The Songman

If it wasn’t for Mum’s beef stew, this story would not exist. And I would not have met Colin. And we would not have shared this special time together. And I would not have learned how to go bush and shoot a rifle or cut a bullock up or make a didge. And my nickname would never have been Cooky. And we certainly wouldn’t have recognised each other after 35 years apart. But that’s the thing about a good beef stew and a good man. It’s all about the stock.

Uncle Colin (Karbal) passed away more than a year ago, so it’s time to tell this story. This is a photo of us taken a couple of years ago at a men’s camp near Wadeye in the Northern Territory. It’s a special photo for me. After 35 years of knowing each other, it’s the only image I have of us together.

As a young man, I had no idea how important Colin was in the Port Keats people’s rich, complex cultural world and beyond. Colin’s story is intricately woven into 60,000 years of tradition, ceremony and song. The man knew countless songs in various languages.  And these were no ordinary songs. These are the ancient Wangga songs, crisscrossing the ancient landscape of the Northern Territory, twisting through the Port Keats clan estates and beyond.

Before he died, Colin said, ‘You can tell my story when I’m gone; maybe the young ones will see it.’ And that kind of sums up Colin. He was always keen to share his songs and his knowledge with youth. He was a singer, father and mentor for all seasons. I saw this firsthand at our men’s camps together. A couple of boys always hovered around him, watching him work on a woomera or spear.

We first met 35 years ago in Belyuen, in the Northern Territory. I was a young, 20-year-old, uneducated, lost white boy looking for adventure and a greater purpose in life. Colin was an established Songman and busy with his cultural obligations. Our brief time together on Cox Peninsula laid the foundations for my future studies and life as a documentary filmmaker and writer working in Australia’s culturally rich and ancient clan estates.

At the time, I was staying at a boarding house in Darwin and didn’t have enough money to return home to complete my studies in Sydney. So I ended up getting a job as a cook at Mandorah, a half-hour boat ride out of Darwin near Belyuen, an Aboriginal community. I had no cooking experience, but thanks to my Mum, I knew how to cook beef stew and spaghetti, two of Colin’s favourite meals.

I have fond memories of Colin sitting in the morning sun with a roll your own smoke hanging from his lip, a cup of tea at his dusty feet, working a woomera or spear with an axe, a knife, or sandpaper. A white cloud of fine wood dust hovered and danced around him in the golden light. The shrill grinding of his worn broken teeth betrayed a still and gentle presence. There was a hidden sadness in this man that all troubadours seem to have. This was a man who had seen too much. Who had drunk too much. But the songs kept him strong amid all that personal chaos. Often, he would hum a song quietly as he worked, causing his big toe to dance in the dust. The songs passed through this man like smoke through a tree.

Kabarl Colin Worumbu Ferguson was born in the 1950s on Indian Island at the mouth of the Daly River. Its place name is Kabarl. His father and mother were travelling in a dugout canoe and were picked up by Native Welfare and taken to Delissaville (now called Belyuen).  He came from a long line of Songmen who are associated with the Walakanda (little people). These men maintain a specific line of songs, collectively named ‘Wangga’. The status and origin of these songs are unique as they are either passed down a patrilineage line, or ‘acquired’ by the singer when dreaming, meditating or in an altered state from the spirits which manifest through the ancestral dead of their country, known as Wakanda or menimemerri. Interestingly, songmen receive songs from these ‘little people’ when lying in a number four position in a receptive state. When lying like this they are ‘receiving’ and must not be disturbed.

At 14, Colin (standing) sang a traditional song at the Darwin Eisteddfod and won second prize. This was an auspicious occasion and spoke to the decades of learning the Wangga repertoire from his uncles at the mouth of the Moyle River. For a boy to sit in the sand with old men and listen and learn, song after song, is a testament to Colin’s passion and gift for culture and singing and speaks volumes about the ancient Indigenous ways of passing on knowledge: sitting, listening, and learning.

During this formative time, Colin discovered his unique gift of memorising the repertoire of Wangga songs and channelling new songs for his people. Some of these songs were part of the sacred Songlines handed down from generation to generation and are still performed at ceremony time. Others were shared collectively, without restriction, and had no religious significance.

Often, the role of the Wangga songs is to unite people: men, women, and children, and their function is to entertain and cause happiness, joy and connection. The songs rely on their accessibility and popularity for their survival. It is fair to say that Colin was a ‘Bob Dylan of Port Keats’, known locally and around Australia as a traditional songwriter and Waanga singer of power and popularity.

To be in his presence when he sang was an experience like no other. The songs came through him, out of him, like charmed snakes dancing to the beat of his big toe and well-worn clapsticks. The week before he died, I managed to speak with him on the phone at the Darwin Hospital. His voice was soft and distant, and he didn’t appear to remember who I was, which made the silence awkward. I said, ‘Don’t you remember my beef stew?’ he thought for a moment and laughed softly and mumbled, ‘Cooky’, and then there was silence as we both remembered our short but memorable time together in Belyuen and Wadeye. A week later, he was gone, with him, an encyclopedia of songs, cultural wisdom, and knowledge.

Written by Tom Hearn

I am currently working with the Wadeye Men’s Shed, Kardu Diminin, and local men on planning more men’s health and cultural retention camps and a documentary series.

The writer acknowledges the original songs and interviews with Colin Ferguson and the assorted published reading materials and archival photos and videos sourced from Jeff Hardwick, Nicholas Reid, Allan Marett, Mark Crocombe and the writings of W.E.H. Stanner in the research for this story.

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