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A Buŋgul, a procession, an overnight vigil: Sydney finds new rituals to mark day of mourning

After an exhilarating celebration of Dr G Yunupingu, a procession weaved through Sydney before spending the night in communal reflection at Barangaroo

A Buŋgul, a procession, an overnight vigil: Sydney finds new rituals to mark day of mourning
Aboriginal elders perform a cleansing ceremony on 25 January at Barangaroo in Sydney. Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

On Saturday night in Sydney we commemorated “the day before the country changed”. Everyone was welcome.

The elders carried smoke and songs were sung, as the numbers of the procession grew. The Sydney festival event began at Town Hall before landing at Barangaroo for the Vigil, part of artistic director Wesley Enoch’s commitment to finding new ways to mark 26 January. Women danced and sprayed water from the harbour to cleanse the land, passing the site where an Indigenous girl, Patyegerang, taught the first fleet marine William Dawes to speak her people’s words.

At dusk at the headland named for another spirited Cammeraygal woman, Barangaroo, 250 Aboriginal flags were flown as more people greeted the procession. There were traditional dances about sharks and falling stars. Into the late hours, there would be “yarning circles”, with people speaking of dreaming stories and traditional burning practices. Some would stay until dawn, the fire still burning, reflecting on what life was like before the first fleet landed and before the Union Jack was planted.

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Here were tender moments of togetherness for all races on sacred Gadigal country; a communal reflection on the eve of Australia Day before hashtags of #InvasionDay and #ChangetheDate proliferate on 26 January.

In a country whose national day is marked by a conflict – between commemorating the British colonial project and recognising the most long-standing continuous culture on Earth – might an annual Vigil such as this, the second held by Sydney festival, be a way to assuage the tension?

The Procession wound from Town Hall to Barangaroo on the afternoon and evening of 25 January. Photograph: Yaya Stempler

At a forum earlier that day, Enoch – a Noonuccal Nuugi man from Stradbroke Island, and the first Indigenous artistic director in Sydney festival’s history – had suggested that every Australian should adopt a totem animal they would pledge to look after: spurred not only by the devastating wildlife losses brought on by the ongoing bushfire crisis, but by the need for a sense of ceremony on a national day that – unlike Anzac Day, for instance – is lacking ritual. Professor Lindon Coombes, a descendant of the Yuallaraay people of north-west New South Wales, had noted the support of the Australian public for the yes vote in the same-sex marriage postal survey in 2017. With “churches, unions and corporates” increasingly supportive of a treaty with Indigenous people, he said, he felt some optimism.

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Now Enoch was telling the crowd at the Vigil to take home a message. “If anything, the last few months has shown us that Indigenous Australians have a way of living on this land that everyone needs to learn from,” he said. “If we do not act on what needs to happen, there will be no country for anyone. Indigenous Australians hold this knowledge and we should not forget it … We need hope, we need a vision for the future that recognises our whole history.”

The road ahead will be rich and complex. At the Vigil, the singer-songwriter Dan Sultan, who is of Arrernte and Gurindji heritage, sang songs such as Old Fitzroy, about the inner-Melbourne suburb where he grew up, and Kimberley Calling, a song about a grandmother he never met but whose grave he recently tracked down. He sang about his daughter and spoke of how her birth in Sydney gave him hope for an end to intergenerational trauma.

“I’m going to raise a strong, proud, Aboriginal, Chinese, Irish, Afghani, Scottish, Welsh little girl,” he said, to cheers from the crowd. “She knows who she is, and she knows where she’s from, and she’ll always be reminded of that … She saved my life.”

‘It was a night of shared emotions through songs and songlines; a night of opening hearts and listening.’ Photograph: Yaya Stempler

There was also Djakapurra Munyarryun, a featured artist in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, who performed a song to a yidaki (didgeridoo) accompaniment about trade between the Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land and the Macassans of Indonesia.

On Saturday afternoon and evening at Sydney Opera House, two premiere performances of a tribute concert, Buŋgul, were held in honour of Dr G Yunupingu, the beloved blind songwriter, former Yothu Yindi member and multi-instrumentalist from Elcho Island who died aged 46 in 2017.

Nine Yolngu men, all Dr G’s kin, danced, sang and played yidaki and clapsticks, accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Dr G’s prerecorded and multi-tracked voice, in the first concert version of Dr G’s posthumously released fourth and final album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow). In 2018, Djarimirri became the first Indigenous-language album to top the Australian chart.

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Eight of the album and concert’s 12 songs – including numbers about a scrub fowl, crocodile and blue marlin – come from stories from Dr G’s father’s clan, the Gumatj, and were sung in Dhuwala. The remaining four – including the title track about the rainbow serpent as a creation figure – are stories through his mother’s clan, the Galpu, and were sung in Dhangu.

The music was exhilarating. A huge screen showed the men dancing on country, and as the final song Wulminda (Dark Clouds) played and the men danced to the sound of thunder and rain, what appeared to be a drawing of an epic landscape on screen pulled back to reveal Dr G’s face, as painted by Guy Maestri in his 2009 Archibald prize-winning entry.

It was a devastating reminder of the loss of an artist who united many Australians in fandom; it was a night of shared emotions through songs and songlines, a night of opening hearts and listening.

• Buŋgul will be performed at Perth concert hall for Perth festival from 7 to 9 February, and Thebarton theatre for Adelaide festival on 2 & 3 March 2.

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