Baywara: The Film

16sand

Dot writes: Facebook currently shows me Gotye’s updates rather more reliably than those of my actual friends (see earlier post). On Thursday he posted this funding appeal for a film/music project that he is involved in and helping to finance. It is a documentary focused on an Australian Indigenous leader and maker of didgeridoos (yidaki) named Djalu Gurruwiwi; I have been musing on it and want to share some of my ponderings. I’ll say at the start that I made a donation, because I’d really like to see this come to fruition, but at first the clip made me feel uneasy in a number of ways. Unfortunately I am having problems embedding it, so please follow the link and watch or the rest of the post is going to make no sense.

Profound thought number one: I wish Wally would get a haircut, because he’s starting to look like someone who was thrown out of Hawkwind for washing. (None of my business, of course.)

Profound thought number two, now that’s out of the way: in what way does the hearing of Djalu’s story compare with the hearing of a Gotye song on YouTube? What does it mean anyway to say that Djalu’s voice will be amplified? More people might come to know his face, but getting a pop song stuck in your head (or, indeed, repeatedly viewing a man being covered in paint in stop-motion animation) is a rather different thing from trying to understand the worldview of someone from an indigenous culture. The clip asks ‘are you ready to listen?’, but I wonder what exactly we are going to listen to – ancient cultural knowledge, which is surely in some ways rather local and specific and hard to translate, or a story about Djalu and his culture, dressed up for its applicability to the modern world? Being an annoying academic type I also can’t help questioning this idea of a message being passed down through 60,000 years, since oral cultures are usually pretty adaptable and orientated towards the now, even and especially when they talk about the past, and however stable they may be materially. And, of course, we hear as we learn to hear, and in particular we decode stories in the light of all the stories we have heard before. No message, even within a culture, is simply transmitted as a whole package, unchanged. So I thought the clip was a bit naive, though who can blame it given a length of just over 2 minutes, and moreover it prickled for me with the crudity of fame and all those familiar uncomfortable questions about power and representation.

However, I also started to think a bit more about the functions of story and song in different cultures, and here I felt the incongruities might start to say something rather interesting. The clip tells us that Djalu Gurruwiwi transmits his spiritual and cultural knowledge through song. This seems to speak to a much more central place for music and a much less propositional conception of knowledge than most of us chiefly operate with in the Anglophone world. One wonders again whether the audience for the film will be equipped to hear what a man like this would want to say – I can’t help feeling that a documentary is not the obvious way to transmit such an active and embodied kind of knowledge – but on the other hand it challenges us to think about how we trivialise such powerful elements of our own culture. Of course we have categories of ‘high’ art, but we still tend to put the arts, especially pop music, in a box marked ‘entertainment’ and/or ‘luxury’. I work in a literature department so I have more exposure than most to discourses that take the arts seriously. Such discourses tend to be heavily defensive, and they also find it hard to validate knowledge that isn’t verbal, since words are their substance. Perhaps I am misunderstanding and romanticising Aboriginal culture, but it’s an intriguing train of thought.

Those were the kinds of things I was mulling over after initially viewing the funding appeal, but my ideas shifted as I started to explore a bit further – I admit that this was no further than I could easily be taken by Google. For one, I was confronted with the fact that some of my worries about power and representation were born of what are really rather patronising and stereotypical ideas of indigenous Australians. If Djalu is a last remnant of a stone age tradition (and I’m not sure why everyone seems to think it will die with him), he’s an awfully well-travelled and outgoing one. His family sell (or sold) yidaki through a handsome if somewhat out-of-date website. He has toured in Europe and the maker of the Baywara film, Ben Strunin, first met him in London. He has been the subject of at least two films before (a 2003 one for the Discovery Channel called Yidaki and, seemingly, a 2011 (?) one called Why is No-One Listening, which was also crowd-funded, but I can’t find much trace of it apart from the funding appeal). All this gives more weight to the emphasis Strunin places on how much of what he is doing reflects Djalu’s own wishes and priorities.

From the outset, Djalu has always maintained that if we can make an effective film showcasing his ability to crossover and communicate the integrity of his culture in a Balanda (non-indigenous) environment, then it would work on different levels and help sustain his culture; for example the next generations in his own community back in Arnhem Land can watch the film and can see that there is love and respect for their culture overeseas, then they might be inspired to have greater self-esteem and pride in keeping their own culture strong and perhaps even to travel themselves and see the wider world.

On the flipside the Balanda will see that Yolngu people are willing to share their culture in a collaborative way that helps mutual understanding.

– Ben Strunin interview in Little White Lies

This is where Gotye comes in, and also the artist Ghostpatrol, whom I hadn’t heard of before but whose stuff looks amazing. Clearly the publicity angle is useful and being consciously exploited, but the texts make it clearer than the clip does that collaboration and new creation are central, not simply amplification. It also makes a lot more sense of the involvement of Gotye specifically, beyond him having this big lump of fame. (I did wonder for a terrible moment whether someone thought ‘here we have an old man with body paint, so let’s involve this young man with body paint’. But I quickly abandoned that notion.) After all, the sample-based techniques that he uses are all about taking sounds from different places and making them talk to each other; and it is founded on being an extremely good listener, who can find corners of interest and beauty where others don’t even bother to look. Just to digress a little, this sense of good listening is in a different way also something I like about The Basics: when they do their genre-hopping thing they give an impression, which I find really infectious and appealing, of having loved the music they listened to so much they wanted to get right inside it and walk around. It helps that the tunes they write are very catchy too.

So, Baywara: The Film seems like a project with excellent intentions and I hope it manages to achieve at least part of what it aims for in the way of creation and communication. For me it has ended up connecting back to my recurrent preoccupations with, you know, life and the world and everything: how do we make something positive out of our relentlessly destructive consumerist culture? Emphasise the culture rather than the consumption, I think. Do more listening, looking and making and less buying and using up. Of course everything takes money, including a project like this, and is thus implicated in our economic system and its extractive basis, and there will be plane journeys with carbon emissions and whatnot, but I like the idea that something as notoriously disposable as pop music might be put to the service of memory and renewal and human connections.

What a serious post. Hope it doesn’t come across as pretentious. Here, have a nice cheery Gotye clip from 2007 to lift the mood.

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2 thoughts on “Baywara: The Film

  1. Mairi Jay

    Dear Dot, I find your reflections immensely thoughtful.

    I agree with you that the Djalu story has been presented simplistically and in a way intended to appeal to stereotypes. But I really like your concluding comments:
    “. . . . how do we make something positive out of our relentlessly destructive consumerist culture? Emphasise the culture rather than the consumption, I think. Do more listening, looking and making and less buying and using up. Of course everything takes money, including a project like this, and is thus implicated in our economic system and its extractive basis, and there will be plane journeys with carbon emissions and whatnot, but I like the idea that something as notoriously disposable as pop music might be put to the service of memory and renewal and human connections.”

    Your earlier insight: “This seems to speak to a much more central place for music and a much less propositional conception of knowledge than most of us chiefly operate with in the Anglophone world. . . . . .it challenges us to think about how we trivialise such powerful elements of our own culture. Of course we have categories of ‘high’ art, but we still tend to put the arts, especially pop music, in a box marked ‘entertainment’ and/or ‘luxury’.

    This reminded me of Bob Marley’s songs and how deeply important they were/are to sections of the Afro-American population and similar marginalised groups (such as young Maori in NZ). I think Bob Marley’s songs were profoundly important vehicles for oppressed groups.

    For example:

    Get up, stand up! (Jah, Jah!)
    Stand up for your rights! (Oh-hoo!)
    Get up, stand up! (Get up, stand up!)
    Don’t give up the fight! (Life is your right!)
    Get up, stand up! (So we can’t give up the fight!)
    Stand up for your rights! (Lord, Lord!)
    Get up, stand up! (Keep on struggling on!)
    Don’t give up the fight! (Yeah!)
    ===================
    Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
    None but ourselves can free our minds.
    Have no fear for atomic energy,
    ‘Cause none of them can stop the time.
    How long shall they kill our prophets,
    While we stand aside and look? Ooh!
    Some say it’s just a part of it:
    We’ve got to fulfil de book.

    Won’t you help to sing
    These songs of freedom? –
    ‘Cause all I ever have:
    Redemption songs;
    Redemption songs;
    Redemption songs.

    1. kenanddot

      Thankyou for such a long, careful comment, Mairi. You’re right that pop music, certain genres of it anyway, has actually had a really vital cultural role for particular communities. I guess I was writing as someone who isn’t in one of those communities, or rather who belongs to a class/group, emphatically not an oppressed one, for whom pop music tends to be associated with a sort of temporary identity formation for the young, and also, often, with some very trashy and dubious stuff. For the nebulous group I belong to there is also often an automatic suspicion of anything that seems too political and earnest. We expect irony.

      Mind you, I notice how my generation, having tended to be a bit disengaged in youth, are getting more and more serious and political in our thirties and indeed more radical. We came of age in a time of plenty but have now come through austerity and are contemplating disaster.

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