BILLY MUNGIE remembers the first song he learned when he was three years old, an Aboriginal lad growing up in the desert of central Australia. Called ``Nyiinyii,'' it is about a family of zebra finches that leave their home on the country's far south coastal Nullarbor Plain and wander north across the desert. It is an epic journey with danger lurking behind the many sandhills, and at times the bird family becomes a metaphor for a human family and the distinctions become blurred. The trip may, in fact, be similar to one taken by Mr. Mungie's tribe generations ago.
``Very few know the traditional songs,'' says Mungie, a Pitjantjatjara man teaching the song to students at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music at the University of Adelaide.
But today that is changing. An increasing number of young Aborigines are interested in learning the songs they only vaguely remember or never learned at all - songs that are essential to the understanding of traditional Aboriginal music.
Public performances of traditional songs are also becoming more common. And an increasing number of people are traveling to festivals in Barunga, near Katherine in the Northern Territory, and Yuendumu, northwest of Alice Springs, to hear Aboriginal music.
Starting in mid-October, the Sydney Tower Restaurants and Centrepoint will present a one hour show called ``Dreamtime in the Sky.'' Four performers from Arnhem Land, which is at the very top of Australia, will dance the cockatoo dance, the wild-wind dance, the devil dance, and the Brolga dance (named for a large silver-gray crane), accompanied by taped music performed on club sticks and the didgeridoo, a wind instrument.
Chris May, a consultant to the restaurants, says surveys have indicated almost half the visitors to Australia are interested in learning about Aboriginal art and culture.
The Barunga festival occurs in June, during the dry season, and the Yuendumu festival in September, at the start of Australia's spring. ``It's a good opportunity to see different styles of dance and music and how they relate to different groupings of people,'' says Ray Scanlan, general manager of the Northern Territory Arts Council in Darwin.
It is unlikely that a casual festivalgoer will understand much of what is sung, however, since all the music is in the tribal dialect. Even researchers who speak Aboriginal dialects find it difficult to understand everything in the songs.
``The basics of [the Aboriginal] musical system is really a song system,'' explains Guy Tunstill, director of the University of Adelaide's Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music.
The role of the songs is to preserve the sacred literature of Aboriginal culture, its religious beliefs and codes of behavior. Many of the songs are about `The Dreaming,' which is when the universe was created.
Stephen Wild, a research officer at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, says The Dreaming ``is spoken of as the past but with a continuing presence. It is the spiritual reality behind the material world.''
Ordinary people have access to the Dreaming through dreams, the Aborigines believe.
Still other songs are about The Dreaming ancestors who, according to Aboriginal tradition, are responsible for the world as they know it. Thus, a rock pile may have significance to a tribe as the place where an ancestor placed a troublesome animal. Australian railroads have detoured many miles to avoid sacred sites.
The songs also have themes that relate to ordinary events. In his book ``Songs of the Pintupi,'' Richard Moyle discusses songs that deal with love, initiation into the tribe, revenge, and healing. ``Many of the songs are principally about natural phenomena such as animals, the rain, the stars, the moon,'' says Tunstill.
The songs are the oral history of tribes that left few physical clues to their culture. Written records go back only 200 years, to when Australia was first settled by Europeans.
However, some researchers believe some of the songs may date back thousands of years, making them among the oldest on Earth.
The songs performed in public and at festivals are quite different from the ``private'' or ``sacred'' songs.
Billy Mungie's totem, for example, is the Red Kangaroo, one of the most important animals to Aborigines. He declines to talk about his Dreaming and the Red Kangaroo. ``It is very powerful, and only elders have access to it,'' says Tunstill, who translates Mungie's comments.
In the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia songs are still an important part of life for some tribes. This is especially true of the ``songlines,'' sequences of small songs or verses which point to a geographical location. Since the Aborigines were a nomadic culture, the songs were a way to locate food, water, and trading partners.
Aborigines traveling to places they have never visited before have found their way by singing ancestral songs. Tunstill recalls a story about a group of Aborigines on their way to a sacred site. ``They got lost and sat down and sang their song and discovered they had made a wrong turn at a sandhill,'' he explains. ``They retraced their steps and got unlost.''
Aborigines are very careful about control of the songs. Elders require young people to pass certain tests before learning clan music. Clans vociferously protect their rights to their own songs, often through a manager who is a member of the clan.
The music itself is difficult to perform. ``It is very syncopated,'' explains Tunstill. ``The tonal system is quite different. You can't replicate the sound on the piano because there are either not enough notes or they are in the wrong position.''