One of the stars of the Bush bands Bash - Angus Pearson of the Tableland Drifters
One of the stars of the Bush Bands Bash - Angus Pearson of the Tableland Drifters

Saturday evening last weekend saw one of those rare events when the stars – and other heavenly bodies – come together in wondrous alignment. And last night – in Alice Springs at least – there were plenty of stars both in the sky and on the stage at the Anzac Oval in downtown Alice Springs, both events giving those of us that cared to look equal pleasure.

Just as the first band hit the stage at the 7th annual Bush Bands Bash here in the Alice if you’d taken a casual glance at the western sky you would have spotted a three day old crescent Moon soaked in earthshine and forming an exquisite heavenly triangle with Venus, which dominates our early spring night skies, and its red planet companion Mars.

BushBandsBashDesertDivas1 110910  9778
The Desert Divas - with legendary chanteuse Shelley Morris (centre)

And as the Moon and her companions slid below the western horizon the eight bands selected for this year’s Bush Band Bash hit their straps for a long night before a rapturous crowd of locals and supporters from their home communities. The Bush Bands Bash is:

…at the forefront of contemporary Indigenous music in Central Australia and has attracted a significant following from both indigenous and non-indigenous audiences. BBB has made a significant contribution to the development of contemporary and experimental Indigenous music in Central Australia.

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That we do things differently in central Australia is, for those of us fortunate to live here, just a matter of fact. One of the best indicators of that sense of difference is the importance of local culture – particularly local Aboriginal culture.

And because it is so much a part of the fabric of life here too many of us occasionally forget to give the centrality of Aboriginal culture – in all of its manifestations – the credit it is due. Over the past few days I’ve been looking at a couple of visual arts-related events that form a part of this years Alice Desert Festival – have a squiz at some of the recent posts here to see my favourites so far.

Lead singer of the Alunytjuru Band from Wingellina, SA
Lead singer of the Alunytjuru Band from Wingellina, SA

There is still plenty more to come over the next week or so in the Festival and later today I’ll be off to see Dan Sultan, the man tagged by Claire Bowditch as the ‘Black Elvis’, strut his stuff.

Last Saturday night wandered downtown for this years Bush Bands Bash, which sees a gently competitive selection process put a bunch of bush bands – in the truest sense of that word – on the big stage, and in front of a big crowd, as one of the main events of the Alice Desert Festival.

the elder statesman of desert rock, Sammy Butcher of the Warumpi Band
The elder statesman of desert rock, Sammy Butcher of the Warumpi Band

Not long after I first arrived in the NT in the mid-eighties I hooked up with The Warumpi Band as their live sound engineer for a while. The Warumpi’s, along with Melbourne’s The Birthday Party, still stick in my memory as the best live bands – on their night – that I’ve ever worked with.

One thing that made the Warumpi Band so remarkable was that they sang songs written in their own languages – either Gumatj, the language of their charismatic and sadly departed lead singer, or in Pintupi/Luritja, the closely-related languages spoken at the band’s homeland at Papunya, 300 or so kilometres to the north-west of Alice Springs.

Elijah Connelly, keyboardist with the Sunlight Band
Elijah Connelly, keyboardist with the Sunlight Band

What twenty-five years ago was thoroughly remarkable to Australian rock music audiences – that a band would have the temerity to sing in a language other than English – is now a commonplace, at least as far as bands and their local audiences in northern and central Australia are concerned. I reckon that if you asked any of the bands that played last night why they wrote and sang their songs in their mother tongues you’d get a slow shake of the head and be dismissed as a sorry fool in need of some serious musical cross-cultural re-education.

Barnabus Daniels, lead singer of Papunya's Tjupi Band
Barnabus Daniels, lead singer of Papunya's Tjupi Band

And last night the majority of songs were played in LOTE – languages other than English – and no-one blinked an eye or twitched an ear…

Papunya’s Tjupi Band sang in Luritja, the Sunlight Band, all the way from Pipalytjara and Kalka in the far north-west of south Australia, sing most of their songs in Pitjantjatjara. Their close neighbours the Iwantja Band sing in Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara.

Further to the west from Wingellina the Aluntyuru Band sing in the closely related Ngaanyatajarra language. From their homelands at Nyirripi far to the west of Alice Springs the Desert Mulga Band sing their songs in Warlpiri, while the Tableland Drifters, whose homelands are the vast open plains of the Northern Territory’s Barkly Tablelands and the Gulf country, use their mother tongues of Wambaya, Kudanji, Yantuwa and Garrawa.

Manuel Dhurrkay of Salwater Band leads the end-of-gig charge
Manuel Dhurrkay of Salwater Band leads the end-of-gig charge

And just to confuse matters a little more, in the nicest possible way, guest artist Manuel Ngulupani Dhurrkay, famous as the lead singer with the Saltwater Band from Elcho Island in north-east Arnhem Land, sings mainly in variants of the Yolngu-matha group of languages. But that didn’t stop the crowd’s vigorous sing-along to Manuel’s hits last night – he and the Saltwater Band have long been popular favourites here in the centre.

Joe Davey of the Tableland Drifters
Joe Davey of the Tableland Drifters

And my favourites of the night?

The Tjupi Band, who I’d last seen at Triple J’s One Night Stand in March this year, are near the top of my list.

Back then I’d been disappointed at their lack-lustre show and was prepared to damn them with the faintest of praise as just another desert reggae-lite band. At that show they played first up in the bright light of the late afternoon, sharing the bill with a bunch of rather ordinary rock bands bands from southern cities in front of an small crowd of (largely) disinterested kardia.

Barnabus Daniel of the Tjupi Band
Barnabus Daniel of the Tjupi Band

Last Saturday night they were top of the bill and in front of an adoring crowd full of countrymen and family. The contrast between the two shows couldn’t be greater – the hesitant, shy and awkward band from One Night Stand was transformed into a confident crew that strutted the stage as if they owned it and they had the crowd firmly in their grasp.

Tjupi’s lead singer Barnabus Daniel was now the consummate showman and had all the steps – first some beautiful skanking to their unique brand of desert reggae, then some Irish jigs on a pair of twinkling patent leather shoes, all just for the sheer fun of it. And right through their set Barnabus made all the right big moves with his arms, legs and a natty little cap used to great effect.

No less impressive were the Tableland Drifters. Venerable lead singer Joe Davey – he’s been with the band from when I first heard their music pouring from the crappy speakers of an old landshark HQ wagon that I used to drag around the Territory backroads twenty-five years ago – is in the best form of his career.

Angus Pearson, lead guitar for the Tableland Drifters
Angus Pearson, lead guitar for the Tableland Drifters

And now he has a band that has reached beyond their original vision and made themselves anew.

Guitarist Angus Pearson, who Rolling Stone magazine’s Barry Divola recently compared to the Dire Strait’s Mark Knopfler, was at the height of his powers, every note executed with a rare strength and graceful purpose.

It was a set that transformed the gentle renditions of the songs on the Drifter’s latest album, “Land Down Under” into full-blown rock songs, tinged with the subtlest of jazz and country touches.

All of the other bands on the night put in more than serviceable efforts, no doubt enhanced by their attendance at the three day musical boot camp that all bands participating in this year’s Bush Bands Bash attended at Ross River, an hours drive east of Alice Springs.

That professional development initiative, called Bush Bands Business involved recording sessions led by Darwin music engineer Duane Preston, a media and promotion workshop conducted by Radio National’s Awaye! co-producer Rico Adjrun and staff members of Music NT.

Hairdresser to the stars and local Alice identity Star lady with her fans
Hairdresser to the stars and local Alice identity Star lady with her fans

APRA NT’s Rob Collins also presented on copyright issues and Cain Gilmour from Charles Darwin University conducted one-on-one performance and skills workshops where needed.

One of the confusing elements of the night – for some at least – was the reappearance of musicians in different bands, often playing different instruments.

For example the bass player from one band would later walk on to play lead guitar, or keyboards, or hit the skins, in another band later in the night. For the bands there is nothing unusual about this – out here it seems that multi-instrumentality comes as naturally as multilingualism.

But I’ve been unable to properly track all of the names of the players in the various bands – so if you know that I’ve got a name or two missing or wrong here please let me know.

Iwantja band lead guitar player
Iwantja Band lead guitar player

But the best for mine on the night was the Iwantja Band from the remote South Australia town of Indulkana. They didn’t have the slick moves and showmanship of Papunya’s Tjupi Band but they sure had their musical chops down on the night.

I don’t know much about the Iwantja Band but their MySpace page has the following information:

Iwantja started as a school band in Indulkana Community, APY Lands, performing at the assembly every Friday and developed into a community band, performing at football carnivals across the Lands…They play in the Marla Hotel on Saturday nights. Iwantja also records for radio and TV programs, and has recently done the backing tracks for the Consumer and Business Affairs Awareness Advertisements. Iwantja was the standout performance at the 2009 Bush Bands Bash, and the International Festival of the Dreaming, with a wild stage act you have to see to believe. The band plays many styles of music from reggae to rock, from country to blues and some instrumental. The style is a bit of a mix of Gary Moore and Steve Morse or Joe Satriani with an Aboriginal influence. Jeremy is the band’s spokesman and can play everything, focusing on lead and vocals.

Iwantja band Lead singer
Iwantja band Lead singer

And I reckon that any gig where the boss – in this case Scott Large, Events manager for the Alice Desert Festival, has this much fun must have been a good night all around.

Alice Desert Festival Events Manager Scott Large (r) and friends
Alice Desert Festival Events Manager Scott Large (r) and friends

The Alice Desert Festival runs until September 19, with associated event continuing through September and October. For more information go to:

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