'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

When Darwin’s world war two oil tunnels were built to protect supplies from Japanese bombing raids, the makers probably weren’t thinking about the extraordinary acoustics.

The tunnels are 170m long and four metres wide, dug into the cliffs at Darwin’s waterfront and surrounded by jungle-like vegetation. The war was finished before they were, and the tunnels are now an offbeat tourist attraction, with information boards and historical photos lining the ever-soggy walkway.

For five nights last week however, they were used for a different purpose: a series of sonically experimental concerts by a collection of musicians and singers bringing together the sounds of West Papua, Arnhem Land, Japan, and the west.

The Tunnel Number Five concert, of which the final show was held on Saturday night, sought to treat the tunnel as another instrument – what artistic director Ann Norman called a “perfect concert hall”.

The show was of low – in fact almost no – production value. A BYO seats and drinks affair, a hundred or so people dragged their camping chairs through the low, pipe-lined entrance and into tunnel number five, and then sitting in a line facing the dusty opposite wall. Fans roared, lights buzzed, and leaks dripped. Tea light candles in origami paper holders floated in the ever-present inch of water along the floor tracks.

It was neither comfortable nor glamorous; but it was both weird and intriguing.

#darwin #tunnelnumberfive #music #origami #violin trio tonight

A photo posted by Ernie Gruner (@erniegru) on

The fans were turned off and the stifling heat set in, as the haunting sound of violinist Netanela Mizrahi bounced and echoed up the hall from the depths of the tunnel beyond. It was answered by a second, Ernie Gruner, who was standing near the entrance; the two players bridged the distance between them with their music, in conversations of whispers and wails. As they moved closer towards each other, so did the music, eventually forming a duet.

The unamplified music was overwhelmingly loud at times. It was surprising and enveloping and, with not much to look at, many in the audience closed their eyes to take it in.

Tunnel Number Five is a five-night concert series inside the Darwin world war two oil tunnels.

The incorporation of traditional instruments and songs from wildly different cultures, held in a historical military site, was spooky at times. Artistic director Ann Norman played the shakuhachi, Mizrahi the violin and viola, Gruner the violin and mandolin.

The sound of Sarah Hopkins’ harmonic whirlies – plastic tubes spun around by hand to catch the air – was reminiscent of a Peter Weir soundtrack. West Papuan musicians and activists Henk and Amanda Rumbewas brought their traditional music and protest songs, playing guitar and a goanna skin drum. Henk Rumbewas’ voice boomed through the space, ringing in the audiences’ ears. Yolngu songman Jason Gurruwiwi sang from his homelands on Elcho Island in a deep, clear voice.

The two West Papuan musicians Henk and Amanda Rumbewas are joined by Ernie Gruner.
The two West Papuan musicians Henk and Amanda Rumbewas are joined by Ernie Gruner. Photograph: Helen Davidson/The Guardian

Shortly before interval, when the crowd exited for a gasp of fresh air, Rumbewas and Eleby – in traditional dress, and holding a drum and guitar – joined with Gruner, in a plaid shirt and holding a violin; they performed a West Papuan protest song while dancing from one end to the other, in the night’s most enjoyable performance.

At the end of the show Norman thanked the crowd, and explained the hopes of her experimental concert series, now in its second year. The musicians had come together beforehand to discuss ideas and collaborations of their distinctive styles and traditions, but otherwise the show was “entirely unscripted and spontaneous,” she said. The past week had been spent “getting to know” the sounds and tricks and quirks of the venue, to bring the most out of their music.

“The tunnel is probably the most magnificent instrument,” she said.

“Playing in a hot, damp, dusty tunnel, and bringing your own chair. What a way to do a concert.”


Helen Davidson in Darwin

The GuardianTramp

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