Wangga and Lirrga song styles


Music plays a central role in the cultural life of Ngen’giwumirri and Ngan’gikurunggurr people. The furtively sung wudisyu and tyarrada love song styles are now only performed by a few elderly women and men. However all ritual, ceremonial and festive events are still typically accompanied by the performance of the three main song styles, Wangga and Lirrga. Today both these styles of performance can be heard at public ceremonies such as circumcisions, and ‘ragburning’ mortuary ceremonies, and at cultural festivals such as the Darwin Eisteddford. At various times during the 1980s and 1990s in the Nauiyu and Peppimenarti community primary schools boys have received some training in Wangga and Lirrga didjeridu playing and dance, and girls have received some training in women’s Walamarra dance style. A third song style Djanba is mostly performed at Wadeye and Nganmarriyanga.


Here is short sample of Wangga performed after a ragburning ceremony at Nadirri in 1988, led by Frank Dumu as the principal dancer. Note that many people in this film are since deceased, and caution should be exercised in playing it to an audience of Daly River people.


(click to play) - [with permission of Frank Dumu and family]


The Wangga and Lirrga song styles do not belong uniquely to Ngan’gi speakers. Speakers of Ngen’giwumirri, Marringarr and Wagiman inherit the Lirrga song style, while speakers of the other Marri languages and Ngan’gikurunggurr inherit the Wangga song style. Song styles are inherited through patrilineal descent lines and all estate groups speaking the same language variety share the same style. While song style inheritance can be determined by ‘language’ affiliation, the inheritance of different styles by the Ngen’giwumirri and Ngan’gikurunggurr shows that higher linguistic subgrouping is not a relevant factor.


Wangga and Lirrga are performed by a ngalinangga ’singing man’ who also plays the clapsticks. A singer is typically accompanied by a ‘bamboo man’ who plays the didjeridu, and sometimes supported by other singers and clappers. Both Wangga and Lirrga are typically danced to, with distinctive dance styles for men and women.


Singing men have a repertoire of songs (often about 10-20). They build this repertoire in three ways. Firstly, they are taught songs by singers outside their own estate and given the right to sing them in the absence of their original owner. Songs acquired in this way are usually withdrawn from a singer’s repertoire for a year or two upon the death of the original owner. Secondly, they inherit songs from their fathers. These are not subject to withdrawal on the father’s death, so a singer’s repertoire can be seen to be the property of a patriclan, that is added to over successive generations. Thirdly, singers acquire their own songs. The creative source to which these songs are attributed varies considerably, some singers just make them up themselves, others receive them in dreams from walhakanda or menimemerri, the ancestral dead of their country.


Wangga and Lirrga represent the main ways that living Ngan’gi speakers interact with the ancestral dead, through song learning and performance, and through carrying out ceremony. The main context for Wangga and Lirrga performance is in mortuary ceremonies held for the recently deceased. The worlds of living people and of the ancestral dead are coexisting reciprocal worlds that are connected in rich ways. When a Ngan’gi speaker dies, after necessary ceremonies they become one of the ancestral dead and return to their conception site. This journey, from life to death, is facilitated by the performance of songs. The songs themselves are provided to living songmen by the dead, and living songmen sing these songs on behalf of the dead. This kind of reciprocity of song production and performance maintains the continuity of life. The living arise from conception sites in their country, and the dead return to those sites, and Wangga and Lirrga performance are key to the maintenance of this existential cycle.


The words of Wangga and Lirrga songs are real words, as opposed to some song styles which involve nonse words, such as in some of the songs of the more eastern Baranga type of Wongga. Some made-up songs explore mundane themes (a trip away), others are humorous (the discovery of knee marks in the grass where people have been copulating), and some full of yearning (for country or distant family). Amongst the songs received in dreams, perhaps the most common themes are the walhakanda themselves. These songs are rich in ethereal fleeting imagery that evoke the liminal spaces in-between the worlds of the living and the dead: people dreaming, the glitter of sunlight on the sea, mist and cloud, birds wheeling and screeching in the air, people or things glimpsed rather than seen plainly, and references to the ebbing and waning of the tide, etc.


Wangga and Lirga songs tend to be quite short, and highly evocative, as demonstrated in this Lirrga song of the Ngen’giwumirri singing man Long Harry Barney.


Long Harry Barney’s Lirrga song ‘Lafulafu’

Dede Lafuganying

My country Lafuganying,

wibem wayimadi

it’s lying empty.

Dede Lafuganying

My country Lafuganying,

wibem wayimadi

it’s lying empty.

Gagu asyinme

Just white cockatoos,

dingim dirrgatit yirrimbin

feeding on the riverbank.


In addition to the ‘language’ group affiliations noted above, performers articulate the differences between Wangga and Lirrga in terms of minor structural phenomena; for instance Wangga singers signal the end of a song to the bamboo-man with three small taps of the sticks, but Lirrga singers do this by singing ‘ny ny ny’.


The Wangga and Lirrga styles as they are known today arose during an intensive period of social reorganization and adjustment, during the period in which Catholic missions were established, firstly at Wadeye (Port Keats Mission), and later at Nauiyu (Daly River Mission). During the 1950s and 1960s repertories of Wangga and Lirrga songs, together with a third genre Djanba at Wadeye, were innovated and performed as part of a system of reciprocal obligation between groups of people renegotiating social contracts and access to land and mission-based resources. At that time Wangga and Lirrga played a crucial role in cementing stable social relationships between different groups in the Daly region, and a strong sense of reciprocal obligation, of each group performing these song genres for others, remains an important concept in ceremonial planning and organization today.


One example of the social contracts made and maintained through the performance of Wangga and Lirrga, is to be seen in the context of circumcision ceremonies. In addition to songstyle affiliations claimed through one’s patriline, all males who have been through the circumcision stage of initiation have an affiliation with the songstyle that was performed at the moment that they were cut. This affiliation is expressed in such terms as “I was cut Lirrga-way, so even though I’m a Wangga man (by patrilineal affiliation), if I was visiting on the Wagiman side (who are Lirrga by patrilineal affiliation) then they’d know me over there”. This kind of affiliation is also expressed in the use of songstyle terms as names for men. Any man can be indirectly referred to, or directly addressed by, the songstyle associated in this manner with his circumcision. Calling to someone in this way serves to remind them of the bond forged between the initiate and the inheritors of that style, and its attendant responsibilities. As such, it is the favoured way of addressing a young man who was cut in the style inherited by the caller.


If you are interested in learning more about Wangga song, see Marett (2006) which combines detailed description of the musical features of this song style with analysis of the social meanings and functions constructed and conveyed through Wangga performance.