Barunga is a small town on the southern fringes of Arnhem Land that for three days every year hosts a sports and cultural festival. After a few down years, this year the festival has been revived by the vigour and professionalism of Darwin-based recording and production company Skinnyfish Music.

Barunga is in the lands of the Bagala clan of the Jawoyn language group and it was heartening to see the fact of that ownership stated emphatically by their representative Samuel Bush-Blanasi and recognised by politicians from the federal and local parliaments.

I’d spotted NT Chief Minister Adam Giles earlier that day in Katherine as he pulled into the local Red Rooster chicken shop. As he told me later at Barunga “I was starving mate.” But a starving Chief wasn’t the only food-related problem on day one of this year’s festival.

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Darwin’s Roma Bar is running a pop-up cafe at the festival (this is a VERY GOOD THING – there is usually no decent coffee south of the Berrimah Line until you hit Alice Springs 1,500 kilometres south) and had underestimated the hippie turnout and the consequent demand for soy milk for their soy-milk-decaf-lattes drink-of-choice and was in a state of mild panic for the expected rush of John Butler fans on the Sunday.

They were already down to their last two litres of soy and wanted to avoid the hordes of angry soy-deprived ropeheads that would storm their counters. Strategies were workshopped – a last minute dash to the nearest supermarket in Katherine, me bringing supplies out early the day, and more.

In the end wiser heads prevailed. “Bugger the hippies.” The customer is always wrong.

Anyroad, back to the sport & culture. I caught the last footy game of the day yesterday and it was a cracker. A team from Numbulwar was playing the young fellas from St John’s College in Darwin and were a few goals down by half time but managed a great revival in the 2nd half (Q: “How many quarters? A: Two”) to take the game by at least 6 goals.

Then it was over to the Skinnyfish stage for the pollies to do their thing and some dancing from the local Beswick dancers and a troupe from Groote Eylandt.

There is a long and proud tradition of welcome to strangers from afar at Barunga and nowhere is this more evident during the evening dance performances, where everyone is invited up to show their style – or lack of it. Yesterday’s performance saw hundreds of visitors shake a leg and more with the professionals.

Then it was a break for some much needed coffee and rib-bones & rice, to watch the sun-set and catch up with stragglers and those who’d filled their diesel car with petrol, left all their cash at home and were on the bot or just wondering where they could get a hot shower.

The traditional roadies cry of “One-two, check, one-two” heralded the arrival of starlight, stage lighting and rock and roll so it was back to the Skinnyfish stage for the first night’s music. Rock and roll has always – in my memory at least – been a central part of the Barunga festival.

I’ve roadied at quite a few Barunga festivals in the past and on one memorable occasion with Tom ‘Careless Horserider‘ Pryce looking after the stage we got fifteen bush-bands on and off stage in one night.

Admittedly is was a very long night and I remember crawling back along the road home to Beswick watching the morning star being chased out of the east by the dawn. And last night’s line up continued that proud history with eight bands from all over Arnhem land and beyond rolling up to play.

First up were T-Lynx from Ngukurr who impressed with a strong set. They’ll be playing again tonight and also at next weekend’s Yugal Mangi Festival – also produced by Skinnyfish Music – at Ngukurr. Next up were the Young Guns from Bagot in Darwin, memorable for a strong set and the bass-player, who made more than a few friends by invoking the spirit of Elvis.

The Yugal Boys from Ngukurr were followed by the Sandridge Band from Borroloola (I was on a coffee break at the Roma Bar for their set so didn’t catch them) and the Mambali Band from Numbulwar played a fantastic set enlivened by their enthusiastic dancer and broody lead singer, who both provoked boy-band-fan squeals from the audience.

Then it was time for the old-school elder statesmen of Arnhem Land rock, The Sunrize Band from Maningrida up on the north-central coast.

They were short a few original members – drummer Wayne Kala Kala decided to stay behind to look after his dogs but sent son Vince along to hit the skins in his stead – but they were still powerful and none could resist the urge to sing along to their signature tune, Lam bani mani mani … Maningrida.

Ben ‘Mozzie‘ Pascoe was in fine fettle with his Strat and between spitting out hot licks got down with a bit of the old I-can-play-this-thing-with-my-teeth or any-which-away.

Horace ‘Mr Check It Out‘ Wala Wala’s pleasure at being back on stage at Barunga was palpable and infectious. By the end of the Sunrize Band’s set it was well after 11 o’clock and the next two bands  flicked the switch from black-boy-rock-n-roll to bad-boy-straight-out rock.

The Bad-T Band from Ngukurr hit the stage with their vigorous four-part rapped harmonies laid over an irresistible rock background. Lead singer Lionel Silver had was all sulk and sex and attitude.

Last band for the night were The Lonely Boys, and judging by the crowd reaction, none of them would be lonely without reason after the show. They opened with ‘I’m a hunter‘, that had the audience singing – no, shouting – along to the chorus. Behind me a young woman screamed to her friend “I wanto give it him!” and then broke out in laughter when I caught her eye.

The Lonely Boys have been called Arnhem Land’s original punk band and they carry on a long history of kick-arse rock and blues bands from Ngukurr, a small town of about 1,000 people that boasts at least 6 bands – ranging from christian to hard rock – and that on any day can field the same number of football teams.

You will read and hear a lot about how dire things are out in the remote pockets of the NT. Some of that is true.

But there is a lot of good that that you won’t see much of from your TV or in the papers. People live their lives, play sport, make music, live their cultures and do it with a vigour and class that deserves greater recognition and should give pause to those who portray – and those who believe that portrayal – of life in these places as lives of unrelenting horror.

They are wrong.

There is much that is good and great in these small towns and if you are willing to look, listen and learn small community-based festivals like Barunga Festival, and the Yugal Mangi Festival and the Merrepen Arts Fesival are great places to start.

Me, I’ve got to save the Roma Bar from the hordes of soy-starved hippies, Gurrumul is on stage in a few hours and there are a few more footy games to catch.

See you tomorrow.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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