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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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