“A culture that deals with trauma daily”: Rhoda Roberts on programming Boomerang
The music acts for the indigenous Boomerang Festival – held as part of Bluesfest Byron Bay in April – is impressive enough.
They include Yothu Yindi & The Treaty Project, Baker Boy, Mojo Juju, Archie Roach, Benny Walker, Dallas Woods, Dobby and Mission Songs, among others.
But to get the most out of the First Nation experience, you need to take it through a matter of artforms. TMN talks to programmer Rhoda Roberts.
TMN: The music explosion of First Nation music, like Baker Boy and Mojo Juju, is really a part of an overall renaissance, which includes new theatre productions, podcasts, film & TV, comedy and performance art tours. Does the music works better presented in the context with these other art forms?
RR: “There is such a groundswell of work across the creative sector that has been evolving for decades through developing craft and practice, across all disciplines.
“The last decade due to these programs such as Screen Australia and the AFC Indigenous Unit ABC and SBS as well as has seen a new wealth of film and theatre-makers, producers and writers etc.
“With music, while there are many contemporary voices, we are now seeing a much broader use of traditional language and song cycle arrangements.
“This is our point of difference as we saw with the earlier Yothu Yindi albums, the late Dr G, now Yirrmal and specifically it is so accessible and provides a much-needed platform.
“For the First Nations creative industry, it’s often hard to dissect and label art.
“Music is combined with story, with ceremony, dance and ritual.
“Our song lines are our archive and memory bank of mapping country. Everything is connected.
“So at Boomerang we try to approach all programming spheres from a holistic perspective (budget permitting).
“This is the challenge as over the years, Peter (Noble, Bluesfest director and Boomerang co-founder) and myself have self-funded the event to ensure the groundswell has a platform and its from a First Nations lens, that’s what make it so unique and appropriate.
“Baker Boy’s new release is incredibly contemporary; however his language is from old ways of Manikay and Bunngal.
“Those old song cycles, when he performs in the final farewell gifting event, it’s the dancer we will see as well as the Fresh Prince. All the tangible and the intangible of spiritually and every connection that embodies First Peoples.”
TMN: What’s causing this explosion of new First Nation culture?
RR: “The serious disenfranchisement that was forced on First Nations peoples, often with government policy to completely wipe out cultural practice as a part of colonization has played a deep role and made a big impact on cultural expression.
“As we have all seen now, a change with apologies and other government undertakings has led to the implementation of various projects and pilot programs identifying the disparity across the creative sectors.
“With or without government support, the resilience of our many custodians whose knowledge had laid dormant, has now been reignited and reimagined.
“Visibility has been one of the biggest gaps, a consistent visibility that does not focus on the generic idea of one group of Aboriginals peoples and is more informative of the diversity and nations.
“There is now increased dialogue, many First Nation practitioners are working at production, producing and curatorial levels giving new opportunities of exposing work that provides a unique platform for First Nations artists from across Australia and the Torres Strait Islands to showcase diverse and ancient stories.
“Having a distinct Boomerang precinct amongst Bluesfest enables audience a safe family environment and often for the first time patrons witness the many offerings that is now our cultural and artistic expression.
“From the Sand Circle and the global celebration of all First Nations, through dance groups to incredible new talent on the main stage such as Mojo Juju and Baker Boy.
“Many daily offerings are programmed for Bluesfest audiences.
“Over the years this has definitely had an impact, especially the experiences such as healing and weaving workshops were they are up close and personal with the artist.
“The experiences of the art of First Nations people continue to express the world around them – often a world that needs help, a society that needs healing and a culture that deals with trauma daily.
“This is the new wave of culture content for our artist as belonging to a living, growing, and ever-evolving culture.
“The resiliency of Aboriginal peoples has enabled them to preserve the best of their traditional culture, despite generations of oppression, and to combine their own ingenuity creating new forms of expression art and new cultural rituals.”
TMN: One of the recurring compliments that Boomerang gets, both from First Nation people and others, is that it’s a good place to meet in a place of community and sanity and most important, a place to offer healthy alternate and lifestyle options. Is that a pretty good summation of what Boomerang is about, or are there other elements that are equally as important?
RR: “Music and our art is healing for us all – as clichéd as that sounds – but it does make a difference if it’s done through custodial ownership and extending our hand inclusively.
“ The dialogue has been effective and last year our Talk and Ideas speakers’ program was very popular, locals and those visiting the region want to hear from the artists.
“We have a gifting /farewell component on Sunday afternoon and this has seen our largest crowds.
“It’s a snapshot of all our artists and expressing the very traditional and the very contemporary realms they explore.
“One of the great capacity building projects within Boomerang precinct has been working with local Aboriginal youth aged 12 years and up.
“We take them through workshops of dance and chant, and language working with some of the local cultural teachers and custodians across the Bundjalung territories in combination with leading NAISDSA (national performing arts training institute) and former Bangarra Dance Theatre alumni.
“Last year Uncle Magpie joined Mathew Doyle, Darren Compton and Peta Strachan and they worked with over 50 young people.
“Who for many this is often their only opportunity to learn appropriate cultural material and be involved in a modern-day corrobboree.
“They are back this year and I know in five years we will have many young people forging new direction through dance and language etc.
“You cannot underestimate self-confidence combined with pride and showcasing your culture.
“The future is incredibly exciting for this next generation.
TMN: What was most resonating about Homeground, which you curated at the Sydney Opera House, was that you had the added ambience of the picturesque backdrop and the ancient history of the site to make the culture come more alive. How does the ambience of the Bluesfest site build up on Boomerang?
RR: “The Bluesfest site is an incredible backdrop albeit different, the eclectic musical offerings.
“But I think sitting on Bundjalung country, surrounded by the stories of the three brothers who were the original ancestors, when an elder speaks, they are the bush professors, they inform us all … what it means to be on your own land from hearing local language and learning about the art and the story of landscape, sea and sky.
“This within the precinct of one of Australia’s most award-winning and prestigious festivals adds to the unique family-friendly experience.
“There is something for the kids from the storytelling to the weaving, dance workshops and the healing program.”
TMN: Ten years ago, a study by the Australia Council found that non-First Australians wanted to go to indigenous events but were scared in case they inadvertently said or did the wrong thing. Is this a challenge when putting on events, and how do you overcome it?
RR: “The program at Bluesfest is open, we ensure there is never a ‘wrong question’.
“The key is making people feel inclusive, be that the local Aboriginal community or visiting global First Nations and our patrons.
“Many are non-indigenous but they are surrounded by the voices of First Peoples
“As audience members, they get the chance to ask those questions, sit within our workshops and beside performers and join in the celebration of dance workshops.
“By the gifting Farewell on Sunday, it’s just incredible how many of the audience jump to their fit, remembering what they have learnt from the workshops and join us in a Farewell dance.
“This is one of the great compliments, they want to know more about us and a combined future
“The recent figures for Australia Council still inform that large percentages are wanting to experience Aboriginal culture and events, but only some 29% are receiving experiences.
“The challenge is altering the stereotypes.
“There is much revitalisation on the east coast and that many nations across the country.
“Our clans are also saltwater people along with desert, rainforest, freshwater and spinifex peoples.
“Same Same but different.
“Through our programming, we hope to reflect this diversity. It’s about listening and learning to read country. I’m learning all the time.”
TMN: Is the fact that Boomerang operates without government funding a minus or a plus, and why?
RR: “Its been challenging and we would like to see the event as a standalone in the future.
“Last year we received some state funding which enabled more extensive talks and Ideas program content including art workshops, this sector of the program added a layer of depth and further knowledge.
“Audiences felt comfortable and got the chance to express their feelings and questions.
“Through the generosity and financial support of Mr Peter Noble, the Boomerang Festival in its first year ( 2013) attracted an aggregate attendance in excess of 5,500.
“The spirit created at the festival, mesmerised, moved and excited its audiences, performers, elders, custodians, volunteers and organisers alike.
“Through custodial leadership and with the development of future partnerships and ongoing support we truly believe the festival has a vision .
“The east coast will be built as a cultural destination event that engages vibrant arts ecology, nurturing excellence and cross-cultural exchange.”
TMN: What’s been the most challenging thing for you about curating and experiencing Boomerang?
RR: “The development and challenge of the festival is to grow a secure financial future that focuses on long-term partnerships and implementation of its Business Plan.
“But we still are seeking, corporate and government partnerships.
“This future stability will enable organisers to develop the core business of the event, match business objectives and create a successful ongoing affiliation with industry and private sector organisations to create a sustainable cultural celebration.
“The prospects of the economic impact, I believe will be enormous for the arts and cultural communities, including Indigenous, regional business, commerce and the wider tourism industry.”