The Afghan's Song

Afghan camel drivers were responsible for supplying the material needed to build desert sections of the Trans-Continental Railway and the Ghan Railway.

Hundreds of camels were used in camel trains during the constructions of these railways.

(The tune was /collected and published by Ron Edwards in his Big Book of Australian Folk Songs. It was first recorded by Matilda's Mob in Trains of Treasure Project 1985)

In his "Australian Folk Song Index" the Ron Edwards writes about this song:–

Collected and arranged by Ron Edwards from Doug Kite, Ferntree Gully, Vic, in 1956. Thirty years later I had a letter from this same informant, and so managed to once again establish contact. He said he was still hoping to get the text of the song to me.

In 1956 I was living at Ferntree Gully in Victoria, and one night my neighbour Gus Horne invited me over to his house to meet a friend. The stranger was a wiry suntanned bushman who had just arrived in Melbourne from Maree in South Australia in charge of a number of camels destined for the Melbourne zoo.

During the course of the evening he played a number of tunes on his accordion, including this one that he had learned from an old Afghan camel driver in Maree. He said that the tune had become popular at dances in the area, and was known as ‘The Afghan’s Song’. He knew of no words to it, and regarded it as a purely instrumental number.

The Afghan camel driver played an important role in the early days of South Australia, but he does not seem to have been commemorated in any other song, and is only rarely mentioned in rhyme. My informant did not know anything about the background of the song, whether it was based on an Indian air or whether the old camel driver had learned it while in Australia.

Unfortunately my notes containing the name of my informant have become lost, detached from my copy of the tune, but I remember that the Melbourne Sun had a memorable photograph of him at the time riding a camel down one of Melbourne’s main streets.

Doug never did manage to obtain the text, but by an odd coincidence while talking to the singer Ted Egan at the Woodford Folk Festival in Dec 1998 he told me that he had collected a version of this song from an old “Afghan” camel driver in Maree (possibly the same informant as Doug Kite had, or a relative). Not only had Ted collected the song but he had also recorded it on a commercial tape My Australia (seemingly published and distributed by Egan and issued in 1986).

Ted Egan believed that khala was a term of endearment, but did not know the meaning of the rest of the text, which would have been in a dialect from the north of India where the so-called “Afghans” came from. The text below is only a phonetic rendition.

Khal khala, khala deesun gee
Sungee oo supundro ya, oh oh oh,
Takla shundra shundra dee sung,
Sungee un supundro ya, oh oh oh,
Khala shundra shundra dee sun gee
Sungee un supu row oh oh oh.

The tune that Ted used was a variant of the one printed here, in fact that was how he recognised his song as being the same one that I had published, however he sang it fairly slowly while Doug Kite had played it in a lively manner, and used it as a dance tune when playing at local functions in Maree.

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