Barunga Festival proves music is the great connector

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Barunga reminds us that festivals can be about community, not commerce.

My journey to Barunga Festival didn’t begin well. 

I’m terrified of crocodiles. Around four hours into the trip from Darwin to Barunga, my driving buddy Vicki decided we should take a dip in a waterfall. 

A proud Territorian, Vicki has no fear at all.

“It’s completely safe, you dill,” she barked. 

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Off she paddled to play Russian roulette with prehistoric creatures in the shallows. Of course, she was right. I survived. And it was delightful.

I also had some trepidation about the camping at a music festival. For a long time I’ve felt a bit too long in the tooth for festivals. Three days of camping and partying is too much of a long haul for me.

But Barunga changed everything for me. It was really that good.

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Barunga is a three day festival of music, sport and culture. It’s been running for 31 years and is held in the tiny Indigenous community with a population of around 300. During the festival this number balloons to thousands.

The concept is simple. Firstly, there’s sport. During the day, football and basketball teams (men and women) from all over the state compete.

Secondly, there’s culture. Weaving, bush tucker and medicine classes are on offer. Or there’s the option of attempting to fashion a spear or didgeridoo.

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Courtney Barnett and Jen Cloher at Barunga. Photo by Myf Warhurst.

In the evening, there’s music. Some of the Territory’s most loved bands perform alongside some of the biggest Australian artists. This year, the drawcard for me was not only seeing local bush bands and local heroes GurrumulLonely Boys and B2M, there was also an extremely rare performance of two of Australia’s finest songwriters, Courtney Barnett and Jen Cloher, performing together.

A week before her Barunga appearance, Courtney was singing on Saturday Night Live. Then she was on a tiny stage by a river that may or may not be home to crocodiles. Such is the lure of Barunga Festival. Everyone wants in on this little bit of magic.

What makes Barunga special is that it’s a festival of inclusion as well as entertainment. It’s a chance for local folk to catch up (by this I mean all Territorians, because even if you live seven hours away you’re still considered a local) and for outsiders to experience life in a remote aboriginal community. I learnt a lot about life in the community and came away from the festival with loads more questions.

On Friday night, thanks to a plague, a sky full of bats greeted us. The law of averages suggested that I would be shat on by a bat at some point over the three days. And I was. Bat shit is a great leveler. As is not being able to shower for three days. We’re all in the stink together. 

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Barunga Kids Disco. Photo by Myf Warhurst.

Friday night’s entertainment was the Kids Disco, held on the local basketball court. I have never been to a more pumping shindig in my life and I’ve partied solidly for 20 years. There’s no alcohol at this festival either, so that’s really saying something. 

There were rules, but I couldn’t work them out. Local high school students DJ’d as dancers entered and exited the floor after each song. It was a cacophony of movement accompanied by a soundtrack of whistles and screams from the standing observers.

On the dance floor there was twerking, popping and locking and breakdancing of a standard I’ve not seen at any nightclub in years. The playlist was eclectic, from The Surfaris’ 'Wipeout' to DJ Snake's 'Turn Down For What'. Some of the kids were dancing like they’d been Rhianna’s backup dancers for years, but they were just out of nappies. Mind blowing.

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Myf with the Jawoyn Junior Guides.

During the days I watched football and basketball and took a tour of the town provided by the Jaywon Junior Guides. Under the tutelage of their principal, primary school students took us to historical and cultural sites. 

Their connection to place and the bush was strong and our guides became increasingly comfortable as they led us to sacred sites, cracked bush nuts for us to eat and found us medicinal tree leaves. All the while, they were looking super cool in their wrap around sunnies, gangsta caps and gold chains. This was cultural collision in a good way. 

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KK Band. Photo by Myf Warhurst.

Saturday night was what locals call Bush Bands night. Popular bands from all over the territory get to perform four songs each. Local communities support their bands like footy teams. The music ranges from desert reggae to the KK Band, who a friend described as a combination of Judas Priest and Bay City Rollers.

Sunday night was pretty special. Gurrumul performed never before heard new material with an electronic bent. Courtney and Jen performed together, then reappeared to sing a song with local women WildflowerEleanor Dixon and The Sandhill Women shared lush beats and sang beautiful harmonies. Every single performance felt special, exclusive. Which is quite unexpected when you’re in the bush, hours from anywhere.

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Crowd at Barunga Festival. Photo by Myf Warhurst

Tiwi Islands boy band B2M got the kind of screams normally reserved for The Beatles, and the night came to a close with chaotic faves, The Lonely Boys. Their arrival on stage comes with a warning that stage invasions will not be tolerated. They’re that kind of band. Get on them as fast as you can.

It’s a wonderful thing that such musical magic happens in a remote place like Barunga. There’s a reason a song like Yothu Yindi’s 'Treaty' emerged from here.  For me, this experience was a timely reminder that music is the great connector. A festival is the musical church that everyone’s welcome to attend, regardless of beliefs, upbringing or race. A festival is a place where there is opportunity to learn, too.

To be honest, I’ve felt a little jaded of late by the current festival system. It is, understandably, entrenched in the business of music for economic reasons. Most festivals have to chase big name headliners and offer sensory overload to sell tickets. That type of festival doesn’t feed my heart and mind as much anymore, because I’ve been doing it for years.

Barunga was a reminder that festivals can be about community. About creating shared experiences that connect us, rather than alienate us from others.

So if you’re thinking about making that journey to Barunga next year, just go. It will be the best decision you’ll make all year.

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