Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

‘So what’s the story of this place, old man?’

Alan gazed into the fire without twitching a muscle. The skin stretched taut over his cheekbones and shone. Then, almost imperceptibly, he tilted his head towards the man in blue, who got to his feet and began to mime (with words in pidgin thrown in) the travels of the Lizard Ancestor.

It was a song of how the lizard and his lovely young wife had walked from northern Australia to the Southern Sea, and of how a southerner had seduced his wife and sent him home with a substitute.

I don’t know what species of lizard he was supposed to be: whether he was a ‘jew-lizard’ or a ‘road-runner or one of those rumpled, angry-looking lizards with ruffs around their necks. All I do know is that the man in blue made the most lifelike lizard you could ever hope to imagine.

He was male and female, seducer and seduced. He was glutton, he was cuckold, he was weary traveller. He would claw his lizard-feet sideways, then freeze and cock his head.
He would lift his lower lid to cover his iris, and flick out his lizard-tongue. He puffed his neck into goiters of rage; and at last, when it was time for him to die, he writhed a giggled, his movements growing fainter and fainter like the Dying Swan’s.

Then his jaw locked, and that was the end.

The man in blue waved towards the hill and, with the triumphant cadence of someone who has told the best of all possible stories, shouted: ‘That . . .that is where he is!’

Arkady and I lit a hurricane lamp and sat on a couple of camping chairs, away from the fire. What we had witnessed, he said, was not of course the real Lizard song, but a ‘false front’, or sketch performed for strangers.  The real song would have named each waterhole the Lizard Man drank from, each tree he cut a spear from, each cave he slept in, covering the whole long distance of the way.
We sat mulling over this story of an antipodean Helen. The distance from here to Port Augusta, as the crow flew, was roughly 1,100 miles, about twice the distance, -so we calculated- from Troy to Ithaca. We tried to imagine an Odyssey with a verse for every twist and turn of the hero’s ten-year voyage.
I looked at the Milky Way and said ‘You might as well count the stars.’

Most tribes, Arkady went on, spoke the language of their immediate neighbor, so the difficulties of communication across a frontier did not exist. The mystery was how of a man of Tribe A, living up one end of a Songline, could hear a few bars sung by Tribe Q and, without knowing a word of Q’s language, would know exactly what land was being sung.

‘Christ!’ I said. ‘Are you telling me that Old Alan here would know the songs for a country a thousand miles away?’
‘Most likely.’
‘Without ever having been there?’
One or two ethnomusicologists, he said, had been working on the problem. In the meantime, the best thing was to imagine a little experiment of our own.

Supposing we found, somewhere near Port Augusta a song-man who knew the Lizard song? Suppose we got him to sing his verses into a tape-recorder and the played the tape to Alan in Kaititj country?  The chances were he’d recognize the melody at once – just as we would the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ – but the meaning of the words would escape him.  All the same he’d listen very attentively to the melodic structure. He’d perhaps even ask us to replay a few bars. Then, suddenly, he’d find himself in sync and be able to sing his own words over the ‘nonsense.’
“His own words for country round Port Augusta?’
‘Yes,’ said Arkady.
‘Is that what really happens?’
‘It is.’
‘How the hell’s it done?’

No one, he said, could be sure. There were people who argued for telepathy. Aboriginals themselves told stories of their song-men whizzing up and down the line in trance. But there is another, more astonishing possibility.

Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes. So, if the Lizard man were dragging his heels across the salt-pans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’. If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’.

 Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the action of the Ancestor’s feet. , One phrase would say, ‘Salt-pan’; another ‘Creek-bed’, ‘Spinifex’, ‘Sand-hill’, ‘Mulga-scrub’, ‘Rock-face’ and so forth. An expert song-man, by listening to their order of succession, would count how many times his hero crossed a river, or scaled a ridge – and be able to calculate where, and how far along a Songline he was. ‘He’d be able’, said Arkady ‘to hear few bars and say, “This is Middle Bore” or  “That is Oodnadatta” – where the Ancestor did X or Y or Z.

‘So a musical phrase, I said, ‘is a map reference?’

‘Music’, said Arkady, ‘is the memory bank for finding one’s way around the world.’

‘I shall need some time to digest that.

‘You’ve got all night,’ he smiled. ‘With the snakes!’

The fire was still blazing in the other camp and we heard a burble of women’s laughter.

‘Sleep well,’ he said.

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