Hope, pride & harmony at Barunga


Barunga Festival: Gurrumul, John Butler and a big slice of real Indigenous Australia.

How much should Australians know about their Indigenous people? About the clans, the languages, the Dreamtime, the rituals and the instruments? Many don’t realize that the stereotypes we do know make up something called pan-Aboriginality – a collection of traits from numerous clans that we have come to know as a general representation of Aboriginal Australians. But, each clan is very different. Without being in direct contact with Indigenous Australians, I think it’s easy to forget that Aboriginal culture isn’t just a contrived tourist attraction. It is actually a way of life, a practice that is intrinsic to the health of the community and the land and a way of connecting with family past and present. This connection to community, role models and culture is vital for the wellbeing of Indigenous people (and arguably all people).

I wanted to understand more about Indigenous Australians on a very real level, so took a job that saw me relocate to Darwin in the Northern Territory for six months which was the perfect vantage point to access real Australia, starting with Barunga Festival.

Barunga is a dry (alcohol-free) Aboriginal community four hours South-East of Darwin. Once a year over the June long weekend the community of 54 houses swells to over 5000 people for the annual Barunga Festival of sport, music and culture.

The Festival is a fixture on the event calendar for many, with some sports teams and music lovers travelling hours from communities in Western Australia and Queensland. It’s predominantly attended by Indigenous Australians and offers a magnificent representation of the rich culture and people who first walked the Australian land. The Darwin-based Skinnyfish Music (an Indigenous record label) has signed on to manage and run Barunga Festival for the next five years to ensure that its 27 year history thrives and remains as a key Indigenous community event locally, regionally and nationally.

I arrived on the Saturday afternoon, set up my tent and went exploring.

photo_4The “no junk food” policy meant there were no hot chips in sight. Instead, a selection of stalls selling sushi, huge plates of nachos, burgers, salads and juicy wedges of watermelon fuelled Festival-goers. Roma Bar from Darwin also set up shop and provided a lifesaving caffeine fix for many.

Down at river, a few people were cooling off and as the sun set, the smaller of the two stages – the APRA Acoustic stage – came alive. Here, under a marquee bordered by fairy lights, I was completely charmed by Aboriginal singer Ali “Arjibuk” Mills and her ukulele. What a character and with songs such as ‘Mission Food’ and “Alabama Coon’ she cheekily combined humour, Indigenous pride and story telling. She’s most famous for her rendition of Waltzing Matilda in Kriol – the Aboriginal language of the area – complete with pretty fantastic animal noises.

Beaming from Ms Mills, I headed to the main stage where local band The Yugal Boys blasted out their rock/hiphop beats that were undeniably led by a killer electric guitarist. I also saw Beat Boxer Warlu from Stradbroke Island who, using only a microphone, created ‘whorps’ and reverbing bass sounds that imitated the electronic Pacman music perfectly.

In between acts there were Community videos where Aboriginal elders talked in their native tongue (with English subtitles) about relevant health issues, traditional hunting and gathering and the importance of preserving the culture by passing down information from generation to generation.

Later on, songstress Emma Louise, originally from Cairns, graced the APRA acoustic stage. She played a mellow, dreamy set with gorgeous harmonies that sat exquisitely with that backdrop – surrounded by trees, next to the river and appreciated by a relaxed, respectful audience. Emma was followed by Tom E. Lewis, who is an incredible role model for us all, but especially for the Indigenous people from the Ngukurr region in Arnhem land that Tom calls home. He’s an actor and a musician, as well as being a passionate cultural ambassador for Indigenous Australians, which saw him found the ‘Walking With Spirits’ Festival (an annual event in late July) at the nearby town of Beswick in 2001. Through song and speech, he describes the land as his peoples church and imparts his knowledge of traditional culture and Aboriginal spirituality.

Back to the amped-up Skinnyfish stage to catch Mambali Band, which was the highlight of my first night at Barunga. The rock-reggae, eight-man band with indigenous lyrics, a traditionally painted up percussionist/dancer and a high energy frontman in a wide brim hat had me saying “this is exactly what I came for!”. It was joyous and fresh and left me smiling. I missed seeing the earlier indigenous bands Lonely Boys and T-Lynx, but after hearing good reviews, I look forward to seeing them at the Bagot Festival in August (as part of Darwin Festival)

The main stage was still raging, but I crept off to bed or, more accurately, to swag. It wasn’t long before some heavy hooved creatures stomped but 10 metres away and my mind was instantly reminded of my friends’ experience the previous evening of coming face-to-face with two water buffalo that were being chased by a couple of camp dogs. Fortunately for me, the Buffalo plodded straight past my camp, but I would not be going bush if I needed the toilet in the middle of the night.

Morning came and, with no hangovers to be seen, everyone was up and at it pretty early. I was interested in attending the Kriol language class, but the teacher wasn’t able to make it because she was also the Barunga Minister and had to say Sunday morning Mass. I moved on to the didjeridu making workshop, where participants could actually choose one of the termite-hallowed wood logs and carve it into their own instrument, of course all under the guidance of the Aboriginal pros.

I learnt how to basket weave – stripping the pandanus leaves and weaving the dry ones in a series of knots that involved using my big toe as an anchor.

I also watched and questioned an Aboriginal artist at work, but not for long, as I was pulled in by the commotion on the main field, created by the spear-throwing competition. The contestants had to aim for a life-size paper kangaroo about 70 metres from the throwing line. The winner was the first person to hit the target square on. It’s quite an artform and a spectacle. People lined the edge of the range and small children raced to collect the spears at the end of each round. It wasn’t too long before a winner was crowned and I heard a very impressed five-year old excitedly tell his mother, “that man hit the kangaroo straight through its mouth!”.

photo (2)The spearing ground was cleared to make way for the didjeridu playing competition. That refined piece of tree-truck is not an easy thing to play well. For many of them it appeared a physical workout and one guy looked as though he was going to explode he was blowing so hard. The experts in the group however made it look easy and the audience’s cheers decided the winner. I didn’t see who it won though, he didn’t give a showy fist pump or a victory lap run, he just gave a subtle nod before quickly receding into the crowd.

There was a variety of art for sale at the Ngukurr Arts stall, including Aboriginal paintings, baskets and beads. I resisted and headed to the Merchandise stand where Katherine Regional Arts (KRA) was selling customized Barunga tea towels and t-shirts with local bush foods drawn on them and cards that the students at the local school had designed (I bought quite a few of the cards with ukuleles and birds on them – SO cute!).

When I ducked back to the campsite for a quick bite to eat I was approached by a lady who offered me kangaroo meat. It had been caught the previous day and cooked in coals for 24 hours. It was to be used for the bush foods workshop but they had excess, so it was free for all. The meat was so tender and the freshness was obvious, as the gamey taste was not overbearing. After that hearty lunch of bush meat I was ready for the final afternoon.

The sports component of Barunga Festival is taken very seriously. Although basketball (often played in bare feet) and softball were part of the festival, the main focus was on the AFL. It’s a pretty amazing sight watching the Indigenous men play this sport. Their speed and agility make it seems as though they were breed to play the game. It was pretty rough at times, but the sportsmanship was phenomenal and most people were cheering when the Ngukurr Bulldogs (a community very close to Barunga) took out the championship.

When the sport finished it was back to the main music stage to wait for the headline acts.

The night festivities kicked off with a Corroboree – a theatrical interaction with the Aboriginal Dreamtime through dance, music and costume. As the movement stirred up the dusty performance ground an atmospheric smoky effect was created and the embodiment of animals through dance took place.

The humble and supremely talented John Butler was the first of the evening’s music acts. He opened with Better Man, did a duet with his wife Mama Kin and finished a fairly short set with a 10-minute jam session that showcased his mastery and demonstrated why he’s still a massive festival drawcard a decade after he first broke onto the music scene.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was the main festival attraction and it had been five years since his last public performance in the Northern Territory. Apart from “Hello” and “Thank you” he spoke no English. Even after years in the spotlight, he still prefers to let his producer, band member and Skinnyfish founder and co-director, Michel Hohnen, speak English on his behalf. It was such a special performance. I felt a wonderful sense of unity and hope being surrounded by Indigenous and white Australians who were equally moved and inspired by the purity and simplicity of his heartfelt performance.

Rounding out the festival was sweet youngster Thelma Plumm, Indigenous boy-band from the Tiwi Islands, B2M (Bathurst to Melville) and reggae-pop band Tjupi Band.

I feel privileged to have celebrated with the Barunga Community. The positivity, hope, pride and harmony on display at Barunga Festival set a precedent for all festivals. The absence of alcohol meant that there was no antisocial behaviour and very few security guards were required. It was such a unique, eye-opening and wholesome weekend. It was an experience that I had to share and one that I highly recommend if you want to get to know the real Australia a bit more intimately.



Words and pictures by Harriet Cheney