I’m writing from a 1960s era bungalow in Cossack in the Northern Territory, although for all intents and purposes I’m in Katherine, the biggest town for hours in all directions.
This is the first time I’ve been to the Northern Territory. It has the predictably uncanny quality of seeming familiar, unmistakably Australia, while being a totally new world. The bungalow I’m in is dwarfed by the surrounding garden - hemmed in by a ring of towering coconut palms, and a thicket of gum trees, ferns, bright pink bougainvillea and mint-green succulents in hanging baskets. Plump geckos scurry constantly across the ceiling of the verandah, where the dog - Dook - likes to snooze, or watch trucks groan along the highway in the distance. A lone cane toad loiters in the backyard, not far from the petrol drum used to burn empty pizza boxes, left over from the Katherine film society’s monthly gathering. The house is a twenty-minute bike ride from town, so it’s undisturbed by the noise of civic activity. During the day, it is still and quiet. The soft hiss of breeze in the palm fronds, a rooster somewhere, the occasional car passing, Dook whimpering to be let inside or out.
Three days ago I flew north from Perth. The Virgin flight offered the best snacks I’ve ever received on a plane. I wasn’t hungry but I ate them emphatically, out of a sense of cosmic obligation. Out the window, the almost cloudless sky below revealed the angular plots and rocky contours of the land. Lemon yellow rectangles (canola fields) giving way to mottled green-brown plains and rippling silver-terracotta land expanses I couldn’t begin to comprehend.
Arriving in Darwin, I walked along the disembarking tunnel, in which no less than sixteen large posters announce that Dôme is now open. Taking a left turn at the gate, I see Dôme. It is huge, a single room as big as the house I grew up in. It is open twenty-four hours a day, all year round. A ceaseless, dizzying carousel of jet-lag lattés and freddo-froggacinos.
Darwin is an unknown quantity in my mind. The unusually casual shuttle bus leads us into town, past banana fronds, frangipani boughs, concrete apartments and a young boy kicking his footy up a staircase. The streets are lined with tough, blocky buildings - stark grey brutalism and pastel-coloured panels weathered by years of monsoonal squalls. My hostel is on Mitchell Street - one of the main drags in town, dense with backpackers, pubs and unassuming restaurants. I slide my things into a dorm room cupboard, and set out to explore.
There’s the esplanade, a winding path overlooking semi-submerged trees (the mangroves) and outcrops of porcellanite, the tough ancient rock upon which (and from which) much of Darwin is built. Here, I watch the sun set, a ferocious gold-pink enveloping the bay. I wander past a row of gently glowing hotel lobbies, past Gaming Rooms and a central reptile aquarium called Crocosaurus Cove where you can enjoy a pleasant-sounding attraction called the Cage of Death.
At another corner of the city centre I find a park encircled by festoon lights and caravans selling beer and food. This is the Darwin Festival Park. There’s a central ad-hoc enclosure called the Lighthouse: Peter Helliar’s voice is ringing out, making topical dad jokes about Netflix, Pokémon Go and activated almonds. I sip an ale in the garden of a playhouse, outside a place called Happy Yess that I’ve been told I should go to. I will, when I’m back in town.
Looking at a Darwin Festival programme I suddenly realize I’ve arrived on the night of the NIMAs - the National Indigenous Music Awards. It’s already underway but, heck, it’s not every day you’re in Darwin for the NIMAs so I decide to make the half-hour walk to the Darwin Amphitheatre, in amongst the Botanical Gardens. This all sounds very scenic but I can’t confirm ‘cause I’m walking there in the dark, and can only see my boots on the footpath, and silhouettes of trees and buildings. Anyway, I know I’m heading in the right direction because every now and then a Larrakia man will walk past and say something like “going the the concert?” or “enjoy the show brother!” and I grin at the welcoming voices and the navigational reassurance.
When I get to the amphitheatre I can hear clapping sticks and guitar and voices echoing across the hill; can see lights and vans and tall fences and grand, drooping trees. I buy my entry ticket from the box office donga. Suddenly, a group of first nations women are asking if I’d be kind enough to buy them tickets. I tell them honestly that I’ve just used the last of my cash, and won’t have enough coin in my bank account until tomorrow - still, it makes me wonder how far my generosity would have stretched, and pricks me with a reality check. Me, a whitefella from Perth - I get to enjoy the festivities of the National Indigenous Music Awards while local women with a more meaningful connection to these expressions are stuck outside. Should I have given one of these women my ticket? Maybe, probably, but if so then whom - or is that question just a cop-out anyway? I dunno. But that’s what happened. I said sorry I couldn’t help, the ladies expressed no hard feelings, and with a chest full of ambivalence I went inside.
Inside, the demographic does seem to reflect the culture the event’s celebrating, which is cool, if perhaps to be expected. I perch myself on a grassy knoll. Up in the dome is Stanley “Gawurra” Gaykamangu, who’s had a big year - in fact, he took out “Album of the Year” and “New Talent of the Year,” as well as best film clip and cover art, tonight. His music’s immediately carved out a singular position, with a sweeping tenor and sweet melodics driving at a distinctive intersection of traditional and contemporary styles (check out ‘Ratja Yaliyali’ for a case in point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZn9qjZep8U). Gawurra is soon joined by Chris Tamwoy, aka Magic Fingers, who brings his distinctive horizontal guitar technique to the fold - delivering a memorable, crystalline solo.
Soon there’s Shellie Morris, who can only be described as an Australian music legend, having played with everyone from Yothu Yindi and Warmup Band to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, John Cale, Ricki Lee Jones and Gilberto Gil. Tonight she puts her talents towards a rendition of Warumpi Band’s “My Island Home” (made famous in my childhood by Christine Anu), performed in Gumatj language. We hear from David Spry, whose reggae-informed, pristine-vocal driven songsmithy rings out clear, minimal and bold in the evening air. He’s joined by Morris in a rousing version of Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds are Burning,’ which elicits a dense chorus of voices singing along.
As proceedings near their end, The Lonely Boys deliver a spritely and heavy version of reconciliatory classic ‘Blackfella, Whitefella,’ and the crowd is abuzz.
The night’s not all celebration and party - indeed, the theme of this year’s NIMAs is ‘Protest.’ At various points throughout the night we’re reminded of words like shame, genocide, and the ongoing atrocities - particularly in the prison system - that sadly aren’t limited to the Don Dale detention facility. There’s even a protest outside the festival itself, arguing that a particular tribute award should not have been removed.
So it is that I wend my way back to my hostel bunk with mixed feelings of inspiration and melancholy, but ultimately warmed by the night’s fiery spirit of resilience and creativity. I sleep in patches, woken routinely by the DJ spinning bangers on the balcony over the road. In the morning, I wander the streets some more before jumping in a ute and rolling down the Stuart Highway to Katherine. More soon.