Tagged: Barunga Festival

Words are easy, words are cheap

Down by the (supposedly) crocodile-free creek that runs alongside the town of Barunga, an Aboriginal community south-east of Katherine in the Top End, 24-year-old Yirrmal Marika – son of Witiyana, co-singer and clapsticks player for Yothu Yindi – is holding a large crowd in the palm of his hand as he furiously strums a familiar song solo on an acoustic guitar:

Words are easy, words are cheap

Much cheaper than our priceless land

But promises they disappear

Just like writing in the sand

His voice is high and wild, with a guttural edge, and he pushes himself to screaming point as he sings: “The planting of the Union Jack never changed our law at all!” before encouraging the crowd to chant the chorus with him.

“This is the place, Barunga, where they made a deal,” he tells me later. “Are we going to make a truth of it, or are we going to make a joke of it?”

Back in 1988, in the middle of the Bicentennial, former prime minister Bob Hawke visited Barunga for its annual festival. There, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Wenten Rubuntja presented him with a 1.2 square metre sheet of bark painted by nine Aboriginal men. On it was a statement of 327 words.

It demanded Aboriginal self-determination, a national system of land rights and compensation for loss of land, respect for Aboriginal identity, an end to discrimination and the granting of full civil, economic, social and cultural rights.

And it concluded with a call upon the Commonwealth parliament to negotiate a treaty recognising the prior ownership of First Nations people and their continued occupation and sovereignty of the land. Hawke affirmed the statement, promising a treaty between black and white Australians.

Hawke’s promise remained unfulfilled. His last act as Prime Minister on 20 December, 1991 – exactly one minute before Paul Keating was sworn in as his successor – was to hang the Barunga statement in Parliament House. Only a few months earlier, Yothu Yindi’s leader Mandawuy Yunupingu (Galarrwuy’s younger brother, who died in 2013) had reminded him of his promise with a song that became a global smash.

This year’s Barunga Festival was not like the last 29, though there was no shortage of “talking politicians”, as Yunupingu called them. On the festival’s first day, the Northern Territory government, led by chief minister Michael Gunner, signed an agreement with the Territory’s four Aboriginal land councils committing them to a three-year process to develop a treaty.

The push is gaining momentum at state level. On June 21, the Victorian government passed legislation intended to establish a framework for a treaty; the New South Wales Labor opposition has also committed to begin a similar process if it wins government. Negotiations in South Australia ceased with the election of Steven Marshall’s Liberal government in March.

Labor leader Bill Shorten is at Barunga, along with Western Australian Labor senator Pat Dodson – who helped craft the words that made up the statement – and Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. From the Coalition, minister for Indigenous affairs Nigel Scullion stands in for Malcolm Turnbull.

The first Barunga Festival was held in 1985. Normally a closed community owned by the Bagala people, Barunga opens itself up to the world on Queen’s Birthday weekend in an annual celebration, a rolling maul of music, sport (including a full Australian Rules carnival, played in baking daytime heat), traditional arts and cultural activities.

There are also cross-cultural collaborations, such as between R&B sextet B2M (Bathurst to Melville, a name honouring the band’s Tiwi Island heritage) and the Bunun Taiwanese children’s choir. The Bunun are an Indigenous Taiwanese people known for their polyphonic harmonies. The combination, presented on the final night’s concert, is heavenly.

This year, the political element is inescapable, with treaty talks hanging over all of it. But there’s also a theme: of growing confidence and pride, of which Marika is the most extroverted example. “You’ve just got to push yourself,” he says, a huge grin on his face. “If that’s your passion, you have to open your heart and let everyone in.”

Michael Hohnen, former manager and producer of Dr Gurrumul Yunupingu (who died in 2017) and creative director of Skinnyfish Music, says that the Warumpi Band’s singer George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga stressed to him the importance of this. “He used to say we need more people who are not scared to be really bold … [Marika] embodies so much of what is possible.”

Rrurrambu is gone too, having died in 2007. He was a charismatic performer, the polar opposite of Gurrumul, whose shyness was such that he quit Yothu Yindi for another group, the Saltwater Band, based on his island home of Galiwin’ku. Gurrumul’s original intention was to stay there, before becoming a worldwide sensation as a solo artist.

The festival presents an annual award in Rrurrambu’s name for the best community band. Last year it was won by Black Rock Band, from the community of Jabiru, further north in Kakadu National Park. Formed in 2015, they’re already playing the event for the third time, after shows in Sydney and Melbourne and an appearance at Tasmania’s MONA FOMA.

Ritchie Guymala, the band’s singer, has mild cerebral palsy, and the resulting contortion in his left arm only adds to his commanding on-stage presence. “It means a lot, playing at this one, and we feel really proud of ourselves, [although] we’re missing our families back home,” he says.

“A treaty, it’s got meaning, you know. That will make our people feel a bit more confident, and with the Uluru Statement from the Heart – if we have a voice in the parliament house – it will really make us feel like we’re part of something. And we are part of something, but I think our voices need to be heard, that will make our people feel strong and proud.”

Women, too, are stepping forward and pursuing the same theme. Ripple Effect are a seven-piece from Maningrida, a full 10-hour drive and a number of river crossings away, on the north coast of the Arafura Sea. They started in 2006 as a school band originally called the Frontstreet Girls, a cheeky play on the Backstreet Boys.

“We [wanted] to inspire women out there to feel confident and to love themselves,” says singer Marita Wilton. In 2006, the band won best high school band at the Garma Festival, ahead of another Maningrida group, Crazy Boys. “Race you, boys!” Wilton laughs, adding she’s not sure what became of them. “I don’t know; maybe they retired.”

But the band’s drummer, Tara Rostron, says bigger Maningrida groups like Sunrise Band and the Letter Stick Band also inspired them to start an all-female group. “It was really important for girls to see us on the stage and [playing] an instrument,” she says. The band has an EP coming out in July, recorded with celebrated electro-pop producer Paul Mac.

Jodie Kell, the band’s white guitarist, is from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and has made her involvement in the group part of her PhD project. She returned to Maningrida to rejoin Ripple Effect, which performs its songs in six languages: Burarra, Kune, Ndjébbana, Kunwinjku, Na-kara (which only around 20 people are known to speak fluently) and English.

Kell says many of the women face challenging social situations, and life is not easy, but that “the land is such an important part of their identity and their culture, and when they go out on country they come alive. They speak to the country, they have an incredibly deep knowledge of their culture, and all their Dreaming and Songlines are attached to country.”

In between the music, the politicians keep talking. Nigel Scullion won’t use the word treaty but tells the crowd: “Thirty years ago was really a moment in our history. And there’s been some commentary around what wasn’t achieved and what was achieved, but I can tell you, it wasn’t in vain completely.”

He quotes Turnbull, who says the festival commemorates “a striking moment in the life of our nation, affirming the dignity, strength and the resilience of Aboriginal people and their long and proud custodianship of this land.” He calls it an opportunity to reflect on how we can all advance greater enrichment and understanding between all Australians.

Shorten stops short of renewing a call for a treaty, but not by much. “I say to the people who fear the concepts of agreement-making, of an Indigenous voice [to parliament], of treaties, I say to those people: you have nothing to lose. You still will be able to play football on the MCG; your backyard Hills Hoist will not be part of any claim. The chickens will still lay eggs.”

But in the following speech, he is pulled up by John Christophersen, deputy chair of the Northern Land Council. “We’re not custodians, we’re not caretakers,” he says. “We weren’t looking after [the land] for somebody else to come and take away.

“We were the owners,” he says to applause. “And occupiers. And custodians. And caretakers.”

On the day the Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the NT government and the four land councils, Galarrwuy Yunupingu provocatively said a treaty meant nothing to him. “And in actual fact, he’s right,” Christophersen says. “It doesn’t mean nothing, unless you dig into the word, what does a treaty mean?

“If it’s empty, then you’ve got nothing. If it’s got escape clauses where people can run away from it and neglect it and ignore it, then we have nothing.”

Words are easy; words are cheap.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 29 June 2018. I was a guest of Skinnyfish Music

In the Top End, footy’s not a religion. It’s more than that

On a sports oval in Barunga, an Aboriginal community south east of Katherine with a permanent population of a few hundred people, a fierce footy match is unfolding. It’s the grand final of the Barunga Festival football carnival, and the game is being cheered on by hundreds of spectators. A small colony of flying foxes provides additional commentary and special comments while hanging upside down from a fig tree in a corner of the ground.

The carnival has gone for the full three days of the festival, and for the third year in a row the Ngukurr Bulldogs win, defeating the Gurindji Eagles 4.7 (31) to 3.3 (21).

Don’t let the low scores fool you, though. In searing heat, there are just 10 minutes per quarter. The games are played at relentless pace, with little regard for the defensive structures and zones that constrict AFL games. They just play the game, one might say, as it should be played.

Helping coordinate the teams is Paul Amarant, who updates the crowd in between games. Ngukurr’s win is no surprise. It’s a remote community on the banks of the Roper River in southern Arnhem Land. It has 1200 residents and eight individual footy teams, making Melbourne’s old suburban VFL and VFA competitions look cosmopolitan by comparison.

“Whenever there’s a footy game on, everyone comes out – old people, young people, they all sit on top of the hill all around the oval and the noise is so deafening it’s like you’re at the MCG,” Amarant says.

“They treat the game so seriously – every kick, every tackle is watched and barracked for. This is where these kids learn the art of playing footy. They’re dodging and weaving or they get tackled into the ground. If you had city kids playing like this they’d be crying, running to mum!”

He notes, though, that the players are mostly lightly built, agile and very quick. “The contests are hard, but people bounce off each other because there’s no big, hulking bodies throwing them in the turf.

“Down south it’s more structured, it’s big bodies on bodies at stoppages. Whereas in the Territory it’s all pace, high marking, what football should be, good goal kicking. They kick goals from all angles and in the AFL they can’t kick goals from straight in front, and at Etihad they can’t even use the wind as an excuse because they’re kicking with the roof closed!”

As he speaks, with the game over, I watch a kid practising kicks from the boundary about 25 metres from goal as we speak, dribbling kicks through as casually as shelling peas, rarely missing.

A carnival like this isn’t easy to organise. Julie Hunter, the AFL’s regional development coordinator for Katherine, says sometimes teams simply don’t show up. But allowances need to be made.

For southerners, it’s hard to get your head around how big the Top End is, let alone the Territory as a whole, and how much harder it is to get around. For example, the trip from the coastal community of Maningrida – 500 kilometres east of Darwin on the edge of the Arafura Sea – takes 10 hours, much of it on dirt roads, with a few river crossings thrown in.

Try that in a bus with a trailer attached to the back. “So if buses break down or if there’s been sorry business [a funeral], or things happen in communities, that mean the community’s shut down, those are things that we obviously need to be respectful of,” Hunter says.

“So we’ve got a draft fixture ready, and as the teams rock up we confirm them in a slot and away they go. There’s going to be teams come in late, mostly for travel reasons, so we grab the teams that get here first, they get the first couple of games and we move forward from there.”

Representatives from Hawthorn were here on Friday doing reconnaissance; this is part of their Next Generation Academy zone. “They know how much talent there is up here and the only way to get them is to actually make AFL accessible to them at that elite level,” Hunter says.

But making elite football accessible doesn’t mean even the most talented players can make the required adjustments. Cyril Rioli, for example, boarded at Scotch College in Melbourne from the age of 14, giving him time to settle into life in the big smoke.

Amarant mentions a player from Ngukurr drafted by a big Melbourne club who rang him, begging: “Get me out of here.” Disadvantage and intergenerational trauma play a big role. If you’ve been shuttled between aunties and grandparents and are used to sleeping on floors in the Top End, sleeping in beds in a cold Melbourne winter is another kind of culture shock.

Women’s football is developing, too. “We tried probably 70 or 80 girls over the course of the two days here, and the Katherine comp started up last weekend, so we’ve got regular football for girls now.”

One thing that can’t be escaped is the heat. Simple things like lights at the Barunga ground would make a huge difference, meaning games can be scheduled in the late afternoon and evening. But resources are scarce, and in every community priorities need to be made.

In the southern and central Northern Territory, football is played in the dry season, but in the Top End, it’s played in the wet. The NTFL comp starts during the mind-melting humidity of October and November, the “build-up” before the rains come.

In Darwin, the grounds drain well, but “you take somewhere like Lajamanu where they’ve got a red dirt oval, put that with the wet season and they’re running around in red mud, basically,” Hunter says.

“But the reality is we’re playing in the Top End. It’s hot footy and they tend to struggle more when they go down south and they’ve got to play in the winter.”

The elements aren’t about to put off kids walking around in Eddie Betts and Cyril Rioli shirts. “Ngukurr’s got a field that’s got bindis all over it that stick to the ball,” she says. “But they just love footy, it’s their life. I know we talk about footy being a religion. Up here it’s more than a religion, it’s a way of life.”

First published in The Age, 16 June 2018