The sounds and the spirit of Garma Festival 2017
The Garma Festival is one of the most unique festival experiences anywhere in the world.
Held in North East Arnhem Land, the festival is an invitation to people from all walks of life to experience this land that is of such significance to Yolngu.
It draws a diverse audience – politicians, entertainers, corporate executives and curious everyday people – and offers them all an immersive experience centred on the tradition and the future of Indigenous Australia.
This year, ABC RN’s Patricia Karvelas was one of those people, and she dropped by Lunch with Myf to give us the lowdown on the experience.
“More than 2,000 people descend to a very remote location,” she said. “You all land at Gove Airport and then buses take you to the Gulkala location that has been cleared, with thousands of tents on the red earth. It’s incredible for that alone.”
The festival is a place for the sharing of knowledge and celebrating Yolngu culture and this comes in many forms.
Of course, a vital piece of this is music and Karvelas said there was plenty of great stuff on offer this year.
“Emily Wurramara was one of the artists I was most taken by, she’s from Groote Island which is not far from where we were,” she said.
“The thing about Emily is, not only does she have a beautiful voice and is clearly destined for big things, she’s just so humble and honest about her music, about her story and generous in sharing it. I was really taken by her.
“In communities across the world, you feel the rise of young women, and she is part of that. It’s just her and a guitar and she was just incredible.”
Karvelas was also particularly taken by another Double J favourite, Radical Son.
“He is incredible,” she said. “His personal story is amazing. He was a rugby player, destined for big things, he went down a difficult path, ended up in jail.
"His story is such a story of hope and his lyrics are all about that, about trying to straddle those worlds and change his life. He’s an amazing performer beyond the good story – as a performer, he just lit up the stage.
“He’s so gentle. In the middle of the interview he said ‘I care about connections. We’re making a connection right now’. I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed somebody who identifies that.
"He’s very sweet. He’s such a big guy, he looks like a rugby player, but he’s just so gentle.
“Then he tells you his life story and again it just doesn’t match up with what you see.
"That, I think, is a good example that life is very complex. You don’t go to jail and are necessarily a bad person. Sometimes circumstances coalesce for people to end up in jail and then sometimes they just keep going back to jail because opportunities are not available.”
The recent passing of Dr G Yunupingu was a focal point of part of the event, with a deeply moving tribute to the artist as a part of the festival’s official opening.
“That was really sad and very moving,” Karvelas said. “The Prime Minister was there, the Yunupingus were there. Galarrwuy Yunupingu is the most senior Aboriginal leader I would say in this country, certainly of his people, they did a tribute, they sang a song in his honour.
“At the end of it there was just a really emotional moment where some of the Aboriginal elders, the women, started crying. The Prime Minister’s wife was moved to tears too, so she stood up and hugged them. This was not just a few polite tears, this was open sobbing, it was really, really moving and very sad.”
His passing offered an opportunity to continue the conversation around reducing disadvantage for Indigenous Australians
“The other point of the conference – and I spoke to Dr G Yunupingu’s doctor – is to learn from [his passing],” Karvelas said.
“We can be really sad about Dr G Yunupingu, particularly those of us who love his music, but the real spirit there was, ‘what do we do now to close the gap?’.
"There are solutions that really smart people have come up with, it’s just about implementing them. They’re calling for dialysis and support to run that dialysis in remote communities. Because the problem is, people have to move to Darwin to get it.”
Karvelas said her friend and highly respected academic Professor Marcia Langton summed up the greatest benefit of the Garma Festival best.
“She said, ‘What happens out of here that does matter, is that people meet people they never would have met’. They hear these stories they never would have heard by reading a newspaper or briefly talking to them at a conference in Sydney. Those connections and friendships become lifelong and then they become about building things.
“I make a friend from Cape York, I will take my family to Cape York and my kids will learn about Aboriginal culture in a way they wouldn’t in Melbourne.
“Imagine if we could get everyone there?”
Get more of ABC RN’s coverage of the Garma Festival right here.