In Arnhem Land, where red dirt roads lead to sacred lands, indigenous musicians such as the Nabarlek Band are creating songs capable of crossing cultures and intersecting lives. By Robert Drane.

In Arnhem Land something happens to your sense of time and place. It’s a deceptive place; a place of great contrast, contradiction and uneasy compromise, where European and indigenous societies resolve differences in ways unthinkable anywhere else.

Its hot, biting harshness is cooled by fertile rivers, edenic grottoes and serene billabongs jealously guarded, according to tour guides, by terrifying estuarine crocodiles – silent, still sentinels that wait, as they have since Jurassic times, for the air to bring them a molecule or two of live meat. Any body of water – no matter how small – is, they say, out of bounds if you’re alone.

If you want to explore the amazing escarpments, cave paintings and wildlife of Arnhem Land, you base yourself at Oenpelli. If you want to experience something of the soul of Oenpelli, try to be there when the Nabarlek boys play the Sports and Social Club.

The Nabarlek Band are known as the Manmoyi boys. Most of their families live in Oenpelli. Manmoyi outstation is around 100km away, or a half-hour trip by light plane. The outstations are not open to tourists.

For the sake of this story, we were allowed into Manmoyi, because there is no understanding the Nabarlek Band otherwise. Because Manmoyi is not just a place on a map. It’s a space of belief, meaning, ritual and “secret-sacred” corners. This equivalence of physical and metaphysical is the wellspring of the band’s music.

Here, people choose to live on outstations, where the cycles of their mother country become the cycles of their lives, and traditional law won’t allow stumbling blocks like alcohol.

It was Gunumeleng, the pre-monsoon season, when we arrived. A light plane from Jabiru in Kakadu National Park was necessary, as the roads were already flooded. We passed over the sinuous Liverpool River where, I once read, Garkain lies in wait to suffocate any man who dares to violate his jungle home. The high plateaux, deep caves, dense riverside bush, open lands, billabongs and rivers, all house local spirit beings that are variously merciful or malevolent, and the frill-neck lizard is ugly because of something he did.

Clusters of men, women, children and dogs formed at the tin-clad food store – one of twelve similar dwellings – as our Demair Cessna 206 approached Manmoyi’s small red gravel strip. They thought we were the food run.

A livewire with a goatee and Clark Gable moustache was first to speak to us. "I’m Terrah," he said. Then the introductions began: brothers, cousin brothers, uncles, numerous grandparents. Men are allowed multiple wives, but there is none of the European (Balanda) "removal" in relationships. "Skin" name, language group and mother country are as important as blood.

Most of Manmoyi’s male population are in the Nabarlek Band, and membership varies. The broad family structure that organises them also informs their membership. I imagine some careworn clerk in Adelaide or Brisbane trying to book accommodation for a music festival: "Yes, but…how many of you are actually in the band?"

The Nabarlek Band is driven by rules unwritten, even unspoken. Arnhem Land musicians don’t play each other’s Dreaming stories. They sometimes have "secret-sacred" meanings, and their revelation might bring catastrophe. They check first with the Elders.

Arnhem Land bands sing of their totems. Nearby, they say Ngalyod lives beneath the earth, needing to be appeased. The Rainbow Serpent is the main totem of Kunwinjku-speaking people.

Terrah showed me around. Banyans give immense shade. Pandanus is used for baskets and for fastening spearheads. Barramundi fill the rivers, and buffalo and pigs are there for the eating. Termite mounds as ubiquitous as trees each house around twenty million residents.

The remarkable sandstone formations look as though they’ve been hastily stacked, then abandoned. Huge boulders teeter on their edge on top of others, as though held up by invisible thread. The volutes of the rocks give them the look of monstrous coprolites. Terrah said, “the old people tell me once these were Rainbow Serpent…” His mouth struggled for the word. Then his hand sliced through the air in a gesture of satisfaction: “poo.”

Many clan members prefer Oenpelli, or even distant Darwin. "Lots of people, lots of good time." Respect and tradition are dwindling. The Band wants to redress a worrying lack of attendance at ceremonies.

And there’s other work to be done, like the seasonal burning off. The rows of sour billy goat plums, cashew tees, sweet mango and salty bush apples need looking after. The women have children to bring up. But Nabarlek are Arnhem Land Rock’s Next Big Thing. “Hard to come back and teach them. Bring them up. Encourage them," says Terrah.

Almost immediately upon the food plane’s arrival, a satellite phone sitting in the middle of the station, jostling with Manmoyi’s peaceful rhythms, rang. And rang. "Relatives in the cities," explained Terrah. "Is pay day and they humbug for money, for gunbang and bakky." Gunbang is their word for grog. Bakky for tobacco.

Ignoring the phone, they took us down a track to the Mann River – an exception, they insisted, to the prevailing wisdom concerning saltwater crocs, because the "mermaid" or Narlkunburryami, stands up river at the Dreaming place, Kubumi, a fire in each hand to turn away saltwater marine life. Lacking faith in the mermaid’s power, I stayed on the bank, alert but not alarmed.

"This place has lots of mermaid," said Terrah, soaping himself up in the river. "If you clever enough, you catch one. Pull off tail. They have legs and…everything." His lascivious grin disappeared beneath the water as they all laughed.

Though they allowed Terrah to do the talking while they hung around bantering in Kunwinjku, the characters in the band began to emerge.

Bob, the didjeridu player, was the most distinctive. A thick ceremonial scar traversed his abdomen. Framed by high cheekbones, his long, penetrating eyes would stare at me in silent wonderment, long after I’d asked him a question. Then, as one of the more garrulous members such as Terrah or Benjamin answered for him, he’d turn briefly to them, then back to me, resuming his impassive gaze. At unforeseen times, he’d break into a sunny smile.

Bob is a deeply traditional influence, by virtue of the instrument he plays and his place in the ceremonies. He is fiercely proud of his prowess on his "didge".

Benjamin’s face was all irony. He liked to be called Shaka, after Shaka Zulu. The cheeky drummer tried for days to scare us with sudden phantom sightings of scorpions, snakes, crocs, buffalo and tales of how they "like whitefella flesh." Once, approaching the long, slashing sorghum grass near a billabong, he stopped. With all the mysterious bushman’s demeanour he could muster, he whispered, "croc in there." I said, "let’s go get him," and we both shaped up for the sprint in. "You first," I said. "No, I insis’, you first," said Benjamin.

And then there’s Terrah, all contrapposto poses for our cameras, and dasher demeanour, who’d sometimes lapse into talkative solemnity with many meaning-laden pauses.

"You know what we wanna be?" Terrah’s eyes widened. Assorted gestures, finger clicks, and strokings of the goatee were the usual prelude to an enthusiastic staccato word-burst. "We wanna be…Rock star!"

He told me the story of the band, who cut their musical teeth on upturned flour tins and snaggle-stringed guitars. They won a traditional dance competition at Maningrida festival. The prize was a set of musical instruments. Learning together, fusing their new musical knowledge to the Dreaming, they progressed with impressive rapidity.

Their first CD, Munwurr, meaning bushfire, was produced in their communal bedroom, mattresses and doonas insulating the sound. Now, after three CDs, the world is interested. They’ve played folk, indigenous and cultural festivals here and overseas.

Nabarlek’s collective mission is now twofold: to become rock stars, and to maintain their traditions. It’s not unreasonable for them to view fame as something that allows them to fly around the world, yet return to Manmoyi whenever they need to. But the words of Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead come to mind: "We started with nothing to lose. Then suddenly there was something, but always with the agreement that we could go back to nothing if we wanted." The Grateful Dead never again saw Nothing. The Nothing the Nabarlek Band stand to lose is plenty.

For three clear, soft nights, Terrah and I sat cross-legged on the dusty concrete verandah outside the Band’s bedroom as loudly crepitating crickets lay down the nights’ rhythm. Slowly, he emerged as an unquiet man whose inner tensions are a mainspring of the band’s creativity. A man for whom the ideas of God and sin have struck sometimes discordant, sometimes harmonious notes; a contrite sinner who’s had his share of trouble.

"I been in terrible place. In prison.” He spat the word with self-contempt. “Terrible…take away your…freedom! I was very shamed."

Two good things came of it for Terrah. He learned more advanced music skills whilst in gaol, and he was banished to the outstation for six months where he wrote music with his clan. Accounts of God’s relationship with Israel appeal to his Old Testament sense of justice. His prized possessions were his Kunwinjku Bible and dictionary, and his pens and pads. "When I find hard? Word? Can’t understan’? I look up." But someone broke into his room and stole the lot.

With wizened brow, cracking his knuckles, shaking his head, distractedly stroking his goatee, he related how the band used to sing gospel. "Then grog came and we turn away from God…still believe in God. Thinking of getting back where we were. Fellowship. Teach our kids to be good. Not to love money much. Now is, forgetting things in life. People gambling here and teaching their kids wrong thing."

Animism and Christianity. Another uneasy reconciliation.

One night, he spotted figures crouched over a card game called "ten". "Might go there," he smiled, perhaps with a sense of contradiction. "Win some money for Saturday night." On Saturday, the boys were to make another triumphant return to Oenpelli for a one-nighter.

On the way to Gamarrgawan, Manmoyi’s sister outstation, there is a shallow cave. Ross, the band’s quiet authority figure, pointed out the ceiling blackened by fires, lit tens of thousands of years ago, when diprotodons and gigantic marsupials grazed nearby. "When our great ancestor was young, this was shelter. When they hunt, or during wet, they camp here."

There’s a depiction of the Narlkunburryami in ochre; the ancient, flaky hand print of a child in white clay. These people were “skin.” “Same language, same family.” The sense of continuity is almost incomprehensible for a city-dwelling Balanda who might be able to state with certainty that the space now occupied by the local Coles’ freezer section was once his Grandma’s bedroom. In one confined place, they stand exactly where their ancient forefathers stood. Their sense of place is their sense of skin, of family. Their past is present, conveyed with the immediacy of a flame passed from one hand to the next.

Terrah and Benjamin covered a "mermaid" footprint in the rock with leaves and a stone and said "boh boh" (goodbye). Failure to respect symbols or landmarks brings misfortune. Proper homage brings good hunting, good weather.

Further into the bush is a secret-sacred place, where the crumbled bones of ancestors lodged in the rocks are viewed only from a respectful distance. "If anyone disturb, big problems," said Ross. Invisible boundaries are walls of stone. The land of their forefathers is a powerful text, with seasons for chapters, a never-changing theme and an ever-developing plot.

The Nabarlek boys are an important part of that plot. The elders want them to assert the Dreaming against a subtle and dangerous perception in the mind of the well-meaning Balanda that the aborigine is timeless, which renders him a quaint, receding anachronism.

The band lends a modern dynamism to the ancient, and the elders like the thought of the flame being passed again; of the Dreaming’s first real transformation in the European mind; of telling the Balanda of a connection that has never lost its aliveness from the beginning.

We bounced around in the tractor trailer, following buffalo prints. Excited chatter in Kunwinjku heralded the sighting of a white berry tree. The branch was passed around. Instead of buffalo, we discovered a huge boar rooting in the dirt. Crying out in Kunwinjku, they debouched, ran into the bush and fanned out. A single shot. Benjamin was first to emerge, triumphantly waving rifles, followed by stocky Winston, dead pig across his shoulders. The bleeding carcass bounced around the trailer with us for an hour.

A short wade across the upper Mann River lay a tiny, sandy cove in the shade of banyans and gums. Their fishing spot. "Barramundi" says Terrah. "We catch barra with shrimp, or worm, or whitefella magic…" He frowns, then his face lights up, finding the right word: "lure!"

They cooked the pig under the sand, covering it with a special grass for a lemony piquancy. They jumped in and out of the water, bantered in Kunwinjku, and after we ate, we slept on the sand.

Oenpelli can be a place of great ambivalence. The Sports and Social Club boasts plenty of neat accommodation for tourists. The pub opens from 12pm-1pm in the afternoon, and again from 4.30pm-8.30pm. At 11.50am and 4.20pm, the locals arise from the shade of mostly-concrete dwellings with metal slats for windows. Dark figures in colourful second-hand garb drift along the dusty roads to congregate at the Club’s Cyclone gate, and wait to be let in, to spend their money. At 12.55pm and again at 7.55pm, the first of two sirens heralds the end of the session. The club is the only place in all Arnhem Land that sells gunbang.

Alex Siebert manages a tight operation. A "banned" list is displayed prominently on chalkboards and enforced by the club’s committee, composed entirely of locals. Traditional law and Balanda law seem to be allies here.

Oenpelli is a metaphor for the Territory’s complex interplay of entirely dissimilar cultures, complete with political conflict, messy allegiances, strong opinions. Uranium is the active ingredient.

Elements on the Northern Land Council want the club closed. Benjamin’s stepfather, a local elder, has quit the Council because of this. "We want it open. Club very important, and Nabarlek Band play here. They very important to people here." Balanda outsiders point to the social breakdown caused by the mines and the infusion of compensatory money. Certain elements want the money, not the grog problems.

To the locals, the club is not merely a place to get gunbang. It’s a meeting place. If there’s a crisis, it’s a crisis of meaning; of relevance. A visiting pilot told us, "The band promotes pride in a community that doesn’t have any. When the band plays to the community, the community comes to the community, and it’s “that’s our band.”

On the stage, in the shade of an enormous banyan, the Manmoyi boys rehearsed in the afternoon heat. They were now the proud Nabarlek Band. Sullen Stuart launched into slick Hendrix-style licks. Withdrawn Winston became keyboard ace. Before, it was difficult to know what ran between them in their daily interactions. They seemed a loose collection of individuals connected by quick, decisive, unspoken agreements, and the odd disagreement. On stage, they synergised instantly.

The club was gaily festooned with fairy lights, hung with stars, baubles and tinsel. It was close to Christmas. The magnificent escarpments of Arrguluk, Inyalak and Nibabbir, all full of secret ceremonial places, overlooked proceedings.

The crowd swelled.

During the first set, Terrah looked anxiously toward the gate. Two microphones and Bob’s didjeridu were left in a ute, which headed off for Pine Creek at lunchtime, a six-hour round trip. Bob sat despondently on the stage, dispossessed of his didge. The crowd were subdued, almost indifferent, and Terrah felt the need to remind them in Kunwinjku that this was a very important night, and the two Balanda were here to tell the world about them, and had become their friends after spending the week at Manmoyi.

The ute finally came. The dismal spell was lifted. Bob sat up, beaming excitedly: "my didge!" One of the mikes was hastily taped to its end, and in no time he was joyfully marking rhythms and clever counter-rhythms, the harmonies kicked in, and the boys were in business. So was the crowd.

Brilliant trickles of indigenous originality wended through dense floes of 80s-influenced rock; cascading harmonies, clapping sticks, didjeridu, chants and calls. “This isn’t bad!” I noted in my dictaphone. “Not exactly ceremonial song-cycles with modern instruments, but not verse-chorus-verse rock ‘n’ roll, either.”

The Band got to the doleful song of loss, ‘Gemula’, which their niece began with a forlorn, impossibly-high mountain-top cry, and before long, the plastic chairs under the palms were vacated and the area around the stage thickened with joyfully flailing, whirling, bouncing bodies. Taking heart, Terrah acknowledged the different clans. Each cheered and waved.

Old Bob, an Elder and Traditional Land Owner, sat alone, nodding. His dimming, inflamed eyes turned toward the music approvingly.

Old Moses led the clapping sticks on stage. The band’s membership shrank and grew, like a pulsing organism.

The Nabarlek Band will never be more important than they are at Oenpelli.

Then the siren. In tidy disarray, the people of Oenpelli filed past the security, full of goodwill, and shouted and sang and exclaimed and laughed all the way back to their homes.

Buoyant, the boys enjoyed a beer. Terrah and I played pool. Elders, banging on their plastic table with lighters, struck up traditional chants. Yes, it’s time the world knew of the Dreaming, and they were glad its force would remain undimmed for another generation. After that?

My thoughts turned back to Manmoyi the previous day. At a concrete table, waiting for the Cessna to come in, I read a poem by the last of the Gagadju, Big Bill Neidje, a relative of the Kunwinjku. The poem is a twenty year-old plea to his people to stay on the land, resist the cities, keep the Dreaming alive:
This story for all people.
Everybody should be listening.
Same story for everyone,
Just different language…
You got children…
Might be your grandson will get this story…
Keep going…
Hang on like I done.

Eerie notes from Bob’s didge were being slowly swallowed by the sodden pre-monsoonal Manmoyi air. I became aware of a distant chant. It was a teenage boy who wore a treasured bag of marbles around his neck, loved his footy, and cared little for anything traditional. It was a familiar chant, one I’d heard increasingly lately, intoned by bands like Slipknot and various thug rappers:

“Fok dis sheet.” The boy was somewhere else in his head – in a world that deserved to have some of its own malevolence thrown back at it. Trying to find the right attitude, he bobbed his head in self-affirmation, as though the white face of society was suspended in front of his.

Each rendition gathered a new edge of malice. “Fok dis sheet.” “Fffok this shhhit.” The plane landed, the band loaded up for the trip to Oenpelli. The boy turned to me and smiled radiantly. “Boh boh,” he said.

So much yet to reconcile…

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