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Trepang Opening Night

Lisa Palmer spends a night at the indigenous opera

Opening night, and the laughter of the many Yolngu in the audience is infectious, causing others to laugh out loud too at jokes they cannot understand in a language they cannot speak. Performed in Yolngu Matha and Macassarese languages, the show is a narrative that uses music, song and dance to tell of a first contact experience and revisit the shared history of two cultural traditions. In scenes recounting the introduction of clothes and other material goods, the Yolngu performers revel in the audience’s enjoyment at their ‘uncivilised’ ignorance, they excel at entwining jokes and slapstick humour with the business of ceremony and what were, at times, sorrowful events. It is a history which, by the show’s finale, has many of the Yolngu in tears.

This is Trepang — an indigenous opera performed on four consecutive nights at this year’s Festival of Darwin. The Yolngu people from Elcho Island in North-East Arnhem Land have joined with Macassan performers from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, to retell their shared history and celebrate their family connections. Trepang director Andrish Saint-Clare has been nurturing the project since 1994 when he first posed the idea of a Trepang performance to senior Yolngu people at Elcho Island, and began the process of negotiation involved in staging such a cultural performance. This includes seeking and receiving permission from the owners and managers of the cultural material in the performance. Since then, with the support of the Elcho Island community, Trepang was successfully staged as a community celebration at Elcho Island in 1996, and subsequently developed into a stage production for a festival to commemorate the Kingdom of Gowa in Ujung Pandung in 1997. This year’s performance was the first opportunity for non-Yolngu audiences in Australia to see the show.

The 1999 Darwin Festival was held in the shadow of the horrific events taking place in nearby East Timor. With the constant sound of army Hercules aircraft flying overhead en route to and from Dili, thoughts of East Timor pervaded the festival. Trepang performers dedicated their opening performance to the people of East Timor, in the spirit of hope of negotiated relations between neighbouring cultures.

The performance begins in the Sulawesi capital, Ujung Pandung, the old city of Macassar. Once the home port of the Macassan traders, who for several centuries or more travelled in their praus to the coast of north Australia to collect trepang (a sea cucumber) which they traded with China. At the start of the monsoon each year the Macassans would travel with the winds to what they called Marege, and negotiate and trade with the coastal Aboriginal people for rights to collect trepang. When the monsoon was over they would return home. Over time a pidgin ‘Macassan’ became the lingua franca for much of the north Australian coast, for as well as in dealings with Macassan trepangers, it was also used among the Aboriginal peoples who, through their employment with the Maccassans, came together over large distances.

In return for the right to harvest the trepang in Yolngu territories, and in exchange for Yolngu labour employed to aid in the harvest and processing of trepang, Macassan goods such as cloth, tobacco, knives, rice and alcohol were traded with the Yolngu peoples. These goods, and contact with Macassan traders, have had a lasting impact on Yolngu culture and cosmology.

Macassan traders had stopped visiting Arnhem land shores by 1907 as a result of the introduction of taxes levied by the South Australian government against Macassan praus, and other actions by missionary groups. Nevertheless, details of this period of material and cultural exchange remain a part of Yolngu living tradition. The time of the Macassans is described by some Yolngu as a kind of cultural ‘renaissance’, the products of which are recorded in complex oral histories, song cycles, ceremonial dance and artistic works. The Trepang performance is based on a richly coded ceremonial song cycle of mortuary rites which are regularly performed in North-East Arnhem Land today.

While Trepang is a reproduction of the first contact experience between the two cultures, it is also a ‘play within a play’. Trepang is a celebration of a relationship that is enmeshed in historical tensions and ambivalence. The narrative focus of the performance is a romantic ‘love trade’ in which a Yolngu girl meets a Macassan sailor, who trades with her parents for her hand. Yet the Yolngu songs performed in Trepang do not echo such romance; they are full of sorrow, stories of abduction and the forced trade in Yolngu women that developed in the Macassan period. Likewise, the Macassan goods brought both benefit and turmoil for the Yolngu. Knives and alcohol proved lethal, especially when combined with angry retribution over the abductions of Yolngu women. Conflict and bloodshed figure prominently in the Yolngu oral histories of the period (although not particularly among Yolngu on Elcho Island, where relations were mostly peaceful).

Yet out of this period were forged the family ties that Trepang now celebrates. Mansjur, the male lead in the Macassan cast, is a grandson of a Macassan sea captain, Otching Daeng Rangka, who abducted and married the great-grandmother of Matjuwi, the senior Yolngu ceremony leader in Trepang. According to Saint-Clare, the composition of the cast in Trepang was dictated, in part, by the Yolngu insistence that the performers’ kinship relationships to one another reflect this ‘true story’, and thus honour the legacy of that relationship.

There are other reasons too for the Trepang celebration. The story retells a sentimental history fresh with enthusiasm for renewed contact. For the Macassans, it is a reminder of the past greatness of their Kingdom of Gowa and of the seafaring might that their port city, Macassar, once enjoyed, positioned at the centre of East Indies trade routes.

For the Yolngu, it shows others that long before Europeans arrived in Australia the Yolngu people were ‘business people’, engaged in the commerce of international trade. Despite the sorrow, Trepang also recounts stories of positive relationships formed through this period: the blood ties, the exchanges of language and names, the co-operative working and trading relationships. Beyond the, the Maccassan period is remembered as a time of both the new and of renewal, a time when the Yolngu created a new identity and controlled it on their own terms firmly within the traditions of knowledge that have existed for them ‘from the beginning’. It is a sentiment as forward-looking as it is nostalgic.

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