Concert on the Esplanade: Nabarlek!

The Darwin Festival opened on August 14 with a traditional free concert on the Esplanade sponsored by Santos, the oil and gas company. We’d received invitations to the Telstra-sponsored preview of the 25th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) the same night. In the end, it was no contest: Nabarlek was headlining the Esplanade show. Since Gurrumul’s concert, originally scheduled for the following Saturday, had been rescheduled to the 29th of August, this was going to be my big chance for Indigenous music. Plus, we’d been watching for days from our hotel room windows as workers built the stage and surrounds across the street. We felt like we already had a commitment.(As an aside, one of the most astonishing facets of this trip was the ubiquity of Gurrumul’s music: it was the soundtrack at CAAMA in Alice Springs, where the clerk told me they sold 31 copies in 24 hours the day I was there in July; at the MAGNT dinner for George Chaloupka; at the Star Shell in the Botanic Gardens before acts took the stage; and yes, in between sets at the Santos concert. The man and his new album have gone beyond being a phenomenon: he’s verging on being a way of life.)

Going to the concert turned out to be the right decision all around. In the first place, I got to experience Darwin itself in a whole new way. The audience was amazing in its diversity. I’d expected to be one of the oldies in the audience, but based purely on demographics, I was strictly middle-aged. This was clearly a community night out, Darwin celebrating itself as much as the music. I’ve heard a lot from the locals about Darwin’s tolerance, about the mix of people who call this place home and find ways of accommodating their differences. 

Seeing it in action was a whole ‘nother thing. I was surrounded by tiny gray-haired women, kids in board shorts, and carefree thirtysomething couples. When Naomi Pigram opened the show, the dance floor (that is, the first few meters right in front of the stage) was occupied by a troupe of children under the age of ten, many of them considerably under the age of ten. Some of their parents later joined them as darkness fell and Shellie Morris took the stage.

The concert officially opened as Allison Mills gave the traditional welcome to country on behalf of the Larrakia people. This was to be the first of many appearances by Mills in the course of the weekend, and it was traditional only in the broadest sense: a Larrakia person welcomed us to the land. Her delivery, though, celebrated that Darwin spirit with a rendition of “The Arafura Pearl” in which she accompanied herself on ukelele.

Naomi Pigram comes from the extended clan of musicians that dominate the scene in Broome, and she included a Scrap Metal (proto-Pigram Brothers) tune towards the end of her set that showed she could bring on the beat. Accompanied by only three guitarists, one of whom often played bass, she showed great range stylistically, and certainly got the audience in a good mood.

Naomi Pigram

Shellie Morris appeared onstage about thee minutes after Pigram closed her set. This kind of smooth transition and good organization on the part of the concert managers characterized the whole evening. Morris took the tempo up a notch, again setting a pattern that would continue for the rest of the night. While she clearly shares the singer-songwriter roots with Naomi Pigram, Morris’s larger band was tighter and bouncier and made even the slow tempos buzz.

Shellie Morris

A conversation in broken English with the guys sitting alongside us on the grass was the prelude to realizing how big the Timorese community in Darwin is, and how devoted to Cinco do Oriente they are. Fronted by Ego Lemos, CdO had a huge part of the crowd singing along, and the dance floor soon filled with his compatriots bouncing to the beat. In fact, the amazement I’d experienced at the number of people turning out to see an Aboriginal band suffered a severe reality check at the end of CdO’s set, when large numbers of people rolled up their blankets and slipped away into the night.

Cinco do Oriente, led by Ego Lemos

Just as quickly, the lawn started to stream with Indigenous kids making their way up to the dancing space. Nabarlek came on loud and strong, and the decibel level drove a few more people off, enlarging the dance floor. Just as well, given that the “garage band that never had a garage” had the rest of us rocking to the beat and needing the extra space to swing. I don’t think I ever before sang along to songs I’d didn’t know the words to with quite such fluidity and joy as I did that night.

 


Like each of the performers who preceded them on stage, Nabarlek gave the crowd a tight, professional set. But a nine-piece powerhouse with mad didj lines and three lead vocalists is a hard act to beat. The set was a collection of great songs, ranging from “Bushfire” and “Land of My People” through the signature “Najorrkon” and their inimitable version of “Down Under.” As good a concert recording as Nabarlek Live is, he sound is thin compared to the presence the band really projects from a stage.


All in all, the concert was one of the best organized, best played, and most engaging I’ve attended. I didn’t think I’d last four hours sitting on the grass without complaint, but it was easy (and of course by the end I was sitting anymore). I was as impressed by the crowd as I was by the talent on stage. Even the security forces there to enforce the no-alcohol policy were pretty discrete for most of the evening. Where else but Darwin could you find such a mix of local talent, Indigenous musicians alongside their Asian neighbors, keeping an intercultural and intergenerational audience singing and dancing like that? It was a great kickoff to the Darwin Festival, one that made me wish I’d be around to see more of it.


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