The story of ‘Lingmarra’ and the CMVic network

**This article and the following story contains references to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who have died. It also contains words from the language of Australian Kriol. Permission has been sought and given for its use in this context.

Lingmarra, a beautiful song about coming together was brought to the CMVic network by  Barlang T. E. Lewis*, a Murrungun man, actor, singer and songwriter from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, who first learned it as a traditional song from the Dalabon Corroborree, Bongiliny Bongiliny.

Lingmarra is a song which enchants singers and listeners alike and one which Flip Case, a Melbourne based singing leader has taught to singing groups many times:

“It’s a song that feels ethereal and earthy at the same time, there’s something elemental about it, you feel transported by it and my choirs always respond to it really strongly.”

A couple of years ago, Flip was covering a session with Sue Johnson’s Prana Choir and decided to sing the song with them as she’d recently been teaching it to her own choir.

At the end of the session, a woman called Victoria approached Flip and explained how her partner had been involved in the arrangement of the song, working in collaboration with Barlang T. E. Lewis and another singer-songwriter, Melanie Shanahan.

Flip was immediately intrigued.

“I’d actually only really known the song through Melanie and I thought, wow, that’s an important thing to know about”.

It transpired that Victoria’s partner is Stephen Costello who was then Coordinator of the Community Music Forum and later the Executive Officer of Community Music Victoria. Flip set herself a mission: Work with Stephen to capture the story of how the song was arranged as a way to preserve the provenance of Lingmarra for all of the leaders singing and sharing it, in the CMVic network and beyond.

 “It’s important to have as much understanding as we can. We’re always talking about provenance and recognition of a song’s origins and whether we’re allowed to use songs for the general population and whether it’s appropriate to use it.”

As so often happens in life, for one reason and another, the two never quite got around to the task. Then, following the sad news of  Barlang T. E. Lewis’ passing last year, Flip decided it was time: “I thought, Stephen’s the last one to really tell the story of how that song came about”.

Below is a version of Lingmarra overlaid with lyrics by Barlang T. E. Lewis; upon listening to this version, the way he extends it becomes clear. (From this point on, the story becomes a personal recollection, and Barlang T. E. Lewis is referred to as ‘T’.)

Stephen explains, “T added to the traditional song in so many ways. The call to the young people Aair yawodi is his idea and this is Kriol. When the old people sing Lingmarra gumbah they are not sad. They are having fun. T added his story to the song, which is about his search for his brother, but also about travelling through his “church”, the country and communities of southern Arnhem land.”

The version of Lingmarra taught by Melanie and included in the CMVic Songbook, Sing itis the chorus of the song, “part traditional and part T”.

What follows then is an account by Stephen of his part in the arrangement of the song as it was sung by Barlang T E Lewis, written in response to Flip’s quest.

Lingmarra Story, as told by Stephen Costello

“Before Community Music Victoria was incorporated, there was a group called the Community Music Forum and we operated under the auspice of the Community Arts Network (Victoria). In 1990 I was the Coordinator of the ‘Forum and one of the first events we held was called “Everything you wanted to know about Aboriginal Music but were afraid to ask”. (Barlang) T. E. Lewis was our guest speaker. He was well known as an actor (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) and as a musician with Lewis and Young (didgeridoo and clarinet) and his own original band, ‘The Anthropologists’.

T was brilliant, honest, charming, compelling and generous with listening to our questions and responding with stories and facts. This was the beginning of our friendship and collaboration.

As I shook T’s hand in appreciation after the ‘Forum, he said “Stephen. Let’s do something really big together.”

I joined The Anthropologists as a guitarist. I travelled to Canberra with T for a Music Council of Australia Conference. In the car T sang the Country as we drove along. In the hotel room we co-wrote This is My Country. A few years later, Community Music Victoria was formed, and then Melanie Shanahan came to town. CMVic backed Melanie to stage The Choral Sea in the Great Hall of National Gallery of Victoria. T and I taught This is My Country to Melanie and Melanie taught and conducted the massed community choirs. This was in the late 1990s.  (It was a bit before the Great Southern Sounds Festival and the Millennium Chorus.)

Community Music Victoria won a grant from the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council to support T to record his music. T and I played with The Anthropologists and we started to work with classical guitar and didgeridoo. T had bought a new F# didgeridoo (called Bambu or Yidaki in Yolngu country) and we started to harmonise with this.  I asked Melanie Shanahan to work with T on some of his songs in the development and pre-recording stage.

The three of us worked out simple harmonies for three songs. Lingmarra, with the F# Yidaki was one of these. At this stage it was just a chorus with guitar and Yidaki in between. Then T had to go home to southern Arnhem Land to help out during some major flooding around Beswick (Wugularr) and the Roper River. He came back to Melbourne inspired and knowing that he was needed in his community at Beswick (Wugularr). But first we had to get into the studio to record.

I put down the guitar part for Lingmarra, and then T, Mel and I sang the choruses. T said “I can sing over that”. Melanie and I and the sound engineer were treated to an improvised one-take recording where T sang his heart out. The playful calling together, Lingmarra, lingmarra gumbah became instead a deeply heartfelt searching for T’s lost brother. T re-voiced his time travelling around Arnhem Land searching for his left-handed brother (ballajugor). He calls for all the young people (yawadi) to help him, to walk and sing with him calling the spirit (warral) to come and be with him.

This is mostly in the Kriol spoken in this part of the Northern Territory. Thanks to Gloria Lane from Beswick (Wugularr) for her partial translation of the song. Kriol is a new language developed by multilingual Aboriginal people. It uses many English sounds, because English is the language of the colonialists, the pastoralists and the missionaries, but also words and ideas from the old languages of the people drawn to Beswick (Wugularr). These languages are Dalabon, Rembarrnga, Mialli, Ritharngu/Wagaluk, Jingili, Gorindji, Ngalakan, Marra, and Nungulbuyu. Kriol is the meeting place language between all of these and English.

I will keep working with Gloria to get a fuller translation and a deeper understanding. Why is T calling only the young people to help in this search? Is it to show respect to the old people, who we have no right to ask to help? I think so. Does T call his brother “the left-handed one” and not use his name because he suspects he has died and therefore he can’t use his name? Or is it just the game people play in Arnhem Land of not using names because they are more interested in relationships and kinship and skin names? It will be fun to find out.

What we do know is that Melanie taught the chorus of the song in schools and to community choirs all over Australia, and it has become part of our folk tradition with the continued support of Community Music Victoria. That’s the part of the Lingmarra story that I know about.”

-Stephen Costello 

Deep gratitude to both Stephen Costello and Flip Case for bringing this beautiful story into the light and sharing it with the CMVic network.

Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria. 

*In recognition of his extraordinary life, the family of  Barlang T. E. Lewis has given permission for the use of his image and voice by the media.

Further links to Lingmarra

Auslan signing for the song “Lingmarra” as part of the VoiceMob project, produced by Yarra Ranges Council.


Further reading:

The Conversation: ‘Explainer: the largest language spoken exclusively in Australia – Kriol’ 
https://theconversation.com/explainer-the-largest-language-spoken-exclusively-in-australia-kriol-56286

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