• Djalu's Legacy is an NITV commission. (SBS On Demand)Source: SBS On Demand
Filmmaker Ben Strunin met Yolngu Elder Djalu Gurruwiwi in the most unlikely of places; London, England. Years later, they are ready to premiere their cinematic masterpiece on national television.
Kate L. Munro

2 Dec 2018 - 8:04 PM  UPDATED 11 Jul 2019 - 11:55 AM

Never has there been a legacy so culturally and socially vital to Australia, and to the world, than that of the Yolngu nation Galpu Clan Elder and world-renowned yidaki (didgeridoo) song man, Djalu Gurruwiwi.

The legacy: to pass on the prolific meanings, ceremony and songlines of the yidaki, one of the world’s oldest instruments, to the next in a 60,000-80,000 year long line.

When played with the right intentions and understandings, the yidaki has the power to affect anyone of any background, to their very core. Yet there is a dire struggle to pass on this knowledge as colonisation catches up with this age-old legacy.

Djalu Gurruwiwi hails from Arnhem Land, around 500km east of Darwin at the very ‘top end’ of our ancient continent. He is described as, an aging elder…who is running out of time to pass on the Yidaki songlines entrusted to him for the future of his people, before it dies with him.

Westwind; Djalu’s Legacy is a documentary film, written and directed by Ben Strunin that saw its world premiere at last years’ Melbourne International Film Festival to a sold-out audience.

The story follows the plight of Djalu with regard to his impending situation as part of the oldest continuous living culture on Earth. World famous Grammy award-winning musician Australian-Belgian, Gotye (Wouter ‘Wally’ De Backer) of the 2011 smash hit ‘Somebody I Used To Know', becomes an unlikely major feature in the film.

It is Djalu Gurruwiwi, a tribal leader of the Galpu, that is one of the only humans on Earth who hold the sacred knowledge of the yidaki. The yidaki, known as the ‘didgeridoo’ across the globe, is a traditional men’s ceremonial instrument originating from the hollow of a Eucalyptus tree, that becomes hollow as termites (white ants) eat through its middle. The legacy (for the keeper of lore) was passed on by his late father, tribal leader Monyu.

The Yidaki Songlines hold important information about survival on this land, Yolngu lore and ceremony and is intricately linked to the ‘journey of the python’ (Rainbow Serpent). Perhaps just as importantly, it carries the oldest and deepest musical sound in the world, as well as is a healing tool.

The Westwind blows through the yidaki; the sound of fire, the breath of life.

Filmmaker, writer, producer, cameraman and director of Westwind; Djalu’s Legacy, Ben Strunin was first connected to Djalu some years ago in the most unlikely of places; London, England.

“It was a convoluted path that was unplanned, but I’m very happy it happened this way,” Strunin told NITV.

“I was working with a different clan in Oenpelli (of West Arnhem Land), trying to learn about their art and make a film there. Whilst getting a tour of some incredible rock art with a local elder, I met an English Didgeridoo collector called Bear Love.”

“I thought I’d never hear from him again after that trip; I moved to London and Bear called me out of the blue and said he was bringing Djalu to London and wanted me to make a film about the tour.”

Yolngu have a deeply entrenched collective tribal spirit that permeates through both the land and the people, connecting them as one to elements of the surrounding terrain. Colonisation has severely affected this spirit and its people.

As both the Yolngu way of life, along with the world around them and everyone changes dramatically, this exceptional warrior and shaman Djalu foresaw what needed to be done. He knew, as the custodian of the Yidaki Songlines, he needed to share some knowledge with balanda (white or non-Indigenous person) to allow healing and the coming together of two worlds.

“I was in London, Bear took me to the airport at 5am to meet Djalu. We talked for a little while and it became clear that Djalu also wanted a film made. I think it’s fair to say he had his own reasons that became clear to me as time went on.”

“We went on tour and things unravelled organically. I thought it would only be a three-week tour, it turned into an eight-year production from start to finish.”

“Of course, we became closer over the years; I travelled to Arnhem land to meet his family [including the next in the phenomenal line of yidaki song men Djalu’s son, Larry].”

“They have always made me feel welcome and we have shared a lot of special times, it’s been a great learning experience,” Strunin said.

“Djalu is a very open and generous person, I think most people around him trust his vision so it makes it easier to work together on a deeply personal level.”

Yolngu have the ability to decipher the songs and teachings of nature; cultural and spiritual lore, that remain a constant in an ever-changing world.

“Balanda [white person] law always changes, Yolngu law always there,” Aunty Gurruwiwi [Djalu’s sister] explains in the film.

“We use Songlines to talk to the ancestors. The right person has the ability to see the unseen.”

Strunin first became interested in filmmaking when he attended art school as a painter. A teacher showed him some practical film applications and he became obsessed with film-making shortly after, painting became a hobby. Strunin is brilliant in the progressive flow and telling of a story in film. His use of animation within a documentary context, although unusual for the genre, is both strong and captivating, particularly in Westwind; Djalu’s Legacy.

The cinematography in Westwind is striking and connects the viewer with the beauty and resilience of the land and its people.

“Songlines is about the journey of the message [of the land]. If our song will die, our spirit will die,” Djalu's eldest daughter, Zelda says in the film. 

Throughout the years Strunin was involved in the Galpu community, visiting many timed, he did a lot of listening and learning.

“The family explained everything to me from all their perspectives and I would speak to the wider community about what was happening for context. Djalu’s sister, Aunty, gave me the most understanding of the bigger picture.” Strunin said.

“She [Aunty] is a brilliant woman. You can see [when watching the doco] she exudes wisdom and charm. In general, I’ve found, that if you give the time to sit down and listen, then Yolngu people are happy to share knowledge and tell amazing [ancient] stories.”

What will become of the 60-80,000-year-old legacy of the yidaki?


Westwind: Djalu's Legacy airs Thursday, 9pm on NITV (Ch 34). Catch up is available after broadcast.

The SBS network is celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and recognising the achievements of our First Peoples throughout National NAIDOC Week (7-14 July) as the official media partner.

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