Trumpeting revival at Lajamanu

My recent interest in some traditional Australian aerophones sprang from hearing about the Warlpiri kurlumpurrngu or ‘Warlpiri didjeridu’.

The instrument was shown in a event on Thursday 21 April at the National Library, when Steven Patrick Jangala and Yukihiro Doi presented ‘Milpirri: A Response to Cultural Loss’ to the National Australian Folklore Conference 2011. The pair also have a paper accepted for ICTM 2011 in Newfoundland this July, ‘Milpirri: An Aboriginal community event that joins the ancient with the contemporary.’

Milpirri is a biennial gathering at Lajamanu1, with ‘extraordinary performance events’ (source).  Milpirri has been a focus for maintenance of traditional Warlpiri performance which has also ‘toured to local and national festivals’.

Steve Jampijinpa is a Warlpiri man who has long worked at Lajamanu Community Education Centre (CEC), and who has led Milpirri. Yukihiro Doi (土井幸宏) is an ethnomusicology PhD student who has spent time at Lajamanu and also been involved in several Milpirri.  Together they appear on a short video (with transcript) [update: now only on YouTube] (also on YouTube) in which we can glimpse a kurlumpurrngu and something of its revival at Lajamanu. As the NT Mojos mobile journalist (and Jerry Jangala’s granddaughter) Jasmine Patrick says on the commentary, the kurlumpurrngu ‘was used in the early days and it was lost in our days but Jerry is bringing the Kurlumpurrungu back to the community’.

There are a couple of linguistic angles on this revival.


1. the word kurlumpurrngu

As the video shows, Jerry Jangala remembers the Warlpiri word kurlumpurrngu and the instrument it denotes from his his youth ‘in the bush’ seventy years ago.

kurlumpurrngu still from video
kurlumpurrngu in NT MOJOs video

I’ve learnt that Jerry Jangala tried in a way to revive the word about twenty years ago, when he was collaborating with the SIL linguist Steve Swartz on the Warlpiri translation of the Bible.  Their draft translation of 1 Thessalonians2 4:16 used jitirni kurlumpurrnguju marrara-nyayirni (‘play the kurlumpurrngu very publicly’, my back translation) where the NRSV3 has ‘with the sound of God’s trumpet’.4

Steve Swartz’s 1997 Warlpiri-English dictionary Warlpiri yimi kuja karlipa wangka accordingly has an entry

kurlumpurrngu trumpet, didjeridu, guitar

This word however did not make it through SIL’s careful translation checking, apparently because ‘the older word must have been falling into the realm of the archaic by the mid to late 90s’ (Steve Swartz email 30/4/11), and so the Warlpiri Bible published in 2001 has in this verse jitirni Kaatu-kurlangu turampitiji5 marrara-nyayirni (‘play God’s trumpet very publicly’, my back translation).  Like the other Australian language translations I’ve checked on this verse, the decision has been to borrow English trumpet and assimilate it to Warlpiri phonology.

2. the synonym ngungkuwarri

I met up with Yukihiro Doi the other day in his student office at the ANU School of Music, where he kindly filled me in about his study at Lajamanu, and told me of the talk I missed the previous week.  I learnt also that Jerry Jangala has told Doi that in the Anmatyerr language, the kurlumpurrngu was called ngungkuwarri.

The dictionaries I have consulted do not directly list ngungkuwarri or what would be its Arandic equivalent.  However its parts are recorded in north Arandic languages.  The suffix is Alyawarr -awarr (~ -awerr) ‘habitually associated with something, usually, always does something’ (Green 1992:119).  The stem is Anmatyerr ngkwengk adv. ‘cleaning mouth out with water; gargling’, and verb stem ‘clear throat; make a small coughing noise’ (Green 2010:441-2).  Also the neighbouring Kaytetye language has the word ngkwengk ‘cough’ (Jennifer Green, p.c. 30/04/11).  So these days ngkwengk-awerr seems to be a hybrid from neighbouring Arandic varieties and would mean ‘something that always makes a gargling or coughing noise’; whereas in Jerry Jangala’s time it was a combination he learnt from Anmatyerr people.  This word when pronounced in Warlpiri would be ngungkuwarri (in Warlpiri orthography, and simplifying the initial cluster).  Indeed, the sound of the instrument as demonstrated to me by Doi is akin to a repeated cough.

3. kulumpung

Back to kurlumpurrngu.  This Warlpiri word is quite similar in form and meaning to the Gurindji word kulumpung ‘didjeridu’ (Patrick McConvell p.c.) mentioned at the end of my previous post (which started from Kalkatungu kuɭumpu ’emu-caller’) and with Miriwoong and Gija gooloomboong ‘didjeridu’ (as in Jackey Coyle’s interview with Frances Kofod ‘Gija Music of the Kimberley’, 2006, PDF).

Another comparable word was recorded as colombo, associated with ‘a hardwood drone pipe collected from the ‘Gulf of Carpentaria’ from an unrecorded collector’ and held in the SA Museum (Philip Jones, email 28/4/11).  So a word pronounced kulumpu(ng) is known from the east Kimberley across to the Gulf meaning ‘didjeridu’ or ‘drone pipe, and south of the Gulf in Queensland meaning ’emu-caller’.

Why then does the Warlpiri equivalent have a more complex form, that is with the extra -rrngu at the end?  Patrick McConvell (email 28/4/11) suggests an explanatory scenario: ‘The form with rr might be the original in the VRD6 but the rr got lost (even though most languages tolerate a final -rrng). In this case the -ng could be the Miriwoong suffix (kind of default gender). Of interest is the borrowing of the suffix -ng along with the presumed stem, which may indicate a temporal stratum. Addition of -u in such cases is regular in Warlpiri.’

So, this Warlpiri word still remembered by a handful of Warlpiri elders has the potential to contribute to our understanding of culture prehistory, as well as focussing the Warlpiri’s cultural future.


Thanks again to Nic Peterson, and to the others named above for allowing quotation, and to Jennifer Green for guidance on ngungkuwarri.


  1. Records of the last three Milpirri are available through Tracks Indigenous Projects
  2. Pipa 1 Tijilunika-wardingki-patuku
  3. New Revised Standard Version; good online access to this and many versions of The Bible is available through The Unbound Bible
  4. In the KJV (King James Version), 1 Thessalonians 4:16 ‘For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.’
  5. trumpet
  6. Victoria River District, to the north of Warlpiri country

5 thoughts on “Trumpeting revival at Lajamanu”

  1. Interesting blog, and I was fascinated to see the YouTube of Jerry making and playing the kurlumpurrngu. Having worked to coordinate the Warlpiri Bible translation project for nearly 25 years, it really doesn’t pay to look back at old translations, even if published. I do so from time to time and usually come away scratching my head and wondering, “What was I/what were we thinking!”

    Were I to do it over, I would retain kurlumpurrngu in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 rather than succumb to the English loan trumpet. But the sad fact of the matter is that between the publication of the Mini-Bible in 1992 and the publication of the later, fuller version in about 2001, numerous items of vocabulary in the 1992 were already falling off the radar in terms of being understandable by the younger generations–even those just one generation back from Jerry. I couldn’t see the possibility of reversing the slide into modernity!

    Mea culpa!

  2. Great to know that aerophones were in the vicinity. Some further thoughts on -awarre ‘having, associated with’ in Kaytetye: this suffix often refers to people, e.g. ngkwarl-awarre ‘someone who drinks all the time’, arlk-awerre (arlke ‘body’) ‘strong person’. So could ngkwengk-awarre also refer to the person playing the instrument ‘someone who is always coughing'(?), polysemous with the instrument name itself. Or would someone such as Doi be called ngkwengk-awarre-awarre?!

  3. David Wilkins reminds me that Frank Gillen recorded (late 19th century) a number of words for ‘trumpet’: ‘Arunta’ ilpirra; ‘Kaitish’ ilpirra; ‘Warramunga’ thūr-lū-pū; ‘Chingilli’ kūlum-būpi ‘Umbaia’ kūlūmbū; ‘Gnanji’ urlūng-būngma. Gillen’s comparative vocabulary table is online at The Jingilu and Wambaya forms look like the Warlpiri and Kalkatungu forms. The Warumungu word is /jurlupu/ ‘hollow log’.

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