Keep your mind strong and then you can go anywhere in the world

— by Rebecca Renshaw

Bobby Bununngurr, Taiwan Indigenous Peoples’ Cultural Park, Pingtung. Photographer: Allen Murphy

Bobby Bununngurr, songman and multi artform creative from Ramingining travelled to Rinari, Taiwan from October to November, 2019 as the Northern Territory Indigenous Artist in Resident. He caught up with Jocelyn Tribe, Program Coordinator about his cultural exchange experience and the importance of keeping culture strong.

I’m in the Artback NT Hilux picking up Bobby Bununngurr who has just arrived back in Darwin after his six week artist in residency in Taiwan. Tomorrow he’ll fly back to Ramingining, so I’m catching up with him to hear all about his big trip and to help run some errands before he heads to ABC Radio for an interview later today. Bobby puts out his cigarette as he steps into the car smiling. He is wearing a necklace adorned with traditional hand-made beads and it has a big tooth hanging from it. Bobby was gifted this necklace to signify his cultural importance. His eyes are bright, he has a story to tell with big ideas.

Yeah, so you had a good time?!

Yeah, good time! I told them about how I came from Australia and I’m bringing connections to Taiwan. Language and culture, everything! I still have my song background. We keep our culture strong because we have many young children that need to hold onto our traditional culture. Every song comes from old people, they pass it on. That’s why we bring them [song] and we record it, we can [then] play it to our people [back home].

My important thing is didgeridoo and clapstick, I make sure I carry that. [Next time] I would like more of my traditional dancers to show [Taiwan Indigenous Tribes] how we dance together. Show them another world. You know, the Aboriginal people and [how we] keep the culture alive. [In Taiwan] we can use the natural way with white clay, paint ourselves for when we’re dancing. That’s how it should be because at the moment [I’m] on my own. It’s not enough to bring just me, but what is happening [with the residency] is good, me and Allen [music producer and assistant] and we’re happy.

Like proper Bungul, yo?

Bungul, yeah Bungul! Because [at the Amis Festival] they are in ceremony way … Taiwan people were telling us this. They’d say “Woooah! What about in your, you know, country?” And I’d say “Well, yeah there is some.’’ I tell them about how a Bungul is and that we can bring it and show real connection [in Taiwan]. Next time I’m going to get the money and build up the story. We can show them [Taiwan people] all about the Bungul. We’ll go, bring culture, and it can stay there in that Bungul, for [their] Aboriginal peoples’ culture and music.

Now I have seen with my own eyes, some of those Aboriginal people there, they’ve never stood at a Bungul. And that’s how we [Yolngu] can live forever traditional way. I want the government people to see that I can bring all the dancers and [share] our culture and traditional ceremonies.

What about the Timur Elementary School? I heard you went to visit the students there, how was that?

Yes, I showed them artwork, my painting. I told all the children to join me, I said to them, draw with me. And I drew with them a crocodile and a magpie and I told them, this is a part of my song and my story, this one.

Nice one, and that’s not the first time you talked about your story was it? How was the exhibition Old Masters at the National Museum of Taiwan?

I showed people around the bark paintings by Old People that are from Northern Territory. I told them about how this is artwork from around Ramingining … I know this old man, George Milpurrurru and Johnny Bulunbulun, they’re part of my tribe. [I showed the] painting about my mother’s land. I [explained] other art from Yirrkala, I know this because this is Yirritja and this is Dhuwa, this one is Djambuwa, he’s from the east, crocodile man from the Gumatj clan.

As a musician you take old songs from language and put them into new music. Can you tell us more about that?

We can travel with our traditional Bungul and say that we’re keeping this. All Yolngu people if we don’t stand up and keep that traditional music, hold it with our two hands, we’re killing that part of our history’s story from Old People, after that you’re killing Bungul. When you grow old, your children’s children, they’ll say “Have you got another Bungul behind you?”  and you’ll say “No.”

Number one, if you can own this, your lore, your history from grandfather, and grand, grand, grandfather that is passed on … [you can keep] your mind strong wherever you go in the world.  This is the way we keep our culture strong forever. Don’t forget it. The music we’re showing and talking about is the history of Bungul.

About this music, that will stand forever. Changing, changing, and then you have the history story. You have the Bungul. Keep the culture alive, that’s the number one. And then your children can grow up and can see. That’s the one. Keep your culture strong, especially when the government are looking at us.

How about the Taiwanese Indigenous singer 桑梅絹 Sang Mei-Chuan? Part of your trip was spent collaborating with her? There was a clip sent back of her singing with you?

Oh yeah! That’s my song about white cockatoo, she said “What’s that mean?” I said “Oh, that’s my traditional Bungul, the white cockatoo and that’s my Yirritja moiety. This is my song.” Then she said “Whoa … That’s very nice!” and she was asking, “Well, I’m going to join you. You and me, we’re going to sing together.” We did a recording. I hope that they can fix it and make a CD later there, me and she [Sang Mei-Chuan] together.

Can you tell us about the pictures I saw of you at the Amis Festival, I heard there were 5,000 people there!

Yo! 5,000 people [at the Amis Festival] and then Allen turned and said, “Hey, what are we going to do? This is a crowd! It’s you and me, you know.” I said, “Don’t worry about it.” I stand later and give them a song, you know, strong. The crowd said “Whoa!” and everyone got up and danced. Like Bungul. Yeah.

I said “Okay everyone. I’ll say, OOOOOH OOH!” And they listened. I gave a signal with the clapsticks, “bang, bang” and everyone came together and shouted, “YIIIIIH”, and we do it again, do it again. This is grand, you know? Grand, I saw everyone looking and I think, “Wow!” And they were looking and they were screaming, you know? And they were singing, all the people!

Woah! Who else did you meet? Did you go to a wedding?

We went to, ah yes, we went to a wedding and they gave us, like, a costume.

A traditional outfit?

Yeah. And we had to carry a short knife and a pig.

A pig?!

Yeah, a pig, but it was still alive.

Still alive?!

Yeah, and we had to do it their way because they said “You’re joining us for the wedding! This is when we will have good food, and that pig, we’re all going to have Taiwan beer, seafood and everything.”

So, they were really taking care of you?

Yes. And we said, “Wow, this more food!” You know, and more food! Everything today. Steak, then chicken, oh, then I had to say “I’m finished, I’m too full,” and then more fish! This is happening!

Wow, and so with all those pigs they must have hunting?

Well, yes. All people, every time they go and hunt in Rinari, they have to go to the hunting grounds.

Did you go hunting?

No, too many hills! But they spear. They belong to their Country, they know their Country and how to hunt, you know?

Yes, so that’s a little bit like your home at Ramingining?

In my Country, there’s a little bit of hills, but it’s a little bit flat, not like there. And they have really such tall hills and every cloud is covering the hills, on the mountain and on the mountain top. Amazing!

Yes, very different to our country, yeah. Is there anything that’s the same, like for both tribes?

Well, I see now that it was different, you know, from my Country, [where it is] a little bit low, easy to walk, hunt. But [in Taiwan] such high hills, mountains, I can’t handle it. It’s not like that in my Country, that was different. Language is different, I don’t understand. But their cooking is nice in a natural way. And in my Country we roast everything, fish or something like kangaroo, wallaby, we roast in special way too, you know? Yeah, all people [when] we met them, were calling us, inviting us for a party. This is amazing. And I told them “the same thing we do [at home], like, here.”

And did you meet someone that was a Bear Hunter?

Oh, old people we met them and they were telling us about that. I got a necklace with a boar tooth on it too.

We’ve arrived at our destination, Bobby gets out of the car looking like a rock star waving to young ones that shout back “Hey, where you been?!”