Live 2 Learn

A few thoughts and ideas

Songlines – Is GPS all that new?

Songlines - Bruce ChatwinAs I drove to work today I was listening to Richard Dawkin’s audiobook, The God Delusion. The book is about seven and a half hours long. As I listened to the audio for the second time, I found myself remembering or even visualising my location on my regular journey when I first heard particular sections. The memory, despite having listened previously only once to the book while driving my regular route, was quite unmistakable. I had not tried, during the first listening, to remember either the book’s text or the locations which corresponded to the section of the book I was listening to. However, my memory was pinpoint accurate.

This made me think of the phenomenon of ‘songlines’ as owned, passed down and used by Australian Aborigines as described in Bruce Chatwin’s book ‘The Songlines’. I am not an expert in this field and don’t wish to insult anyone by my naive description of this cultural practice. Indeed, I have recently found out that although having the appearance of a travel book, Chatwin’s book is best considered fictions. However, I was intrigued when I read Bruce’s book twenty years ago.

I was intrigued by the description of Aborigines who sang the melody and words of a culturally significant song according to their position along an ancient track or relative to significant landmarks. In Bruce’s story, the song was strongly linked to position along a very long track in the Australian Outback and performed at walking pace. If an Aborigine traveled in a car along the track above normal walking pace, the rate of singing sped up until at a normal driving speed the ‘songline’ song became incoherent babble. Then if the car slows down, the singing and the song become understandable and melodic once more.

What is the point of this entry? It is that this morning I realised that many thousands of years ago, ancient Aborigines developed a powerful method (or technology) for accurately passing on not only the cultural and historical stories, sayings, rites and rituals of their group, but invented an early form of very accurate ‘global positioning system’ (GPS). This natural GPS has been superceded in modern westernised culture by an electronic device. However, this should not lessen the wonder we can have for the method. Even if elements of Bruce Chatwin’s book are fiction, we can’t dismiss the cultural attachment that Australian’s Aborigines have, through story and song to places on this vast continent.

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