Solo Series #5 - Daniel Wilfred (watch video here) - vocals
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“This is the song Bambula. Walking song. Walking and dancing. Yolngu man walking and hunting the flies away from his face with stringybark leaf… and he finds that country. Lärra. Stone spear country. This song comes from there. And that’s where we make that spear, gara, and the spear holder, galpu. I was giving that song for the spear and the spear holder.”
Daniel tells me about the song as we sit and listen to the audio mix and watch the video cut with Leo Dale in his darkened studio.
The idea of layering his voice came from a workshop he gave when the Australian Art Orchestra was doing its annual residency in Tarraleah Tasmania. Daniel wanted us to learn how the different parts of the song intersect so he overdubbed them on the fly and then talked about each one.
Everyone in the room during that workshop was stunned by the complexity and beauty of the relationships between the three voices. I tell Daniel that the balanda (white fella) word for a number of different voices singing at the same time but in different directions is polyphony. He tells me it’s called dup-birrk manikay in the Wägilak language from his country near Roper River in North East Arnhem Land. “It means family singing, or friends singing.”
“The first voice is my voice. I’m walking in the bush and I’m singing ‘where is my son Isaiah?’ Then the second voice is my son, Isaiah, and he’s walking and singing, ‘where is my dad?’ Then the third voice is the old man’s voice, the ancestor, and he’s walking in the bush and he’s singing ‘where’s my brothers and the Wägilak tribes?’”
The voices are set in a soundscape made mostly with electronic sounds. Daniel has always been very interested in electronic music and in natural sounds manipulated using electronics but this is radically different from anything we’ve done before and we didn’t prepare at all. Before the recording he told me he wanted to layer the voices again for his solo and play with the electronics and no didge. This is also quite unfamiliar as manikay is always performed with the didge.
Daniel likes to make things new. I’m reminded of a quote of his that I read a little while back: “Sometimes we do new songs, but it still comes up with our language. New songs, it never stops.” (1) His brother, David Wilfred who plays the didge with Daniel, is with us on the day we record and he nods his approval for Daniel’s ideas as we sit drinking cups of tea in the cool September sunshine on Leo’s deck.
We slide into the air-conditioned darkness of the studio. Daniel sits under the light. I have a laptop and my sampler. Daniel signals to me to start and I know he wants the wata sound, but beyond that I have no idea where we are going. He begins to sing and suddenly I’m there with him. We are walking together. Tape samples and sine tones manipulated in a maze of electronic circuitry become birds, samples of static become the stringybark leaf. The new and the old are layered along with the voices; together as they are always meant to be. I am learning.
1. Daniel Wilfred, cited in Samuel Curkpatrick, Singing Bones: Ancestral Collaboration and Creativity (Sydney University Press, 2019), forthcoming.