15 November 2013: Corroboree Sydney

Between 14th and 24th of November Sydney is playing host to Corroboree, a festival of Aboriginal arts, dance and culture.  Centred around Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay the festival is hoped to be the start of an annual event.

It is appropriate that the festival should be in Sydney, for not only is Sydney Australia’s biggest city and home to one of the largest and most diverse Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander community living right across the metropolis, but the word corroboree is a Sydney language word recorded in the first encounters between Aboriginal people and Europeans.  The word was written down by Europeans as carrubberre or carriberie.  It was one of two words recorded to describe ceremonial dance, the other being gnarramang.  But it was carrubberre/carriberie/ corroboree that crossed into the European vocabulary to come to mean any occasion where dance and song were performed.

Songs were part of the everyday life of Aboriginal people.  They were sung during daily activities like fishing on the harbour or when people were sick and of course during the more formal gatherings represented by corroborees.  Song would travel through the landscape, with people from neighbouring or distant groups travelling to attend ceremony and learn new songs in the process.

Val Attenbrow, in her book Sydney’s Aboriginal Past, notes that Europeans were drawn to the corroboree’s, fascinated with the dancing and songs that were integral to the events.  Corroboree’s could be performed for men only at initiation ceremonies or be mixed affairs with men and women from one group or from many groups coming together.  Early accounts tells us that they were performed around the harbour in what is now the Royal Botanic Gardens, as well as at Woolloomooloo, on Bennelong Point, Lavender Bay and Milsons Point.  As Europeans spread out into the wider Sydney basin, corroborees were also witnessed around Botany Bay, at Rose Hill (Parramatta), Prospect and beyond.

Descriptions abound, but one of the earliest and most evocative comes from the First Fleet officer, Watkin Tench.  Tench wrote:

At their dances I have often been present; but I must confess myself unable to convey in description an accurate account of them.  Like their songs, they are conceived to represent the progress of the passions and occurrences of life.  Full of seeming confusion, yet regular and systematic, their wild gesticulations and frantic distortions of body are calculated rather to terrify, than delight, a spectator….While the dance lasts, one of them (usually a person of note and estimation) beats time with a stick on a wooden instrument held in the left hand, accompanying the music with his voice… (Flannery, T (ed) 1996, Watkin Tench 1788, p263)

With the severe and catastrophic dislocation and destruction of the Aboriginal community around Sydney in the first decades after European arrival, corroboree’s became less common in Sydney.

They did however survive further afield.

In Parramatta from the 1816 an annual gathering was organised by the Europeans to distribute blanket and hold a feast with Aboriginal people in a gesture of good will and to ensure friendly relations.

While these events were a stage managed affair by Europeans, the groups of Aboriginal people coming from far and wide to attend co-opted them by holding their own gatherings on the outskirts of Parramatta in conjunction.  Through the 1820s and 1830s reports of large corroboree’s being held around Parramatta and Prospect at the gathering times illustrate the continuity of the traditions.  At least one was on the corner of Macquarie and Marsden Streets, but even these were things of the past by the 1850s.

Corroboree festival then, is a timely reminder of the deep cultural roots that run through Sydney.

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1 Comment

Filed under History

One response to “15 November 2013: Corroboree Sydney

  1. Here is a bit of Australian history about which I knew nothing. “In Parramatta from the 1816 an annual gathering was organised by the Europeans to distribute blanket and hold a feast with Aboriginal people in a gesture of good will and to ensure friendly relations”. Great idea.. not enough but at least someone was thinking clearly.

    “While these events were a stage managed affair by Europeans, the groups of Aboriginal people coming.. to attend co-opted them by holding their own gatherings on the outskirts of Parramatta in conjunction”. Again great idea. I don’t mind if both sides stage managed the events. Their goal of establishing good relations was the important thing.

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