Freedom Day Festival: uniting Aboriginal communities and out-of-towners in music, education, and celebration

Freedom Day Festival: uniting Aboriginal communities and out-of-towners in music, education, and celebration

Words by Zachary Snowdon Smith

“From little things, big things grow” – anyone who’s been to a union march knows the words to the song by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody. The iconic protest song narrates the 1966 Wave Hill walk-off, in which 200 Gurindji Aboriginal workers went on strike against the degrading conditions and low wages imposed by British ranchers. This event marked a turning point for Aboriginal Australians, and is celebrated five decades later in a festival that brings together Aboriginal communities with out-of-towners for three days of music, education, and celebration.

“The Gurindji people are incredibly proud, and they want to keep the story alive,” says Festival Director, Phil Smith. “Fundamentally, some of the same struggles for self-determination and for rights are still relevant today. This is an opportunity to celebrate that and to look towards a future in unity. It’s fundamentally a celebration of the courageous and visionary men that took that stand against oppression.”

The Freedom Day Festival is held in the remote community of Kalkaringi, about nine hours out of Darwin. Normally, Kalkaringi and the neighbouring community of Daguragu claim a population of about 750, a number that rockets into the thousands during the festival weekend. The 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill walk-off drew crowds of 5,000, who set up campgrounds in the nearby countryside.

“It’s a huge challenge to pull this off in a remote community,” Smith says. “They’re quite sleepy little towns in a way, but there’s also a lot of community development and activity going on.”

The 2016 program featured the likes of Gurindji alt-rocker Dan Sultan and rapper Remi, as well as Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody; authors of the ubiquitous protest song. Headlining this year’s festival is Baker Boy – a Triple J Hottest 100 artist whose lyrics incorporate Indigenous languages rarely heard on Australian airwaves.

“[Baker Boy] has taken the Australian music world by storm, and he’s got ties to the Gurindji people,” Smith explains. “He mixes a fusion of Yolngu language and English language with electrifying dance. That’s the kind of thing that gives a bit of a cultural twist, and the younger generation are certainly excited to have him visiting.”

For visitors who prefer an acoustic twang to a bass drop, there’s Warren H. Williams, the ARIA-nominated country singer responsible for Magic Coolamon, the first Central Australian Indigenous musical.

Other noteworthy acts include singer-songwriter Robbie Mills, rockers Lajamanu Teenage Band, Indigenous Music Hall-of-Famers Sunrize Band and Rayella – the Northern Territory pop act called “powerful, direct and fun” by Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes.

With the help of talented musical acts to draw in bigger crowds, the Freedom Day Festival could become an annual event, Smith says.

“The community’s trying to keep this amazing Australian story alive by having a quality festival every year, with headliners every year,” he says. “We’re building it up to be an annual event. That’s the vision.”

Of course, music is only part of the Freedom Day Ceremony. Visitors will also have the chance to follow in the footsteps of Vincent Lingiari, leader of the Gurindji community at the time of the walk-off. A ceremonial reenactment of the walk-off is performed in celebration of the accomplishments of Lingiari and others, and the cooperation between Aboriginal workers and white unionists during the strike.

The festival’s opening ceremony will feature traditional dance and song, followed by guest addresses by Gurindji elders who participated in the 1966 action, and by senior Federal and Territory politicians. The ceremony is meant to celebrate the improved status of Aboriginal Australians and commemorate the hard-fought Wave Hill strike.

An array of Karungkarni painting, wood carvings and cultural artefacts will be on display during the festival, as will the footy skills of local youth. Friday August 24 will pit the Gurindji Eagles against visiting teams in two AFL matches, while Saturday August 25 will be devoted to basketball, with the opening of a new multi-purpose court and a women’s exhibition match between the Gurindji Eagles and the Lingiari Legends.

“The mob have been playing footy for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, in their own way,” Smith says. “The mob just love it.”

The rest of the festival weekend will be taken up with movie screenings, music and dance workshops and a forum on the treaty issue.

Amenities in Kalkaringi will be basic but will include toilets and showers, and shouldn’t pose a problem for anyone who likes camping, says Smith. He hopes that this year’s Freedom Day Festival will boost tourism to these communities and help showcase the positive side of remote Aboriginal life.

“We want people to experience the proud Gurindji heritage and living culture,” he says. “More broadly, the Gurindji people want to keep this amazing, nationally significant story alive. The story’s taught in school curricula. It’s got iconic songs written about it. This is another way to do that, and to use it as a showcase of the regional tourism vision which can generate social and economic opportunity for the Gurindji and others living in the lower Victoria River District. It’s part of a bigger picture.”