Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos

This is the first of three choir works based on the songs of the Yolngu people of Australia. I discovered them summer of ‘97 while looking for unusual texts to set for choir and was immediately haunted by their otherworldliness – they come from somewhere outside of the western European experience. The Aboriginal clans that originated these songs are splintered and in many cases extinct, and the songs are passed down by a few who still remember them.
These songs are “public” songs that were used by the Yolngu for entertainment as well as initiation and mortuary rituals. They have several layers of meanings – on the surface are hymns to different bird species, but simultaneously refer totemically to ancestral beings and a hidden spiritual world. As such, the works are religious, albeit from a perspective outside the Judeo-Christian perspective. They are also intended to be celebratory. While it is impossible for us, as outsiders, to understand these subtleties, nonetheless the words for me have powerful effect and inspire interpretation within our culture’s musical language. They are offered humbly with greatest respect for their creators, and with the desire to bring this wonderful poetry to the west. Joseph Waters, 1999

White cockatoos fly calling
“noopil noopil”,
“jikiding jikiding”
calling as they fly,
enjoying the breeze,
alighting in the tall paperbark trees at Balthawun.
“noopil noopil noopil”,
“noopil noopil”,
they called, “jikiding”,
calling as they fly,
happy in the breeze,
calling as they fly,
the wind ruffles their crests,
happily they cried, “jikiding!”
“noopil noopil noopil”,
“noopil noopil noopil”,
“jikiding, jikiding”
calling as they fly,
endless chatter of cockatoos
unceasingly they call
Garpirra wind, Yawukul wind
blowing towards Balthawun
talking there,
at Barlawatji, Murruwana,
Djikarnmurru,
the wind ruffles their crests
Crests ruffled in the breeze,
they called “jikiding”,
Gurnbuma cockatoos,
wind blowing their feathers,
at Balthawun;
– South wind blew their crests,
the breeze from the north
makes then croak
“noopil noopil”,
“noopil noopil”,
Gurnbuma cockatoos,
Gurnbuma cockatoos,
feathers ruffled in the breeze,
Galumaluma cockatoos,
– Over there they called
at Barlawatji, Murruwarna.
Marrparrama cockatoos,
Galumaluma cockatoos at Yawukuyala,
Gurnbuma cockatoos,
wind ruffling their crests,
At Balthawun;
– South wind catches their feathers,
in the Balthawun paperbark trees,
talking happily away, towards Yawuku.
“noopil noopil noopil”,
Galumaluma cockatoos,
Marrparrama cockatoos,
towards Yawuku;
– Gurnbuma cockatoos,
powerful south wind after the rains,
wind from the north-east,
happily they talk.

translation by Ian Keen

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