The austral winter has already given way to the hot season in Central Arnhem Land. Its been weeks since we left and I’m left haunted again by the beauty of this place and its people. As I slip back into the crankpot drudgery of datasets and computer models, it begins to feel like a dream - 6 weeks in Arnhem Land...cast off from the world of mortals with a satellite phone and a trailer full of food. Magic magic magic.
Music was our entry card. As a gift, we gave our host Balang an acoustic guitar, knowing he played, but not knowing that his own instrument had been broken for a while. For five days straight, no joke, from morning till past our bedtime he strummed that guitar like the Mad Minstrel of the Bush. It is difficult to comprehend, much less describe, the cultural gap between whitefellas and blackfellas in Australia, but as it is written: music is love. Balang’s guitar and my little beat up old mandolin rang into many a night out there in Arnhem Land. And from so many early awkward moments, it helped our family and their family find harmony.
With the juxtaposition of such European instruments in such an un-European place, questions about instruments from Balang’s country were inevitable. Maybe the most iconic, the didjeridu, is not native to all Australia - it comes from Arnhem Land. What began as very simple conversation - a bit of practice in Kune, one of Balang’s languages - inadvertently led to a little adventure.
Balang: ‘Mago, its called. The didjeridu is mago.’
And me, like a child: ‘Ah...mago...’
‘Ngai djarre mago!’ (I like didjeridu)
‘Ngai djarre marnbun mago!’ (I wanna make didjeridu)
‘Molam garrire garinan mago?’ (tomorrow we go and see didjeridu?)
And so forth in my broken Kune, night after night, joking by the fire, plucking our instruments.
Until one day Balang says ‘Gamak, garrire molam.’ (Good, let’s go tomorrow).
Next day I come in from a morning of fieldwork to find a note from Talia, “we went across the river for mago!!!”
Crap - I’m not missing this. So I go after them, cross the river up into proper stone country, following footprints in the sand.
Up by a little creek the track faded. I give a “hui!” and there they are, Talia, Bulanjan, Wamudjan and Wamud, up across the stream hunched over a tree stump.
‘Mangun!’ Sugarbag. The little hives of the beautifully stingless Trigona bees colonize old trees, rock crevices, sometimes straight in the ground.
Get a digging stick and yank a hunk of comb straight from earth to mouth...glorious honey streaming down your hands.
The wax is saved for the mago mouthpiece.
Not too far off, Balang knocks on young Eucalyptus trees (E. miniata and E. tetrodonta), listening for hollow notes. Tree-piping termites (Coptotermes) do most of the work by eating through the center of the stems, but harvesting is only the first step from tree trunk to mago.
The monster mago project has begun. We first talked about mago in the singular. Now we’re hauling eight stems back to our home at Dukladjarranj.
Back at camp, the bark is peeled with a knife, then a rasping file burnishes the mago clean.
Sandpaper preps the surface for painting...ah the paints. Balang and Bulanjan spend days and nights painting in layers...strictly from the earth - charcoal for black, grinding red and yellow rocks from the stone country itself.
Delek, the white clay, requires more work. Veins of the sediment are spotted in the rock, often near, sometimes even in the river. By our camp, another Balang and Wamud pull out delek bit by bit with a rebar hook.
Pigments are mixed with a bit of water and some wood glue to adhere to the mago. A stem from a river sedge makes a good paintbrush, and the designs come from dreamtime stories and imaginations of Balang and Bulanjan.
Ten days later, they’re finished. We roll the mago into a swag and they’re ready to haul to Maningrida, 70 km north on the coast. Why take them away? Along with music, there’s a fair bit of money to made with these mago. In Maningrida, the aboriginal art center accessions his work, cuts him a nice check and later that day, Balang’s back at Dukladjarranj and his ‘didjeridus’ are on their way to Darwin for an art expo. That’s another story altogether...
Bulanjan pulls out a honeycomb
Balang mixing paint