŋala Ganinydhu
Into my bark, the Lance
Likandja ŋarraWarragadi Diwuthurru Marrilama
I am of the Paperbark Tree branch
Mayku Rarrathirri Djirriŋgay Wäpana
The Paperbark Tree
BridgeWa! [× 3]
(…) [× 3]
Verse 2Ŋayinydja ganha dhärranhana, luku Djipara
It is standing, the Foundation of Djiliwirri
Ŋunhiliyi, wäŋiya Lun’puŋura
There, in the country at the Foundation of Djiliwirri
Ŋayinydja ganha dhurrwaraŋura nyarrkthurruna
He was brooding at its entrance
Nuway ganha ditjpurrk wutthurruna
Nuwa was prising
Nyarrkthurruna barrarawaŋa, Nuwa’wuŋu
Prising with his crowbar, from Nuwa
Gurtha nhärana Buŋuŋura
Fire blazed at the spring-well of Buŋu
Chorus 1
Chorus 2Dola, wutthurruna, Djirriŋgay Dhawulyarra
DescantPaperbark Tree, prising, Paperbark Tree
Ŋunhala, wäŋiya, Mitjamitja Dhawulyarra
There, in the country, the Paperbark Tree
Chorus 3Galŋa ŋarranha garrpirra Guwaninywaninymirri
DescantMy bark wrapped with Vine
Yinagarrangarrmirri Bumbatamirri
Ŋunhala, wäŋiya, Djirriŋgay Malulay
There, in the country, the Paperbark Tree
Chorus 1


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Published Online: 2019-01-29
Published in Print: 2018-12-19

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