Global Ear: A festival in the deserts of Barunga in Australia’s Northern Territory resonates with music reconnecting Aboriginal performers with their land. By Marcus Boon. The Wire November 2018 (issue 417)
Marcus Boon and I travelled to Barunga the first stop on our road-trip, in June this year to check out the latest sounds, dances, sportsters and fashions. Having grown up in Darwin, I played at and attended Barunga many times over the years, but I didn’t realise that it has been 20 years since my last visit! The festival was always the biggest drawcard for fans of Aboriginal music, dance and sport in the Top End of Australia and this year was as big as I could remember. The three-day festival draws crowds from all over the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Some performers and teams drive thousands of kilometres just to participate. Most people camp on site, giving the festival site a vibrancy that you would not see in most festivals of this type. I am always blown away by the fashions on display by the super styling teenagers and deadly kids. Living in Sydney, I miss seeing the colours and eclecticism that young people at these events put on display. The music and dance ranged from traditional to contemporary, the sports were dominated by Aussie rules football and basketball, and the art came from small community run centres in remote parts of the country.
Marcus Boon is a writer, journalist and Professor of English at York University, Toronto, he is also a colleague and friend who became interested in local Aboriginal musical culture when he came to Sydney for a conference a couple of years ago. We bonded over a shared love of political and cultural vibrational energies, and he was interested in finding out more about the scene in Australia, which is why I suggested a trip from Darwin to Alice Springs, from saltwater country to freshwater country. After 4 days in Barunga we drove down to Alice Springs, stopping at as many Aboriginal owned and run art centres that we could find. We even took a quick trip to Yuendumu, a remote community in the Western desert about 400km from Alice. We discussed at length how the stories, the songs, the dances, the paintings, and all the cultural artefacts we were seeing, all came from the land, the country. We also tried to explain how the energy of the land, vibrates through all of these things, and in all of these things is the country. We looked at huge, magnificent acrylic paintings made by old people who were nearly blind, people untrained in the arts, people who were just painting their country, their story, their Jupurka-dreaming, The lines appear to vibrate and the colours jump out of the canvas, as they are literally bursting with vitality. The stories, the singing, the painting is what keeps many of these old people alive.
The most prominent feature of the trip was the land itself, the country rolling past the windscreen of the car, expressed in songs, in words, in stories, in lines, in colours, in dance. These concepts are hard to explain, so one night on the way home from Barunga, I stopped the car on the side of the single lane dirt track and turned off the lights. We stood in the silence looking up at the pitch-black sky, the milky way looked like a hologram, a thick white fluffy cloud of white dots bursting from the sky. A shooting star would streak by every minute, and for once we could clearly see the dark emu,the black space between the stars near the southern cross. The Aboriginal reading of this sky is to see the shapes made by the blackness, rather than tracing the pattern of the shiny stars. I turned to Marcus and said “imagine what your thoughts would become if you slept under this sky each night…”