I’ve just returned from four days at the Garma Festival held at Gulkula in the Gove Penninsula of Arnhem Land. An initiative of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, Garma is now in its 11th year and attracts over 2000 people to this remote location in the heart of the traditional lands of the Yolngu people. The Festival includes a Youth program, a Cultural Tourism program and a Key Forum this year based around the theme of indigenous creative industries.
I have never visited remote Aboriginal communities before and I found the experience mind blowing. Mandawuy Yunupingu’s opening address to the conference got to the heart of the philosophy behind the Festival and the work of the Yothu Yindi Foundation with an appeal to the future:
It’s important to embrace tomorrow’s thinking and change…One of the great strengths of the Yolngu people is their ability to dig into the past and share it…Yolngu are in the forefront of the movement for change to benefit the next generation. We need to share our past our past is what makes us tick.
It is through embracing change and combining contemporary thinking with traditional culture that Mr Yunupingu believes will bring the greatest benefits to both indigenous people and the wider Australian community.
The word Garma means “both-ways learning” and the event seeks to open up a dialogue and a new way of understanding between white and black Australians. The program of the conference is serious and delves into political issues, and while the theme was creative industries, it is hard to move beyond the staggering inequality that still exists between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in any discussion.
It is the rich cultural program of the Festival where the depth and complexity of indigenous traditional culture really comes to the fore. Every evening of the festival begins with a ‘bungle’ where traditional dancers perform, often accompanied by a commentary for conference visitors about the stories and traditions that lie behind the performance. Watching these people dance in a place where their ancestors have danced for tens of thousands of years is a profound and moving experience. And the generosity of the Yolngu in opening their culture to the scrutiny of visitors is key to the experience of Garma. This is what reconciliation is all about and it is shameful that our culture rarely extends the same level of generosity to our indigenous citizens.
The power of Garma draws primarily from holding the festival on Aboriginal land. Briefly the tables are turned and we are reminded only too acutely that we are only recent visitors in Australia. The vision of this Festival is pure genius and builds on one of the most successful, unique and innovative creative enterprises Australia has going for it: indigenous art, music and culture. The Yothu Yindi Foundation have created a vibrant hub of cultural activity here in the wake of the international success of the band but they had strong foundations on which to build.
Each night after the traditional dancing ends, performers take to an elevated stage made from a mound of red dirt. What follows is an amazing fusion of music and dance styles between the traditional and contemporary that keeps you gasping for more. The depth of talent on display is breathtaking from the Chookie Dancer’s take on Zorba the Greek through to young bands and hip hop dancers taking to the stage with an energy and confidence you rarely see in the city. Reggae, country, gospel, hiphop, and soul are blended with traditional sounds and dance moves to stunning effect. Watching young indigenous kids dancing wildly to a rendition of sixties surf guitar hit ‘Wipeout’ is surreal to watch but is a sign of the vast creative potential that exists here. How many hybrid dance and musical forms lie in wait to be unleashed on a world hungry for new cultural experiences?
If this rich cultural fusion is an example of what can be achieved by embracing Mandawuy Yunupingu’s words then I would advocate that his philosophy is more widely adopted throughout Australia as a way to grow our creative industries from the bottom up. But in order for this to happen white Australia first needs to embrace Aboriginal culture with the same honesty and trust that the Yolngu people extend to visitors attending the Garma Festival.
Photograph from the Garma website.