“Not Really a Musical Instrument?” Locating the Gumleaf as Acoustic Actant and Environmental Icon
Leaf instruments have occupied a post-European contact role in constituting Australian societal networks, and their epistemologies reflect native/exotic binaries in the species selected by Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians respectively. Accordingly, this essay examines some musical applications of native plant populations in the construction of arboreally-based cultural heritages and social traditions in the southeastern Aboriginal societies. In a broad characterisation of the practices of Indigenous leaf players (“leafists”), it extends the actor-network framework of “reaching out to a plant” established by John C. Ryan in 2012. When leafists play tunes on plants—either at their own source, or on leaves intentionally plucked for performance—music furnishes an intimate and vital part of their reflection to and from the nonhuman world. The author conceptualises eucalypt leaf instruments (“gumleaves”) as actants and iconic sensors of place, providing further evidence for their role as conduits between land and people in some cultural blendings and positionings with art, drama, and poetry. This interrogation of confluences between musicians and Australian land and plants works towards more nuanced understandings of the complex interlinked systems of music, ecology, nature, and societies.
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