Fire in song

Fire in song

Fire is an important part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and features in many songs.

Gurtha (or fire) is an important element in the culture of the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land. It is particularly important among people and clans who have ancestral connections to the animals quail and saltwater crocodile, which are integral to the creation story about fire.

The  Yolngu

The  Yolngu  are one of the largest groups of Indigenous Australians who mostly live in north-east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. This area is home to approximately 7000  Yolngu people, who are born into some 60 mala (or groups), which are also often called clans. The languages spoken by the Yolngu people are collectively called  Yolngu-Matha, which means ‘people's tongue’ in English, with each clan speaking its own specific dialect. The Yolngu homelands cover more than 40,000 square kilometres in north-east Arnhem Land. The Gove Peninsula is situated 650 kilometres east of Darwin in the very north-eastern corner of Arnhem Land, where the Gulf of Carpentaria meets the Arafura Sea. The landscape there is typical of the Top End with red earth, palm trees, stringy-bark forests, and spear-grass.

Yolngu culture

The Yolngu clans believe that they were established by their original ancestors who named, shaped and populated their homelands long ago. These ancestral beings, who are known as the Wangarr, travelled across the landscape creating features such as rivers, rocks, sand-hills, trees and islands, and imbuing the lands and waters with their eternal presence. Sometimes, they appeared as humans, while at other times they assumed the forms of other species, such as shark and saltwater crocodile. Along with each clan’s homelands, the Wangarr left their Yolngu descendants an extensive repertoire of ceremonial yäku (names), manikay (songs), bunggul (dances) and miny’tji (designs) that, to this day, provide a framework for Yolngu law and knowledge of how best to live on their country. All Yolngu  clans possess their own individual repertoires of manikay (songs) that have been handed down from the original ancestors and provide knowledge of how best to live in their homelands. Song and language are therefore two of the most important aspects of Yolngu  culture.1 2

Fire in Yolngu culture

The story of fire is explained in detail by the Buku Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre as follows:

“Fire is as basic as water and land to the Gumatj, one of the largest clans. Fire in ancestral times scorched the ground where the creation ancestors had gathered to enact the law that was the secret knowledge that held the power. This was spread to other Gumatj lands carried by various means across the country imbued by the fire.

“In Ancestral times, the leaders of the Yirritja-moiety clans used fire for the first time during a ceremony at Ŋalarrwuy in Gumatj country. This came about as fire brought to the Madarrpa clan country by Bäru, the ancestral Saltwater Crocodile, spread north and swept through the ceremonial ground. From this ceremonial ground, the fire spread further to other sites. Various Ancestral animals were affected and reacted in different ways. These animals became sacred to the Gumatj people and the areas associated with these events became important sites. 

“The fire spread inland from the ceremonial ground and burnt the nest of Wangurra (Bandicoot) forcing him to hide in a hollow log (larrakitj) to save himself. Djirrikitj, the Quail, picked up a burning twig from this fire and flew away with it, dropping it at Matamata. There is a large paperbark swamp at Matamata, where native honey bees live. Fire from the burning twig dropped by Djirrikitj took hold of the tall grass in the swamp area and the native bees fled to Djiliwirri in Gupapuyŋu clan country. Thus, Gupapuyŋu honey and Gumatj quail are linked through these ancestral events and also refer to a relationship between these two clans, which is represented in ceremony. 

“In artworks, the designs are closely interlinked to both the Ancestral stories of fire and their associated songs. The Gumatj clan design associated with these events, a diamond design, represents fire: the red flames, the white smoke and ash, the black charcoal, and the yellow embers. All the clans who own connected parts of this sequence of Ancestral events about fire share variations of this diamond design.”3

Classroom activity - The Arts (Music) Years 5 and 6

In this classroom activity, students will develop and broaden their knowledge of Indigenous cultures through the study of songs that explore the concept of fire. Songs chosen for study are mostly from the Yolngu people of northeast Arnhem Land, so students will gain more depth in their understanding of specific Yolngu culture and language.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Plan and organise compositions with an understanding of style and convention, including drawing upon Australian music by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists (ACAMUM102)
  • Analyse a range of music from contemporary and past times to explore differing viewpoints and enrich their music making, starting with Australian music, including music of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and consider music in international contexts (ACAMUR105)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 9 and 10 in The Arts (Music):

  • evaluate the use of elements of music and defining characteristics from different musical styles
  • use their understanding of music making in different cultures, times and places to inform and shape their interpretations, performances and compositions
  • interpret, rehearse and perform solo and ensemble repertoire in a range of forms and styles

Activity 1 – Building background knowledge

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Students build their knowledge of the Yolngu people, where they are from, their basic societal structures and their fire narrative from the background information presented above and/or from suitable websites such as Nomad Art4 and Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation5. Students share and discuss their findings, asking questions that arise from their reading. Once students have established some understanding of Yolngu culture and beliefs, they will have a context for exploring some musical examples as follows:

Bäru (Saltwater Crocodile) by Yothu Yindi (1999):

Bäru (Saltwater Crocodile) by the Saltwater Band (1999):

Gurtha (Fire) by Dhapanbal Yunupingu (2016)6

Waru (Fire) by the Warumpi Band (1985):

Activity 2 – Evaluating examples

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Required resources: computer and speakers to play the soundtrack, students can either discuss answers verbally or type them up on their own device

Students will listen to the Yothu Yindi song 'Fire' and read the lyrics on the following websites:



Students will analyse the elements of music as they are used in this song:

Structure: Intro with hook, Verse 1, Chorus, Verse 2, Chorus, Manikay 1 (ceremonial song), Chorus, Manikay 2, Chorus

Pitch: Key is B minor and the song uses the chords Bm, A, Em, G in a repeating pattern. There is a melodic riff consisting of pairs of short notes in a descending pattern that recurs throughout the song. The verse melody mainly moves by step and the chorus, copying the riff, has a downward leap of a 3rd as its main feature.

Duration: The song is in simple quadruple time and is set to a rhythmic rock beat at a speed of 120 BPM. The rhythm of the vocal line is only occasionally syncopated and remains mostly on the beat throughout.

Tone Colour: The instruments used are: solo female voice, solo male voice, male backing chorus, synthesiser, drum kit, electric guitar, bass guitar. The disparate variety of tone colours from these instruments create a dense sound.

Texture: The song is homophonic, having a clear melody and accompaniment. The different layers of the song comprise rhythm, bass, chords, vocal melodies, and a layer of short melodic motifs from the synthesiser.

Dynamics: The song is performed at mostly the same volume throughout with rises and falls in intensity coming through the number of instruments playing.

Context: Research the background of the band, Yothu Yindi, and the importance of its lead singer Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu AC (1956–2013).

Activity 3 – Performing

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Required resources: computer and speakers, instruments, iPads or other technology that allow students to play along with the music

Students have previously analysed the chord structure of the song Fire and determined that the chords used are Bm, A, Em and G. First, students become familiar with the song by singing along with the recording. As competency increases, students playing chord instruments such as guitar and keyboard can join in and play along with the recording. Once this can be done independently, without the recording, other instruments such as drum kit (or drums in GarageBand7 on the iPad) can join in. Other instruments, such as flute, violin etc can join in by working out the melodic phrases used in the chorus, or, if students have a good ear, the verse melodies as well. Students can then improvise or compose new melodic material based on the synthesiser part in the instrumental sections of the song.


1 Corn, A. (2009) Reflections and Voices: exploring the music of Yothu Yindi with Mandawuy Yunupingu. Sydney University Press: Sydney

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.