Listening With A Pitjantjatjara Accent

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I cannot start this writing in the middle as I cannot start at the end. I am writing in English, so I will start at the beginning because that’s where we start things.

In the beginning of this story, I was sitting with Kumanjayi Baker at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music, Elder Conservatorium, Adelaide University. It was just Kumanjayi* and I. 

Two weeks before, when I went to the first Inma, Pitjantjatjara singing lesson, there were 24 of us. A fellow student said to me, “They don’t tell you anything, it’s all a secret!” The next week there were about 4 of us. The following week, there were only 2 of us, Kumanjayi and I. For the next 2 years, Kumanjayi taught me Inma; traditional singing in Pitjantjatjara from Indulkana. 

Kumanjayi treated me like I was a four or five-year-old, which I was as far as Pitjantjatjara’s go. He spoke to me in Pitjantjatjara. He sung to me in Pitjantjatjara. It was imitative, that’s how it is, you just imitate it, like 2 x 2, you know, 3 x 3.  So I imitated it. I didn’t mind, I had learned how not to think in primary school as you may discover in a previous tale

One day, he looked at me and he sings, “Waru. Waru, mataku piri”. And so I say, “Waru”. He says, “not Waru … Waru”. I say, “what? Waru.” He says, “no, not Waru, … Waru!.” I say, “Waru!”. Kumanjayi says “ no no no no no Waru”. He looks at me.  I look at him. We haven’t got a clue what’s going on, either of us!

It was a long, long, long time later when I was in Alice Springs that I learned that “Waru” in Pitjantjatjara is Kangaroo and “Waru” is Fire. Small difference of sound, which I couldn’t notice. He was saying “say Kangaroo,” and I’m saying, “Fire.” He looks at me, “say Kangaroo”. I say, “Fire”. No, no, Kangaroo! Fire! Kangaroo, Fire. 

Many years later, I’m in Alice Springs working musically with a group of Aboriginal men. After about five months, one man asks “You can read music, can’t you?” “Yes” I answer, “I can read music”. He responds, “Would you teach us how to read music?” I say, “Sure.” So the next week, I’m in front of a blackboard and I write down the five lines of a stave and I put the notes on. A-B-C-D-E-F-G.  

I look at the men and say “These are the letters to begin to read music. A-B-C-D-E-F-G”. I point to the note C and I say, “Is this a B or a C?” They look at me. I look at them. I ask again, “Is that a B or a C?”  They all look at me … and I know that look. That’s the Waru look!  

Then for the first time, I listened to my own alphabet. A-B-C-D. Basically, I was asking them, “Is this a C or a C?” Waru or Waru?. “Is that a C …  or …  a C?” Who is going to put their hand up to that?!!  

Listen to the alphabet B-C-D-E …G and it goes on, P-V-T. A cup of T? “You want a cup of D?“ Do you know why you want a cup of D? Because I can hear the difference between Waru and Waru.  

So I listened to my English language for the first time. Pitjantjatjara and all sorts of local central Australian speakers have difficulty with the first eight letters of the English language, yet have no difficulty with Waru. So sometimes when people can’t hear something, it’s probably because they can hear something else. And what do they hear?  

Now we’ve got towards the end of this little story, isn’t it interesting that when I was learning Pitjantjatjara Inma, Ethnomusicology Professor Katherine Ellis discovered that you can enter into any verse, anywhere. There isn’t a beginning, middle or end to an Inma verse. Wherever you enter it, is where you come out of it! It’s circular. If a verse of a Ninyi (zebra finch) Songline, which you can sing from Adelaide to Darwin, is circular, then perhaps a lot more things could be circular … like time. Why not?  

*Kumanjayi is used to replace someone’s name when they have died.  


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