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Un Magazine 10.1

Sharing one cup

Chris Griffiths

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Photograph: Alana Hunt and Graeme Griffiths, 2016

We don’t create our song and dance like the way a rock ’n’ roll muso creates theirs. Our song and dance are given to us in two ways. They come from family, like an inheritance we become custodians for. And they come fresh in our dreams from spirits and Country.

You know when you wake up from a dream and you speak to someone about it and that dream disappears from your mind. These dreams are not like that. The dreams that give us song and dance, they stay with you. They become embedded in you. These dreams are flooded with sounds, echoes, visions, rhythms and stories. When these things come through your body and mind, again and again, your hair stands on end.

There are lots of different kinds of song and dance cycles. We call these different styles joonba, moonga-moonga, balga, janba, marndiwa, wangga and lirrga. Each style has different rhythms, different body paint, different songs, different artefacts, different instruments and different dances. These are the things that special people are given in their dreams. They’re also inspired by the Ngarranggarni (Dreaming), and the knowledge of the old people. It’s part of our tradition, and we’re holding on to it today.

My father has two song and dance cycles, but they are both connected. One has been passed on from his grandfather, and that one is a joonba. The other is a balga that came to my Dad in a dream, and he calls this the Bali Bali Balga. Both of these song and dance cycles are based on real events that happened to my Dad and my great-grandfather, although decades apart. They are both about children who go missing in the bush, taken away by a spirit. But in both stories the kids are eventually tracked down, found and brought back to their family who smoke them. The reason they are smoked with leaves from the dimalan tree, is to protect the kids from evil spirits. When the spirit of old Mundy Moore tried to take my sister when our family was on a fishing trip to the spillway, my father didn’t only smoke my sister, but he smoked all of us kids. I was only a baby then.

Photograph: Alana Hunt and Graeme Griffiths, 2016

Our song and dance are connected to us and that connection comes from Country. The song and dance brings us and our Country alive. It wakes us all up, tells us who we are and where we come from. These stories teach us. But we wouldn’t have any of these stories, none of these songs or dances, none of the artefacts or body paint without our ancestors, our Ngarranggarni and our Country.

My Dad, Alan Griffiths, explains more about how our song and dance are passed on and learnt:

If that dead man might got a son, daughter, grandkid. If he give it to his grandkid or son or daughter, that’s right. But if he can’t give it, well he’ll give that corroboree to another man. That ’nother man might say, ‘Hey, your father been give me corroboree in the night time. Good one too. Well put him on.’ They used to put them on. They used to go for weeks and weeks. Take ’em all over, like a winan.1

This time now, they got a mobile phone or they got a thing to record it, people singing. Well, when they finish singing they go back, they put it on. We fellas learn that way, see. Get that thing on a dvd or video or cassette. Before we used to get it straight out, you know. When people want to get that corroboree or wangga, you gotta take him and show him, sing it bat him,2 and give him a hand to sing him.

One water, one tea, two fellas drinking. That’s the way he gets that knowledge from that bloke singing that wangga. By water and tea. When you get a drink from that grandpa, grandpa gammin’ drink that water,3 he drink that water and he wash his mouth, chuck him back la that cup. Spit back in the cup and two fellas drink that water. And all that knowledge go into that little fella. That’s how it used to be, but we don’t do that now.

People might ask why we don’t do what my father describes now. We’ve been shifted off our Country too many times, gathered up like bullocks in a yard and forced to live in townships. That’s now our way of life. We’ve drifted away from many of our own traditions and way of doing things. But we still hold on to everything that we can in our hearts and in our minds. And like Dad says although we haven’t shared cups of water or tea for a while, we do have our videos and mobile phone recordings. Recordings of our song and dances spread in our own communities like wild fire. And who knows, maybe this year two fellas, one old and one young, will start drinking from the same cup again.

Chris Griffiths is a Miriwoong/Ngaliwurru man living in the East Kimberley. He is the son of Alan Griffiths, a renowned artist, respected law man and recipient of the 2015 WA State Living Treasure Award.


  1. Winan is a traditional form of trade that takes place across different Country. 

  2. Bat is a Kriol word that changes the verb to mean ‘continuous or habitual’. 

  3. Gammin’ is a Kriol word that means to pretend or lie about something.