Fiona Magowan, ‘Melodies of Mourning: Music & Emotion in Northern Australia’

Reviewed by Deborah Bird Rose

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This is a wonderful book, and of much wider interest than the title might suggest. Fiona Magowan has spent many years doing in-depth research with Aboriginal people in north central Arnhem land (Northern Territory, Australia), and the results of her work are presented in a major new study of musical ecology.

Magowan’s work addresses several key questions, the most central of which is: how do people form and sustain deeply integrated cross-generational relationships with country? Magowan approaches this question through music, but in the end the study is about more than music. It is about sound, and communication, about attention, knowledge, and relationships, about gender, grief, and, as the chapter entitled ‘Crying for Jesus’ indicates, about how Christianity is being sung into Aboriginal country. It is about sentient country, and polymorphic transpositions such that persons are in ancestors, ancestors are in places, and ecological connections run through them all. ‘As singers view themselves as part of nonhuman animals, objects or topography, so listeners also understand themselves to be embodied in the same natural and topographical forms. Characteristics of personhood in ecology tie the separate strands of ancestral journeys together in polymorphic strings of connectedness that allow singers and listeners to see persons-in-ancestors as ancestors-in-places.’ (p. 131)

Yolngu music is gendered. Magowan focuses on women’s crying songs, the haunting songs of grief that bring past, present and future, loss and continuity, into the country that holds life, pouring out the grief ‘not just for the person who has died, [but] for the loss of all people who have gone before.’ (p. 187) Song depends for its communicative power and presence on practices of human sensory awareness of the living world. This and other relatively abstract propositions about how people set up recursive connections between themselves, their ancestors, their country (land and water, fresh water and salt), and all the other living things, are fleshed out in detailed analyses of a few exquisite songs, including an analysis of one of the great songs of one her great teachers – Murukun’s shark songs.

Songs, Magowan tells us, do not represent ecosystems – they interact with them. And they do this in part because they work with the sounds of other living beings, and the sounds of water, rain, wind and other forces in the world. The result is that singers and their listeners experience their environment as part of their own selfhood: ‘personhood is embedded in and arises out of ecological elements’. (p. 125) Through singing and dancing, persons become ‘feelingful extensions of country’ (p. 20), and in death they are sung back into the country from which they came. Songs, then, do not exactly mimic the wider world; they speak its sounds, patterns, and rhythms. Songs arise from the world, and are sung back into the world, creating recursive loops of emotion and sentience.

This excellent study offers stimulating ideas in the areas of music, sound and sense, ecology and emotion, the philosophy and practice of place and place-making, and processes of inhabitation. As well, it takes up ontological questions of sentience, the power of songs and sounds, and, more deeply, processes of mutual indwelling. With this term Magowan aims toward the idea that ‘persons and their perceptions of animals and nonhuman things indwell each other, thereby erasing conceptual distance and facilitating emotional connection between people, places and ancestors.’ (p. 141)

Melodies of Mourning offers chapters on ecologies of song, performing emotions, seeing in sound, and in these chapters Magowan takes us into children’s learning, women’s crying, songs in their clan and territory contexts, and the power of songs to effect change in people and in the wider world. Two of the final chapters consider Christianity and how Yolngu people have sought to sing Christianity into ancestral ecology. I found the turtle song to be a beautiful example of how Christianity is woven into songs without apparently demanding to be the only song or the only meaning that songs are allowed to express. The song never mentions Jesus, but as Murukun explains it, she sees ‘the waves slapping the Rock like Jesus being mocked, jeered and beaten. Just as the Rock stands firm year after year, so she considers that Jesus is the Rock that no one can destroy. The sea leaves its marks on the Rock, making it glisten and shine, imbuing it with ancestral strength.’ (p. 146)

Aboriginal people do not inhabit a conceptual world that is divided up according to a nature/culture boundary, and the recursive loops between themselves, the country, their ancestors, and other living things are loops that people learn, find, teach, develop, praise, and love. There could be no more beautiful account of connectivity within an ecology that is holistic and autopoetic than The Rev Djiniyini Gondarra’s. Magowan quotes him explaining this holism:

We Australian Aborigines make no distinction between the religious and the secular, between the natural and the supernatural. Our religion can be seen as a particular view of the universe and a set of relationships with it, including people, gods, spirits, magical power, totems, the land and features of the landscape, living creatures, trees, plants, and all physical objects. (p. 62)

Melodies for Mourning deserves to be widely read. It is excellent anthropology, and at the same time it brings wonderful analytic perspectives into important new interdisciplines such as the ecological humanities. I hope that the next edition will include a CD. After reading so much about sounds and songs, one desperately wants to hear some of them. 


Deborah Bird Rose
Australian National University

Melodies of Mourning: Music & Emotion in Northern Australia edited by Wendy James and N.J. Allen was published by University of Western Australia Press, World Anthropology Series in 2007 (222 pages, bibliography, index, maps, tables, photographs).

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