A guide to some of the best Indigenous music festivals in Australia
No Australian sound is more significant than the music of Indigenous Australia – both contemporary and traditional. Songlines that trace the journeys of ancestral spirits are a key tenet of Indigenous spirituality, and music and dance are staples in any just about any Indigenous celebration or key event.
It stands to reason in a country with as deep a love of music festivals as Australia, that we celebrate the music of Indigenous Australia in the festival environment as well.
Here is a list of some of the biggest and best events on the Australian festival calendar. It is by no means exhaustive, so please share with us your favourite Indigenous Australian music festival if you’d like to see it included.
Boomerang Festival (Tyagarah, New South Wales – Easter)
Initially a standalone event and now part of the massive Bluesfest program, Boomerang Festival is a showcase of music, dance, theatre, comedy, film and visual arts, along with cultural knowledge exchanges and thought-provoking conversations.
This year’s line up had Indigenous artists like Yirrmal and Benny Walker, while audiences were treated to incredible performances from First Nations artists from Solomon Islands, PNG and Indonesia, to name just a few.
Barunga Festival (Barunga, Northern Territory – June)
A definite bucket list event for music lovers across Australia, Barunga has quickly become one of the most highly-regarded music events in Australia’s top end.
They’ve had massive headliners in the past – Paul Kelly, Courtney Barnett, John Butler, Jessica Mauboy, Gurrumul, Missy Higgins – but anyone who attends inevitably comes home raving about the territory acts like B2M, Lonely Boys and Eleanor Dixon.
It’s been happening since 1985 and the 2018 event will be special in that it marks the 30 year anniversary of the Barunga statement and will be headlined by Saltwater Band paying special tribute to their departed bandmate Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.
Yabun Festival (Sydney, New South Wales – January)
Tens of thousands flock to the traditional lands of the Gadigal people in central Sydney each year on January 26 to take part in the Yabun Festival celebration.
It’s always a packed program, with markets, kids activities, panels and community forums on Aboriginal issues and traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural performances.
And, of course, an absolutely killer program of live music.
This year they had old favourites like Troy Cassar-Daley and Joe Geia, as well as fresh talents like Kardajala Kirridarra, Baker Boy and Electric Fields – a solid day of music, and all for free!
Garma Festival (Gulkula, Northern Territory – August)
This one requires a fair bit of effort and, honestly, a lot of money if you want to experience it. But all reports suggest that Garma Festival is well and truly worth the investment of time, effort and cash.
It’s not strictly a music festival. It’s a place to immerse oneself in Yolngu culture. A place where important issues around all facets of Indigenous life in modern day Australia are discussed.
But they just so happen to book incredible bands while they’re at it. The likes of Archie Roach, Gawurra, East Journey and Dhapanbul Yunupingu were all there in 2017 and we’re sure the 2018 line up will be every bit as strong.
Share The Spirit Festival (Melbourne, Victoria – January)
Like Sydney’s Yabun Festival, Share The Spirit is a massive celebration of Indigenous music and culture that takes place for free in a big public space (in this case, Treasury Gardens) on January 26. It’s another family friendly event with children’s entertainment and plenty of other activities you can get amongst in between bands.
This year they had Dan Sultan, Archie Roach, Philly, Kaiit and more on the bill, so you know they’re trustworthy when it comes to putting a line up together.
Tjungu Festival (Uluru, Northern Territory – April)
A trip to Uluru is a bucket list item for so many people. If you’re a music/festival lover, then the Tjungu Festival means you can combine your trip to one of the world’s most spectacular sacred sites with some great music, markets, food and even some footy as well.
This year’s event featured a hefty line up of talent headed up by the mighty Troy Cassar-Daley, but also featuring some of our favourite burgeoning talent like Alice Skye and Apakatjah.
Bush Bands Bash (Alice Springs, Northern Territory – September)
This isn’t so much a festival as it is one big showcase performance, but it’s a unique and exciting chance to see some of the best up and coming contemporary Indigenous acts in the country.
Six bands from across the Central Desert region undergo an intensive music and industry skills camp which culminates in this massive performance where the bands get to show off their skills in front of thousands of people.
This year’s event will be its 15th and will no doubt unearth plenty more incredible talent – previous years have seen artists like Lonely Boys, Kardajala Kirridarra and Tjintu Desert Band take part.
Yalut Weelam Ngargee (Melbourne, Victoria – February)
Another free event that is open to people of all ages. The name loosely means a celebration of the river people, who are the Boon Wurrung people who are the traditional owners of the St Kilda area in Melbourne’s south.
The 2018 event featured Baker Boy, Benny Walker, Emily Wurramara and more, which has us pretty excited to see what they have in store for next year.
Freedom Day Festival (Kalkarindji, Northern Territory – August)
The Wave Hill walk off is one of the most significant events in Australian history and it is commemorated each year on Gurindji land in the Northern Territory as the community comes together to celebrate the Freedom Day Festival.
Even if your knowledge of significant Indigenous events is scarce (you can fix that!) the handing back of Gurindji land to its traditional owners looms large in the music world too, as it’s the subject of Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’.
The likes of Dan Sultan, Neil Murray, Ziggy Ramo and Shane Howard have all played the Freedom Day Festival in the past, but like many of these events, local discoveries are often the highlight.