Tuesday, June 10, 2008

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Name: Russell Ngardayngarday

Clan: Warnapuyngu Wagilak

Homeland: Ngilipitji, Dhupuwamirri - eastern Arnhem Land

Skin: Burralang'

Age: 38 years

Russell Ngardayngarday, also known as Russell Ashley, is recognised throughout the greater part of Arnhem Land as an expert didgeridoo player. His Aboriginal name means Stringybark (the tree species Eucalyptus tetradonta). He comes from the Warnapuyngu branch of the almighty Wagilak clan.

Russell is one of 3 'Ashley' men known as expert yirdaki players, the others being older brothers Roy Wuyngumbi and Raymond Marpin.

It was Marpin - a Guyula Djambarrpuyngu clansman - who taught Russell the finer points in yirdaki playing (Marpin and Ngardayngarday both have Ritharrngu mothers, who were sisters).

Marpin has been a member of the David Gulpilil Dance Group and the Wak Wak Djunggi band, has toured internationally and is featured as the didgeridoo player on a 1991 cassette called "Djut Djut Djane" produced by David Gulpilil Productions. I was fortunate to have met and video recorded Marpin at Ramingining in the 1990s, during ceremonial performance, and will upload these clips to YouTube in the near-future.

Back to Russell... his father was Peter Dawukarri and his mother Rosie Ngardiny (both deceased). His blood brothers include Djardie Wordalpa Ashley, who famously won the 1987 National Aboriginal Art Award (before it was renamed the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award). Bertie Warrngga is another blood brother who has made enormous contributions to society, through employment in the government sector encompassing a broad range of fields.

Because of Russell's reputation as a yirdaki maestro - and from different families and sources at that - I was keen to seek him out and to meet him. Which proved to be more difficult than I had imagined as Russell drifts between 4 distinct regions including the communities and outstations of Lake Evella, Oenpelli, Katherine, and Port Keats (where his wife is from).

Last week, once in the NT, I travelled 1600 kilometres by road over 4 days in order to track Russell down. Persistence paid off and here are some video clips to show for the effort.

Some comments as background material to accompany the clips...

Russell is somewhat of a 'long-grasser' these days. The term will not be explained here and it is not meant to be derogatory in any way, just a fact of life. Russell has deteriorated in health as a result of living it rough, out in the open with no roof over his head, but worst still, getting stuck into the alcohol in a big way. And every day...

With his brother's Warrngga's permission, I booked Russell into a hotel for 3 days and clothed, fed and looked after him. I was hoping he would get better, for me to hear the yirdaki magic. And also that Russell would regain some normality in his life that would have carry-over effect.

The normality part did not succeed. When the recordings were done and Russell was paid, the next time I saw him he was fully intoxicated on the verandah of a church building, a popular hangout for long-grassers during the wet season. He was sound asleep and no amount of prodding by family members could rouse him.

As for the recordings, note that Russell suffered 'grog shake' during the filming, a symptom of alcohol withdrawal. He improved over the days he was with me, with zinc, magnesium, calcium, vitamin C and vitamin B complex supplements, but not enough for him to fully recover. Russell is also missing 2 front teeth, a fact he pointed out to me in explaining his clumsy first day when I tried to record.

The following segments were recorded at different times, on different days and in different places. Despite lack of practice, grog-shake, and missing teeth, most of it was good to very good, and there were moments of brilliance too which can be seen at the start of Segment 6. Segments 3 and 5 show side-views and breathing patterns can be heard quite clearly in these. Segment 7 has Russell playing a mago WAL style made by his brother-in-law, Dhugurun Gulunggurr of the Ritharrngu clan.

With encouragement, hopefully I and Russell's family can inspire him to bigger things and higher goals in life. He is a good chap who has suffered some set backs in recent years. I was saddened to leave him as he was just starting to come out of his shell and on the last day with him, Russell was beginning to chat and laugh more comfortably. His glazed eyes were beginning to brighten, his shakes more controlable, and his warm and generous personality starting to shine through.

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