Earlier this year, NASA spacecraft Voyager 1 left our solar system after a 35-year journey, carrying with it a golden record containing sounds, images and music from Earth.
Its sister craft, Voyager 2, carries an identical record. The records were designed to encapsulate the aural heritage of Earth in 90 minutes – but some preliminary investigation, however, reveals that there a few inaccuracies in the official NASA documentation about the golden records.
When senior Aboriginal men Djawa, Mudpo and Waliparu gathered one night in 1962 on Milingimbi mission in Arnhem Land for a recording session with Australian anthropologist Sandra Le Brun Holmes, they little dreamt that their music would be heading to the stars on the famous spacecraft.
More than a decade later, American astronomer Carl Sagan put together a committee to discuss a “time capsule” for NASA’s Voyager interstellar mission, to be launched in 1977.
The process of selecting this “world music” is described in Sagan’s book Murmurs of Earth. Many factors determined the final cut: the quality of the recording, cultural diversity, geographic and chronological range.
The ultimate hope was that the records could not only represent human culture, but also human cultural evolution.
The Land of the Morning Star
In 1962, Le Brun Holmes and her husband, filmmaker Cecil Holmes, toured Methodist missions in the Top End to make the film Faces in the Sun. At Milingimbi, she recalls in her autobiography, people would come to visit her after the day’s work was over:
During such evenings […] I recorded a number of beautiful songs, didjeridu solos and stories from the men. One man named Mudpo was a virtuoso on the didjeridu, able to make the sounds of birds at the same time as the wonderful resonant music rolled on uninterrupted. There were fast songs and slow, ghostly music about morkois (ghosts). These men were masters of the instrument. It was the best music I had ever heard, in the true classical, ceremonial tradition.
Who were these master musicians and custodians of their culture?
Djawa is well known: he was a community leader and artist, and a winner of the 1955 Leroy-Alcorso Textile Design Competition. Numerous of his bark paintings are in the National Museum of Australia.
But his voice did not make it onto the golden record; we only hear him playing clapsticks under Mudpo’s didjeridu in “Morning Star”. Mudpo, and Waliparu who sings the haunting “Moikoi”, are absent from the easily accessible archives.
There is little trace of them apart from the sleeve notes of the record Le Brun Holmes later released as Land of the Morning Star. To find out more, we would have to dive deeper into mission records and talk to their families and people who knew them.
The music that really went into space
According to Murmurs of Earth, the songs were recorded in 1958, and 1m 26s on the golden records included “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird”.
However, Le Brun Holmes’ first visit to Milingimbi occurred in 1962. And when the golden record is compared with the original recording, it becomes clear that the didjeridu and clapsticks (Mudpo and Djawa) is the first 23s, with Djawa’s vocal cut off, while the remainder is not the “Devil Bird” song at all, but Waliparu singing “Moikoi”.
“Morning Star” is a clan song (manikay) relating to the Barnumbirr morning star ceremonies; such songs were not unlike title deeds, expressing the relationship of families or clans to areas of land through the ancestral spirits. The ceremonies are about the journey of the souls of the dead to land of the morning star.
“Moikoi” is about the morkoi, malicious spirits who try to entice newly deceased souls away from their clan country. The songs, in their new context on the spacecraft, could perhaps be read as a message about the journey of the human spirit between Earth and space – and home at last.
Frozen in time or a living future?
This is how Sagan summed up the purpose of the golden records in 1978, the year following their launch:
Our concern with time and our sense of the Voyager message as a time capsule is expressed in many places on the record – greetings in Sumerian, Hittite and !Kung, photographs of Kalahari Bushmen, music from New Guinea and from the Australian Aborigines, and the inclusion of the composition “Flowing Streams”, whose original structure antedates Pythagoras and perhaps goes back to the time of Homer.
Interestingly, the Indigenous groups mentioned here are among those most often singled out in early anthropology and popular conceptions as the most “primitive” on Earth. They are mentioned in the same breath with long-dead cultures known mainly from archaeology.
But these were not dead and dying cultures. Throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and '70s, Yolngu people in Arnhem Land were fighting battles to maintain their land and culture against the onslaught of missionisation, mining, and exploitative art dealers.
In 1962, when the recording was made, Aboriginal people were subjected to the pernicious assimilation policy which supported the stolen generations and denied them just wages for their labour.
In the 1970s, the decade of the Voyager missions, assimilation was superseded by self-determination; yet the rights of Yolngu people were easily discarded when mining interests were at stake.
Now, in the 2000s and 2010s, the battle goes on under the Northern Territory Intervention.
Le Brun Holmes does not mention the Voyager missions in her autobiography. In 1977, she was busy campaigning for Davis Daniels, an Aboriginal man from Roper River who was standing for election in the Northern Territory.
Perhaps Djawa, Mudpo and Waliparu never knew that their music had swept past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and this year, into interstellar space on Voyager 1.
But in contrast to Sagan’s well-meaning conception, this music is not the preservation in copper of a vanishing way of life. It is a mark of the resilience and adaptability of Aboriginal culture, as it sails out of the solar system, far, far beyond the morning star.
This article is based on a paper presented at the Australian Space Science Conference, September 30 – October 2, 2013.
Alice Gorman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.