Westwind: Djalu’s Legacy
Westwind: Djalu’s Legacy is a powerful and insightful documentary that tells the remarkable story of the internationally revered musician, craftsman and spiritual leader Djalu Gurruwiwi. The documentary follows his quest to find the new voice and leader to carry the songlines and traditions of his Galpu clan and Aboriginal culture through future generations. The documentary was funded by the Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Grant, Screen Australia, NITV and Film Victoria (Beat Magazine, 2020). The director Ben Strunin comments:
“The intention of the film is to amplify Djalu’s message to as wide an audience as possible; an audience that wouldn’t normally listen to a story like this. It’s always been part of the intention — to amplify his sound and message to the world.” -Ben Strunin, 2017.
During the eight years of production, Strunin and European Yidaki (Didgeridoo) gallery curator Bear Love (Colin Goring) took Djalu overseas to perform his musical talents at seminars and music festivals where he inspired thousands of people across Europe for a month (Beat Magazine, 2020). Strunin talks about Djalu and his wife Dopiya Yunupingu:
“We became really close…They adopted me into their family and their clan. We made plans that I would have to come to visit them and experience what they were teaching about their culture and their land. I think the perversity of the whole thing was that I learned all this stuff about Yolngu culture that I’d never learned in Australia on the road in Europe with this master of the didgeridoo.” -Ben Strunin, 2017.
During this time it gradually dawned on Strunin that he could see how important Djalu really was and the reverence people had for him (Beat Magazine, 2020). Strunin remarks:
“Just to be in his (Djalu’s) presence — you feel it instantaneously, because he’s a powerful, mystical man. He’s very generous, he’s very charismatic. He’s full of love…He’s got a magnetic personality, and he’s clearly a maverick in the way that he travels the world sharing his culture.”
On the road, Strunin observed Djalu transcending the bounds of culture and language and creating powerful connections with his craft. One of the techniques Djalu uses here was labelled ‘heart-blast’ by Strunin. This is a unique practice that Djalu has refined over many decades where he points his Yidaki at someone’s heart and plays a healing songline which reverberates through the body and spirit (Beat Magazine, 2020). Strunin explains the publics’ reaction to Djalu’s technique:
“You can see the biggest cynics, who would be against all that ‘hippie sentiment.’ You see him play the Yidaki into people’s hearts, and you can see them melt. You can see that instant connection, where they understand everything. They understand how important and powerful this man is as soon as he plays that sound through their body.” -Ben Strunin, 2017.
Djalu, Yolngu man from Birritjimi, Raragala Island in Northeast Arnhem Land, is one of the last living elders of the Galpu clan, and the custodian of the Yidaki. Monyu Gurruwiwi, passed his Yidaki down to his son Djalu, which “carries the sound of the Barra, the Westwind. This sound is the breath of life. It has been passed through generations when a master recognises potential in a young man” (Screen Australia, 2017). Zelda Gurruwiwi, Djalu’s daughter, explains the story of her father’s receiving of the custodianship of the Yidaki:
“Djalu was always with his father. He was like, a warrior, you know?…One day he told him…“I can see something… a good spirit…I’ll put you in charge: the head of the Yidaki”…Djalu is following his father’s footsteps to lead people.” -Zelda Gurruwiwi, 2017.
The Yidaki Djalu’s father bestowed upon him is used when he tells the story of the Yidaki:
“The Marrakulu tribe tried to play but the sound of the Yidaki was blocked. So they took that Yidaki and threw it into the Manhdharr creek. The Galpu clan picked up that Yidaki and took it with them” -Djalu Gurruwiwi, 2017.
When the Galpu ancestors played the Yidaki, the sound of the Westwind travelled and began carrying songlines in all directions across Arnhem Land. Aunty Gurruwiwi, Djalu’s sister explains the origins of the songlines:
“Songlines are actually in the Galpu clan nation, and is the journey of the windage…Some saw it as a Rainbow Serpent…In the songlines, you are able to gain that insight you have to actually see it as the unseen…the things that you come to realise within your spirit within the spirit realm” -Aunty Gurruwiwi, 2017.
Songlines are more than just sounds; they are used to talk to the ancestors of the Yolngu people. The Yolngu have specific ways of retaining valuable knowledge, and in terms of songlines they trace the footsteps of their ancestors, and inform them how the land was created in the Dreaming. They also tell the Yolngu where to find food, shelter and water. As the Yolngu travel across their country, these songlines connect them to their land and each other (Screen Australia, 2017).
Djalu explains the significance of the Old Men passing down the knowledge of the Yidaki and Yolngu culture:
“My grandfather, my father and myself in a line tell a story from this Yidaki…the sound of the Westwind. This ancient story was handed down to me…Our knowledge is invisible. It is unseen, this is the truth…Every ceremony is lacking while I am still alive. When I die the Old Man’s memory is gone.” -Djalu Gurruwiwi, 2017.
Aunty Gurruwiwi expresses her brother’s concerns on this matter:
“Djalu, my brother, is concerned about our next generation. When there’s ceremonies, we have to attend…but that hasn’t been happening. I call it ‘distractions of other things’: alcohol, drugs…the technology that is here now. You are going in a different direction, not on the path of knowing who you are and where you come from…Djalu is waiting for someone to stand next to him, to take over the ceremony and lead the people.” -Aunty Gurruwiwi, 2017.
For some Yolngu nation people their culture is far too sacred to share with the ‘outside world.’ However, Djalu disagrees because for him sharing First Nations’ culture across the world keeps it alive, and inspires the next generation of Yolngu to follow in his footsteps. Djalu lives in two worlds: Yolngu and Balanda (white man). Nowadays, it’s difficult for him to lead his people when they are spread across Arnhem Land and wider Australia. Thus, to spread the significance of Yidaki and First Nation’s culture, Djalu teaches musicians all over the world to play the Yidaki.
Larry Gurruwiwi, Djalu’s son is a master Yidaki player, member of the Barra West Wind band and next custodian of the Yidaki. For a long period of time, Larry felt the pressure from his father and the Galpu community with taking on the custodianship of the Yidaki to lead the next generation (Screen Australia, 2017). Larry (2017) felt as though he drifted away from his musical path where he reminisces:
“You play the didgeridoo and you can feel the strength, we call it Ganydjarr: the power…I used to make didgeridoo all the time. It was the best way, you know? When I was living with the Yidaki’’ -Larry Gurruwiwi, 2017.
Through establishing the Barra West Wind band with Djalu and Andrew, Vernon and Russell Gurruwiwi, and Lachlan Dhamarrandji, Larry rediscovered his love for music and the Yidaki. Larry’s band intertwine the ancient and contemporary in eye-opening performances, combined with the sounds of saltwater reggae. Larry states:
“For me, I never sing songlines in culture. But my culture is changing into the music. I’m telling the story.” -Larry Gunnuwirri, 2017.
The more Djalu shared with Strunin, the more he began to understand the importance of his mission to impart wisdom and spread the teachings of the Yidaki, even drawing the attention of Wally De Backer, better known by his musical moniker Gotye. De Backer wanted to meet with Djalu to learn from the master himself, and so Strunin captured the two artists producing a musical dialogue that transcended the limitations of spoken dialects. Djalu invited De Backer into Yolngu culture and to Raragala Island where he, his father and grandfather grew up and learnt to become song men. To the First Nations’ peoples:
“Home Land is the best place possible where the younger generation can learn just by actually being there and reviving what has been dying slowly.” -Screen Australia, 2017.
Every Yidaki produced by Galpu song men has the power to connect people with its distinct sound. In De Backer’s time spent with Djalu’s community and when he performed with Larry’s band Barra West Wind at the 2015 WOMAdelaide Festival, he experienced this deep-rooted connection between Yolngu music and culture. De Backer recalls a memory:
“I remember his face in the darkness. The intensity to which he was playing it felt very stirring that Djalu was playing very directly, to me. It was like Djalu became his totem, sort of became lightning” -Wally De Backer, 2015.
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At Yarn, our artists use songlines to connect to their culture and country. Each clan has their own version of songlines and different pathways that map out their landscape, and trace the footsteps of their ancestors. Different colours and formation of lines are used here, for example First Nations peoples from Saltwater Country use cool tones of blues, greens and other colours that reflect their island environment. Charlie Chambers Jnr. and Shara Delaney, are two artists featured on Yarn that feature songlines in their works, which can be viewed here.