Buŋgul @ Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide 2/3/2020

Buŋgul means ceremony in the Yolngu language, and ceremony has a powerful meaning in indigenous culture.  Gurrumul Yunupingu’s final album, Djarimirri, was released in 2018, after his tragic death in 2017.  It is a blend of Yolngu indigenous chants and songs with an minimalist orchestral score.  It is a unique and pioneering piece of work, and debuted at number one on the ARIA charts.  It represents a bridge between traditional indigenous and western culture, and a permanent etching of Yolngu indigenous tradition onto the contemporary Australian cultural landscape.

The Adelaide Festival was bringing Buŋgul, a live performance of his album to town, featuring Yolngu dancers and singers, and the Adelaide Festival orchestra.  I went to the Monday night performance, and it was clearly the hottest ticket in town, with hordes of people lining up, and packing the auditorium.  The bell was ringing incessantly as the theatre goers shuffled in.

The orchestra was waiting patiently, sitting towards the back of the stage, with a large screen projecting an overhead view of the stage, with a sandy dance area below.  The performance was introduced by a Yolngu elder who acknowledged the Kaurna elders and explained how these songs, these manikay, were songlines from Gurrumul’s family and were all about country, the land.

The orchestra opened and the first track, Baru (Crocodile) and Wak (Crow) started to draw us into the traditional life of the Yolngu people.  The dances were performed at the front of the stage and the screen projected overheads and close ups of the performers.  At various time throughout the show recordings of the dances being performed on the lands of the Yolngu people were shown while dancers performed live on stage.  Vistas and scenes of the Yolngu lands were also played, and this helped you connect the singing and dances to the land, which inspired the song lines and where these dancers were traditionally performed.  The orchestral accompaniment was superbly performed by the orchestra, and it was quite a technical feat coordinating live music, dancers and chanting, with recordings of Gurrumul’s voice. 

The song Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) title track of the album was particularly moving.  The traditional face painting was more elaborate, and the dancers were focused and emotional, as it sang of an important spirit totem from their creation myths.  The orchestra faded away at the end, and the finale was performed by the didgeridoo and chanting.  Close ups of the performers on the screen showed their intense concentration and emotion.

Some of the pieces had a more playful and festive air, such as Gapu (Freshwater), and Djilawurr (Scrubfowl).  In Djilawurr a thin young dancer mimicked perfectly the motions of the scrub fowl as he scratched and pecked around the stage.  Researching this review, I found that even this has an important meaning, as it represents a cleansing rite performed prior to the conduct of ceremony and the preparation of shelters.

The dance for Marrayarr (Flag), had a much more contemporary feel to it, singing about a mast which holds a flag, and the dancers had almost regimented and revolutionary zeal as they marched off the stage.  The Yolngu’s historical links with the Indonesian Makassan traders was also captured in Djolin (Musical instrument) which is about the sounds of a one stringed muscial instrument of the same name.  The performance finished with the eerie Djapana (Sunset) and sombre Wulminda (Dark Clouds) and the climax was greeted by a standing ovation by the audience.  There was an encore from the indigenous artists treating the crowd with an intense and powerful dance accompanied by the didgeridoo, sticks, and chanting.

It was a really impressive show and while there was a lot going on by combining the forms of recorded and live multimedia, a full orchestra, ancient tribal instruments, chanting and dance, it meshed together beautifully.  I felt like I was taken on a journey, transported back in time through the song lines and given a glimpse into ancient Australia where people were close and connected to the land.  It is pleasing that these forms and this connection to land is still very much alive in indigenous Australian culture. Highly recommended.

Adelaide Festival Review By Jeremy Watkinson

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