Wayai and widow songs


by Genevieve Campbell with Senior Tiwi Songwomen

View Genevieve Campbell's Biography

Dr Genevieve Campbell is musician and ethnomusicologist, working with Tiwi song custodians in song and language preservation through the collaborative organisation Ngarukuruwala.

Wayai and widow songs

Genevieve Campbell with senior Tiwi songwomen

Tokampini [Bird] was the father of Bima, the first woman, (also known as) Wayai. He called all those spirits, before us Tiwi people, the men and women, to ceremony. Those first Tiwi people were taught the laws, the way for living, about the tribes and all the rules that should be followed. They turned themselves into all of the animals, the trees, the flowers, the clouds, the stars and spread across the islands and the skies. They all became part of the skingroups that make up the country — the sky — Wantarringuwi (sun), the earth below — Marntimapila (rock) the land above — Miyartiwi (pandanus) and the sea Takaringuwi (mullet). 

- Elder songwoman Jacinta Tipungwuti1


Tokampinari is the dawn — 'the time of birds' — when the birds start to sing at first light. It also refers to the time in the Palingarri (the deep past)2 when all the animals and birds were men and women. Tokampinari is connected through the creation stories as the time when it was the birds who had the first conversations after the 'dawn' of the period of mortals.

In the Palingarri, as ancestral beings the birds were the messengers, the mourners, the informers and the law makers. Purruti, the Sea Osprey was a fisherman, Mudati the fork-tailed kite helped discover fire. The Koel is Alarpiningwani a calendar bird, whose call signals the imminent start of the wet season. The Great and Lesser Frigate bird (Japarrika) is seen congregating on the shore when a storm or cyclone is approaching. Similarly important to seasonal knowledge is Mapulinka, the Emerald Dove, whose distinctive breeding call in the middle of the wet season indicates that the Kulama yams3 are fully grown. If the call isn't heard people start to worry because that will affect the subsequent timing of ceremony at the start of the dry season, when the yams need to be harvested. They continue to converse with Tiwi people — they give cues of seasonal change, warn of storms, signal the optimal time for harvest and for preparations towards ceremony.

In their form as birds today, their actions follow the ways of their deep past mortal selves and so they continue to teach Tiwi people customs and seasonal knowledge. The birds as descendants of ancestral beings continue to hold knowledge and lore and customs and, being heard and seen reliably regularly, are a visceral reminder of and connection to Tiwi people's cultural identity and of their mutual kinship obligations and responsibilities to the land. Today through their calls and behaviours they create a daily hourglass. The sounds of each time of the day are sung by birds. Tiwi sung language similarly includes the sound of times of the day. This is not to say that Tiwi singers are mimicking birds, but they are placing their vocal presence in the present — perhaps a millennia-old transmission of sung knowledge tracing right back to those first ancestral singers, whose 'words' applied to when it was that they were singing.

In her songs for mortuary ceremonies senior songwoman, Clementine Puruntatameri,4 sang the voice of a morning songbird. She told me this was not the sound of the bird chirping, but of the bird singing/speaking, placing itself and the performance of the song (when sung by her daughters whom she knew would be singing) at the time of performance. This she said was the sound of the song, the sound of the story. The sound of the environment, not mimicking the bird, but being the bird, the ancestor, as she voiced it through her words. Parents of the Munkara and Puruntatameri patriline also sing as their ancestral birds, announcing the dusk — wangiyala payipayitu go to sleep now, go to sleep. The cockatoo screeches yiyikawu, yiykawu, yiyikawu, the jungle fowl calls kerrawu, kerrawu, kerrawu and the curlew wails wayi, wayi, wayi as they sing lullabies to their babies.

The ritual song practice of the Tiwi Islands, northern Australia, is fundamental to Tiwi philosophy and spirituality. Song confirms connections between Tiwi people with their ancestors through family lineages, right back to the ancestors of the deep past, before the time of people. In the Palingarri all the animals and birds were men and women. Tokampuwi (birds) are present throughout Tiwi creation time stories.

"Ngarra Jurrukukuni ngimarra yimi kangawula ngini naki murrukupuni amintiya Tokwampuwi amintiya yanamurluwi kapi ngaki murakupuni pili wuta pakinya purumuwu awungarra parlingarri."

"The call the owl makes is like talking to us. It reminds us of how the land and the birds and the animals were all here before us and how we are part of this place." - Jacinta Tipungwuti

They were also performers of ceremony, still continuing those roles through the singers and dancers who manifest them in ritual performance. Kurujikini, Owl and his wife Pintoma, performed the first Kulama ceremony and the White-bellied Sea eagle, Jirakati, was the first initiate. He still wears his ceremonial painted design today. The Brahminy Kite Jankinaki is the holder of Kulama and men holding their own ceremony will paint up like him — white head and chest paint and brown ochre and ash on their arms. The Orange footed scrub Fowl, or Jungle Fowl is Kirilima, the totem of the Puruntatameri family — a patrilineal ancestral dance and song.

Jungle Fowl is now a patrilineally inherited identity, voiced through song and actioned through dance, by those who call themselves Jungle Fowl. There are numerous songs in the recorded archive that refer to Jungle Fowl, often in the act of clearing the ground on the second day of Kulama. Jungle Fowl builds a mounded nest that is about the same diameter as the circular milimika, the ceremonial sand covered dance ground. People say that Jungle Fowl taught the Tiwi how to do this.

Tokampini was the father of Bima, the wife of Purrukapali the first man. In some ways Purrukapali and Pima's story is quite close to Adam and Eve, as it is one of temptation, loss and punishment.

This is the story of Purrukapali and Wayai, as told by Eunice Orsto:5

Palingarri over on the other side of Melville Island there was Purrukapali and his wife Bima were the first man and wife and Jinani was their baby son. Bima went to find food for him, leaving him with Purrukapali. She left her baby under the shade. Japara was Purrukapali's brother. He seduced Bima to go away and lie in the bush with him. She left Jinani so long that the sun moved and the shade moved away from Jinani. He was out in the hot sun and he died lying there.

Purrukapali saw what happened and was so angry he hit his wife on the head with his throwing stick and he banished her to be Wayai, that bird. Japara and Purrukapali fought each other with fighting sticks. Japara offered to take the dead son up to the moon for three days and bring him back alive after that, but Purrukapali said no "now my son is dead he has gone and we will all have to follow." Japara changed himself into the moon to escape Purrukapali but he was punished as well. He has to die for three days every month and we can see his scars on his face from the fighting. Purrukapali held the first Pukumani [funeral] ceremony and picked up his dead son and carried him into the sea, calling out killing himself too. He made that law that all people now have to die someday.

Bima became Wayai, the bird that walks around at night, crying, crying for her baby son and her husband and her lover she lost all because of her. She has those scars on her head too on that bird.

Wayai is the Tiwi Ancestral woman Bima who, at the death of her infant son, became the Bush, Stone Curlew, to cry in grief every evening. Wayai's cries of pain and regret are heard through the birds' call at night and through the 'crying words' in widow mourning songs. More than being mimetic of birdsong, these are the cries of grieving women's predecessors and connecting them, through their own songs and through the Curlew's calls all the way back to Wayai. The sounds of the country are the sounds of the Ancestors, and the songs tell their stories. Jacinta says "Karri ngirra pirlinkiti ampirimi ngawa awungarri ngarrimajawu ngirramini. When we sing amparruwu we sing like that crying Wayai. We are remembering that story."

There are two performance contexts in which grieving is ritualised — mamanunkuni (sorrow songs) and amparruwu (widow songs)6 both sung for mourning. In the texts of both amparruwu and the mamanunkuni we find the 'sad words' or 'crying words' kayai kayai. Ubiquitous to the mourning songs performed in the Pukumani (mortuary-associated rituals) and in the songs of remembrance sung in Kulama rituals, kayai is heard in idiosyncratic variations as each singer intersperses them with the text of their song, almost as asides, creating a sense that the songs are being composed as stream-of-consciousness thoughts and sorrow. All of the sorrow songs share a recognisable vocal representation of sadness, so much so that even in the absence of a translation, a strong emotional and spiritual response is felt by Tiwi listeners who recognise the 'sound of sorrow' physicalised by the singer and absorbed by the listener. Those crying words are particularly associated with the Tiwi women's songs, because they were learned from Wayai, one of the Ancestors, now the Bush Stone Curlew.

The amparruwu7 song type has a particular and specific function, performance context, performer and melody. It is sung by the widow or, in the absence of a living widow, a woman (or man) with the same classificatory relationship will take her role. Men can take the role of Amparruwu (and there are recorded examples in the archive) but they less often do, as there is usually a woman around, with sister/cousin sister status of the grieving spouse who can step in. The role is closely linked to the symbolic female position as spouse, child bearer, giver of life to the unborn, dreamed by the father and therefore the physical carer of both the patrilineal and the matrilineal kinship identities. It is performed solo, often alone, away from the assembled mourners, throughout the mortuary-related small rituals, at the funeral, at the final ceremony and any time through the mourning period at the agency of the widow herself.

Although they are singing for their own close deceased kin, the amparruwu singer does fulfil a specific community role. There must be an Amparruwu, singing at intervals throughout and adjunct to the mortuary rituals, which can run across days or weeks. With no direct audience necessary, but knowing people can hear her, the Amparruwu's role is to take the group with her on the journey they are all traveling through the mourning process, but the burden of which she takes on. Her songs chastise the deceased for leaving them, asking rhetorical questions such as tuwatimiwatirruwi? "why did you do that? why did you leave?", "where have you gone?", or expressing collective grief, "we are all crying for our daughter", acting as an overseer or perhaps a narrator of the unfolding processes, speaking for the group and providing cathartic relief to those around her. The dance that accompanies the Amparruwu's singing, with arms bent above her head as though holding fighting sticks, symbolises anger and pushing the deceased away, demonstrating openly the communal grief and unease felt at these liminal stages before the deceased is finally released.

As well as her sporadic songs throughout, the Amparruwu also performs last in the sequence of kinship song/dances at the Yiloti (Final Ceremony). After the many months of mourning; the healing and smoking rituals, the protocols of restrictions and closure of names, places associated with the deceased and the lead up rituals to this Final Ceremony, the very last performance of grieving is hers. After her song, she is then the first to begin washing off the ochres of the ritual that shielded them all from the unsettled spirit and a line is drawn under the mourning period. Calista Kantilla says, "once I sing those amparruwu we wash off all the paint and the smoke stops, the dances are over. We can move on because we have been through all the proper stages and dances you know? It's all done. They're gone, no more hanging around. We feel better."

Unlike the mamanunkuni sorrow songs, which are more commemorative, comforting, mannered, sung for solace and with a sense of peace, amparruwu are a somatisation of grief, at the time of the current, visceral state of mourning, with strong physical expressions of sadness and raw, real words questioning the state of things. The constriction in the throat at particular points of the phrase and a falling away of the ends of words — a vocalised breaking of the voice, a sob — pervade amparruwu singing, and we hear the falling wail of Wayai the Curlew. The melodic undulation approximates tearful attempts at speech — as words might fall away when the voice is broken by being overcome by emotion. Although there is a definable melody used for songs of the amparruwu ritual function it enjoys as many variations as there have been singers. Each woman expresses her own emotional, physical, spiritual self through her song and her way of calling out Wayai is her own, within the ritual structure and the melodic and linguistic structures.

Ritual, musical and poetic expressions of grief constitute a highly sensitive topic of 'study' and I have been very tentative and careful in my discussion with Tiwi people about this. How much of the musicalised wails, the vocalised sobs, the repeating, rhythmically and metrically regular iterations of kayai (the crying words) is performance and how much is 'real' emotion? I qualify 'real' because it seems to me and certainly does to Tiwi people that the performing of sorrow, whether through song, through dance or through ritual is as real as unrehearsed, spontaneous grief. The crying, yelling, wailing of uncontrolled passionate despair that one might consider to be the more 'real' outpouring of emotion is just as behaviourally, socially and culturally prescribed as their ritualised or artistic versions. All cultures have their own universally understood and accepted measure of degrees to which emotion (in this case sorrow and anger and grief) can and cannot or should and should not be displayed. Who is to say which is better — keeping a stiff upper lip or letting it all out? It depends on cultural and personal context whether each is deemed helpful or unhealthy. In the Tiwi space the ritualised, performed and heuristically learned outpouring of intense grief and active physical mourning are fundamental to people's ability to deal with loss, accept sadness by embracing, embodying and then releasing it. Sorrow singing is central to this.

The recordings of Amparruwu raise further important questions about the line between research and invasion of privacy. Partly due to the poor sound quality of the often-distant voice on the recordings, partly because the women I have worked with listen with the voices of their widow predecessors, and partly (mostly) because I do not intend to make public the personal grief of those whose permission I do not have, I have not made written transcriptions of amparruwu. There are very few clear recordings of amparruwu singing, due to the nature of the performance context, within mortuary rituals, the singer usually pacing, away from the congregation and sometimes while others are singing (other songs) in the larger group and because the elicitation of personal grieving is (rightly) a problematic issue. We hear Mirrirawayu Dorothy Tipungwuti sing in an elicited recording session (out of ceremonial context) for linguistic anthropologist Charles Osborne in 1975.8 Osborne notes that this was an amparruwu song that Dorothy had sung at a funeral some years before. Osborne gives this translation:

Muwawaya ningini murringunjirrumwari muwayaparlingarrila...

muwatiyala muwurrawangilimpangurranguntilirrila.

Now we must stop what we used to do, and be chaste, my wife...

We must sleep back to back.

The women I listened to the recording with suggested that Dorothy might have sung a more 'modest' version for this white man, sitting there with his tape recorder in front of her, or at least that there would have been other lines of her song that described the spousal relationship in a more physically sexual way. It is evident that Dorothy knew she was being recorded and perhaps altered her song accordingly. Amongst the recordings9 made by writer Sandra Holmes of a Ceremony10 in 1966, however, is a performance that has been met with quite different reactions from current Tiwi listeners. At one point we can hear Doris (the deceased's widow) singing in the background while the men leading the ceremony continue the Yilanea, a smoking ritual held as precursor to the Yiloti. We hear the wails and falling cadence characteristic of amparruwu singing. She sings not part of the ritual as such, but creates almost a running commentary on the event, reminding everyone that her husband is there, and his spirit remains in the place, observing the ritual. Just like Wayai cries each night — a regular commentary on the reality of death and sorrow.

One section of the recording11 has hit an emotional nerve amongst the women in particular since we first heard Doris sing in these recordings. Holmes' audio notes suggest it is Doris "and now all the dancers have departed and standing there with upraised sticks is the old lady — the widow — is left alone — singing."

My notes from a listening session in 2010 read:

In the middle of songs in ceremony that comprises translatable words, it has thrown every one that this is so opaque. It is mostly 'wailing' but is an amparruwu song, we can hear the melody underneath. I asked the ladies should it have been recorded? Some say 'yes', because it means they've been able to hear her and cry with her, and I sense the empowering, uplifting and positive experience it has given these women today — a kind of solidarity to be hearing her and welcoming her home in a way. There's a strong feeling too of 'no', this was an invasion of an intensely personal and private moment. Perhaps not private in terms of personal space (there would have been people around) and she knows her family listens, and that's fine, but in terms of a stranger with a microphone, watching, listening, taking her voice away to study, definitely.

None of the words were intelligible to those who have heard it (which is still not many, the older women having decided to keep the recording for family ears only). At a musical level, the vocal is very powerful; proud and almost declamatory and despairing at the same time, but it is clearly different from the other amparruwu songs that are more mannered or ritualised — certainly not a performance. Those words of Holmes were the most concerning for Tiwi listeners — the dancers have gone, she is left alone. The feeling is that once the 'dancers', the mourners, have left the milimika then the ceremony is over. The tape recorder should have been switched off. Notwithstanding potential lack of understanding of this point — the widow calling out the final wailing of the day might be construed as the closing of the ritual — it has caused upset on behalf of the old lady who was not in a position to decide whether she was recorded and with it her grief and her voice right at the moment her husband made his final journey. This pivotal moment was perhaps the most worrying for some elder women. Those who feel uneasy about the voices of people having been trapped and removed from their country and who have been relieved to hear them home again.

The older women listen to the recordings of these unidentified women calling out, wailing, keening, to connect with them as women who continue the role of amparruwu, continuing on from Wayai. In a timeless solidarity with all women who have mourned a loss, and, further, as the group with the responsibility to be the conduit of grieving, to connect with all people who grieve. Within the ritualised performance of mourning is the space for self-care and for the support of others. As the widow she sings to release her own sadness and allows others to cry with her, giving people permission to feel pain and sadness and taking it into herself on their behalf. She absorbs the grief as she must, as the representative at that moment of Wayai, of Bima, of all the women who cry for death. The women explain too that to hear their sisters of the past gives them a grounding in the continuity of life and death, hearing the ritual healing helps them too — and they listen to the recording with a motivation that goes beyond historical, cultural interest or family sentiment. They listen to these songs as small fragments of an ongoing continuous call of Wayai since the very first woman cried kayai.

In the audio-visual piece that accompanies this chapter, Eunice sings her amparruwu, recalling words she sang for her deceased husband years ago. She described her song as sounding like evening, like the calm of the night. Her use of alliteration and phonemic alterations, with open vowels added (only in song) to give an undulating languid sound as she alludes to the ancestral snake in the person of her deceased husband. 'As husband and wife, we are coiling together like a snake'. Eunice listens to the old recordings made by Charles Osborne and Sandra Holmes12 then sings after them, and says I cry too. [translating the song she's just been singing] "*For long time you arrived". Kama Parlinginarri. Parlinginarri mean long time you come. You arrived. She's talking to me,* "where have you been?" Lovely meaning eh? "Where have you been?" That old lady sings. ...

When I feel down, down you know, in spirit. At home I sing and I start to lift up. When that old lady sing too she make you cry. Clementine... that other one I sang. "I'll always be there" and then I sang. He said "you go long way. Don't come near me. You go long way or else ... your husband will be jealous of me. Karumpi. You go long way. Don't come near my coffin don't come near me."

Good meaning meaning... and when I sang, then they said is that Clementine singing? They said... after I finished. Some people said hey is that Clementine singing? No no I'm here she said, that's Eunice singing.

Kalaghayikalagha kayai kayai kayi ... Ngingitayingarangiyanguwatimingiturrupuntingaya.. kayai kayai kayai

you come here ... kuwalawakawayi kala you come here — come near me... so I listen, what you singing about. Kuwa [yes]... lovely meanings.

(Eunice pauses to stoke up the fire, and we wait for a group of teenagers to walk past and away)

It's got meaning, meaning.

The amparruwu serve a ritual and community purpose, but they are also deeply personal. Eunice and Clementine were impressive, thoughtful and knowledgeable women and central protagonists in song language documentation over the years that we worked on the archive recordings together. They were adamant that current use and contemporary performance were key to preserving the traditions and skills of the songs and their language. We mourned losing them both, far too early in their journey, and the addition of their insightful thoughts, strong voices and beautiful song words became a symbol of the fragility of life and of Tiwi song culture. Clementine's powerful telling of Purrukapali and Wayai's story and Eunice's moving amparruwu song are both personal and representative and it was an easy decision for the Strong Women's group to make that they should be included in the aural presentation of this story about Tiwi women's connections with Wayai. Theirs and the voices of Tiwi women past, present and future will continue the story of Wayai, the first woman who cried for a lost loved one.

Works Cited

Campbell, G. A. (2013) Sustaining Tiwi song practice through Kulama. Musicology Australia, Special Issue - An Introduction to Sustainability and Ethnomusicology in the Australian Context. Issue 35, vol 2.

—. (2014) Song as artefact: The reclaiming of song recordings empowering Indigenous stakeholders - and the recordings themselves. In Amanda Harris (ed.), Circulating Cultures; Exchanges of Australian Indigenous Music, Dance and Media. Canberra: ANU Press.

Goodale, J. C. (1970). An Example of Ritual Change Among the Tiwi of Melville Island. In A. Pilling and R. Waterman (eds.), Diprotodon to detribalization: studies of change among Australian aborigines (pp. 350-366). East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Greene, P. (2000). Professional weeping: music, affect and hierarchy in South Indian folk performance art. Ethnomusicology Online 5, http://www.research.umbc.edu/eol/5/greene/index.html.

Holmes, S. (1995). The Goddess and the Moon Man: The Sacred Art of the Tiwi Aborigines: Roseville East, N.S.W: Craftsman House.

—. (1975) Recording, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies: Catalogue: S03_000184B.

Osborne, C. R. (1989). Tiwi Chanted Verse. Unpublished microfilm. University Microform International.

—. (1966) Recording, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies: Catalogue: CO_003855B.

Tolbert, E. (1990). "Women Cry with Words: Symbolization of Affect in the Karelian Lament." Yearbook for Traditional Music 22: 80-105. https://doi.org/10.2307/767933.

Urban, G. (1988). Ritual Wailing in Amerindian Brazil. American Anthropologist, 90(2), 385-400. http://www.jstor.org/stable/677959.


  1. In order to give voice to Tiwi Traditional Owners' oral knowledge I present senior culture holders' words herein, rather than citing the written words of non-Tiwi anthropological observers. Please refer to my reference list for further reading. 

  2. This is also referred to as the Dreaming or the creation period. 

  3. The Kulama yams are toxic until carefully soaked and prepared and then eaten in the ritual processes of the annual Kulama ceremony. The Kulama ceremony serves as a thanksgiving to the land and the ancestors and as a ritual initiation of Tiwi youth into the responsibilities and knowledge of adulthood. See (author 2013; Goodale 1970; Osborne 1989) for further descriptions of Kulama. 

  4. Mrs Puruntatameri was a leading culture woman and song custodian. She passed away in 2012. Her name, voice and knowledge are included here with the permission of her family. 

  5. Eunice passed away in 2018. Until her death she was actively involved in our collaborative research/performance work. Her name, knowledge and voice are included here with permission from family. 

  6. These are perhaps difficult to distinguish but it is important to make the distinction, in an artistic, a ritual and an emotional sense they fulfill quite distinct functions. Mamanunkuni is the mourning song sung by fathers who have lost children and by sisters, aunties, cousins, siblings. Amparruwu is specifically performed by the deceased's widow or her next of kin (whether a woman or a man). 

  7. For clarity, when referring to the widow (the person singing) I will capitalise Amparruwu. When referring to the song type I will use lowercase amparruwu. 

  8. Charles Osborne audio recording 1975. AIATSIS Catalogue: CO-003855B. 

  9. The Holmes and the Osborne recordings are among the ethnographic audio material held at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra, accessed by eleven Tiwi cultural leaders and myself in 2009 with a view to repatriation to the Tiwi community. 

  10. The Yiloti (Final) Ceremony of Charlie Fourcroy. 

  11. Sandra Holmes. 5.6.1966. AIATSIS catalogue: S03_000184B. 

  12. In honour of Eunice and Clementine, the women with whom I created the accompanying audio-visual piece have included their voices alongside the voices of their predecessors, who they now join amongst the ancestors and amongst the songs in the recorded archive.