Walking With Spirits: song, dance and landscape combine for remote and spectacular festival

The unlikely festival took over a small community 100km from Katherine, where Fijiian dance joined Yirrkala songs and the premiere of A Bit na Ta

The road from Beswick, the small Jawoyn community 100km south of Katherine, is a gauntlet of deep, sliding sand that rises in brown plumes with every passing four-wheel drive. The steering pulls, the cabin rocks, visibility drops suddenly to zero as the grey-green stringy barks cop another layer of dust.

“Sold Out. No Tickets Available at the Gate,” said the painted sign 20-odd kilometres back. There is no gate, as it happens. Instead, beyond a makeshift camping ground and a pair of unlikely shipping containers is a miraculous river, split into deep rivulets boarded over for foot traffic. Beyond that, rising from the bush, sits the most spectacular and perhaps the most logistically challenging festival site of all time.

Walking With Spirits isn’t done lightly.

The Djilpin Arts Centre stage sits on a vast swathe of white sand, which, in the wet season, would be largely underwater. Today it curves around a very deep, very long billabong fed by a waterfall ploughing through a fissure in the red cliff. Freshwater crocs are lying in the sun down that end, the whisper goes. Up here, local boys climb the rock face to leap laughing into the cool water.

Fijiian dancers at a photo call for Walking With Spirits
Walking With Spirits is held on the sand by a billabong, fed by a waterfall that ploughs through a fissure in the red cliff behind. Photograph: Murray Hilton

This is the 16th year that Tom E Lewis – actor, musician, local mover and shaker – has staged his mostly word-of-mouth festival of music and culture. It looks like it will be the last. It’s largely the necessity of sending off four respected senior songmen, all of whom died in the last decade, that saw the 2017 proposal through the labyrinthine processes of the Northern Land Council and traditional ownership.

Lewis, the teenaged star of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith who is now better known as a Shakespearean stage actor, hosts the long night’s festivities in checked shorts, black singlet and fishing hat. With the ad-libbed style of a mad uncle, he talks us through the smoking ceremony for the four departed elders with intense affection and a lightness of spirit that makes us all feel like we belong, joking about whitefellas and blackfellas with the rare ease of a man with full lives in both worlds.

As dusk falls, the bunggul that follows has the same surreal blend of traditional ceremony and all-in celebration. The dancers’ dramatic advances are driven by didgeridoo, clap sticks and the keening chants of Gumatj songman Djakapurra Manyarryun, and cut by the shrieking laughter of children in white body paint watching from the side. They join in soon enough. At our host’s insistence, so does a trickle of intrepid whitefellas as the song cycle reaches its climax.

Children watch the performances at Walking With Spirits
The drama of the dancers is ‘cut by the shrieking laughter of children in white body paint watching from the side’. Photograph: Peter Eve

Yirrkala singer-songwriter Rrawun Maymuru is the first featured performer, bridging his tenure with rock band East Journey and a planned solo album with a set of acoustic guitar songs in Yolngu and English. A relative and torchbearer of Yothu Yindi’s “both worlds” philosophy, he introduces the story of ancient ancestors looking for water and the “mainstream” hit he wrote for Gurrumul, Bayini, with equal pride.

Benny Walker is next. MC Lewis highlights the young man’s Yorta Yorta roots but this music is pure blues-rock from the pubs of Melbourne, buoyed by clean, lyrical guitar solos and the throb of electric organ. Walker’s voice has the drag and timbre of a natural soul man. The red cliffs behind him begin to glow deep purple as the sun sinks behind the 350-strong gathering splayed across the sand.

There’s more family business now, in the form of a longer, more shambolic bunggul conducted by Lewis in between fond recollections of driving down this impossible track in an old Holden Monaro, fishing for barramundi and cooking it right there on the beach.

This time, over the course of a dozen chapters of didge, bilma and chant, more balanda families are coaxed into kicking up the sand, until Lewis is almost maniacal with the joy of communion.

A bunggul at Walking With Spirits.
Dancers perform at a bunggul during Walking With Spirits. Photograph: Peter Eve

Next in a program is a short film, Finding Maawirrangga, which describes our prodigal host’s connection to country in a poetic and funny narrative about exile and redemption. In short, Lewis’s movie career gravely unsettled cultural sensitivities back in the 1980s. His hard-won return to Numbulwar explains much of the passion that he brings to the festival.

It peaks tonight, in an energetic sense, with Fijian ensemble Rako Pasefika, whose log drums and shaking grass skirts and glistening flesh bring an exotic blast of Melanesian spectacle under the stars. A tearful lament for mother earth follows a theatrical arc from stage to sand, until the encroaching throng of children is forced back by a climactic juggle of fire-sticks and feel-good reggae.

The musical highlight of the festival, though, is the world premiere of Songs from A Bit na Ta: the latest project from Papua New Guinean superstar George Telek and Melbourne’s David Bridie. The unique atmosphere they conjure together has been a simmering secret since the groundbreaking Not Drowning Waving album of 1990, Tabaran, which they recall in an affectionate two-handed flashback to Abebe.

Tonight, as part of a five-piece PNG/Australian ensemble, their blend of Tolai tradition and synth/guitar ambience suspends time. The hypnotic hum of jungle field recordings, woody percussion and sonorous vocal harmonies is enhanced by a triptych of projected images contrasting scenes of dense tropical rainforest, mystical ceremony and stark colonial occupation.

As midnight approaches and families drift off to camp in the dunes, or take their chances on the sandy track back to Beswick, Tom E Lewis is understandably reluctant to cede the stage.

“We need to carry on the tradition, like this river,” he says, promising to find another place “just as beautiful” for Walking With Spirits next year. That seems kind of unlikely. But no more so than this.


Michael Dwyer

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'What a way to do a concert': experimental music festival takes over Darwin military tunnel
Tunnel Number Five show a BYO affair, with 100 people dragging camping chairs and drinks through the low, pipe-lined entrance

Helen Davidson in Darwin

22, Aug, 2016 @1:14 AM

Article image
Yirrkala Yarrapay festival: Arnhem Land spectacular lives up to Yothu Yindi's legacy
Acts as musically diverse as the Justice Crew and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu pay homage to Dr M Yunupingu

Michael Dwyer

04, Jul, 2016 @5:33 AM

Article image
Parrtjima festival: high-tech outback showcase or Aboriginal Disneyland?
Billed as Australia’s largest light installation, the aim of the $2m festival is to attract tourism to the region – but it’s also attracting controversy

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

29, Sep, 2016 @2:54 AM

Article image
'They are so into it': B2M is the Tiwi Islands boyband conquering Asia
A jubilant reception at a Taipei indigenous arts festival inspired the dance-pop group to collaborate with local communities, fusing Tiwi songs with ancient traditions worldwide

Helen Davidson in Darwin

29, Nov, 2016 @3:36 AM

Article image
Prison Songs musical about Indigenous inmates to headline Darwin festival
An adaptation of an SBS show about Indigenous men and women behind bars will be at the heart of a line-up that includes Dylan Moran and Xavier Rudd

Helen Davidson in Darwin

01, May, 2015 @7:02 AM

Article image
Garma: art and politics come together for a moving Arnhem Land festival
In the historic clan-gathering place, people of all nations enjoy the bunggul sunset dances, clan stories, bark painting and deep soul music

Kate Hennessy

06, Aug, 2015 @7:02 AM

Article image
'It’s a blackout': Barunga festival packed with music and meaning
All-Indigenous mainstage lineup features Dr G tributes, sons of Northern Territory music legends

Kate Hennessy

14, Jun, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Womadelaide 2017: politics rages through Australia's most diverse and surprising festival
In its 25th year, the world music festival took estimated crowds of 90,000 on a journey of discovery across four days

Janine Israel

14, Mar, 2017 @3:58 AM

Article image
Sydney festival 2018: Tree of Codes, Randy Rainbow and 100,000 toys lead lineup
Crowd-pleasing program heavy on circus and cabaret – along with breathtaking puppetry and brave Indigenous works

Steph Harmon

25, Oct, 2017 @1:00 AM

Article image
Perth festival 2022 features immersive events and puts WA talent front and centre
Artistic director Iain Grandage says ocean-themed program is ‘constantly evolving’ amid Covid and border uncertainty

Kelly Burke

15, Nov, 2021 @1:19 AM