Fans of live music are often disposed to making pilgrimages in order to see their favourite artists in action or experience the buzz of a well-known music festival. Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed the decline of blockbuster music festivals in favour of boutique events. Increasingly, people are less interested in being able to tick big-name artists off an abstract to-do list, and more concerned with participating in meaningful experiences.
The Northern Territory is a place like nowhere on Earth, and this is reflected in the NT’s yearly event calendar. Festivals in the NT range from uproarious events featuring mainstream artists and DJs to celebrations of traditional music and culture held in Indigenous communities.
We’ve put together a list of our favourite festivals and events in the NT, many of which are coming up over the next few months.
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Garma Festival of Traditional Culture takes place on Gulkula in northeast Arnhem Land. The Gulkula event site holds profound meaning for the native Yolŋu people. It’s regarded as the location where Yolŋu ancestor Ganbulabula created the first yidaki (didjeridu).
Garma is the brainchild of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, a community organisation established in 1990 to promote Yolŋu cultural development. Garma prides itself on being Australia’s “leading Indigenous cultural exchange event.” After two years of cancellations, Garma 2022 will take place from Friday, 29th July – Monday, 1st August, 2022.
“Every time I go [to Garma], it’s just all family and it’s all love and it’s so lovely to see everyone coming together from the communities,” NT musician Emily Wurramara told Rolling Stone Australia.
The annual Darwin Festival rolls out across a range of venues in the NT capital’s CBD. This year’s Darwin Festival is locked in for Thursday, 4th – Sunday, 21st August. The full program is pending, but the organisers have already shed light on a few key names. British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks will make the journey to Darwin as part of her maiden Australian tour and Brisbane electro-party act Confidence Man will visit Darwin Festival on their upcoming album tour.
The festival’s launch event is Buŋgul, a free, open-air event at Darwin Amphitheatre paying tribute to the late Dr G. Yunupingu and his final album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), which was completed less than a month before his death in 2017.
The festival hub, Festival Park, will again take up residence on the corner of Smith St and Harry Chan Ave in the Darwin CBD. “There is so much going on,” Wurramara said of Darwin Festival. “It’s such a beautiful way to experience the Northern Territory.”
Barunga Festival has been held annually in the remote Indigenous community of Barunga since 1985. Bagala clan leader, Bangardi Lee, was the driving force behind the festival’s inception, and over the last three-dozen years Barunga Festival has become an established part of Australia’s live event calendar.
Barunga Festival distinguishes itself from the vast majority of festivals in Australia (and elsewhere in the world) courtesy of its emphasis on the music, art, and traditional culture of remote Indigenous Australia. Barunga is 80 kilometres south of Katherine, and the festival brings into focus the music and culture of the Katherine region.
Four-thousand people, of Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds, will be invited to congregate on the Bagala Road festival site this August 12-14 for a weekend of music, sport and culture.
Desert Song Festival
The annual Desert Song Festival comprehensively lives up to its name. Held over ten days in September, the event brings singers, choirs, musicians and music lovers to Alice Springs and the surrounding suburbs of Araluen, Sadadeen, as well as the remote central Australian locations, Ormiston Gorge and Ntaria/Hermannsburg.
Local Indigenous musicians appear alongside touring interstate and international acts. DSF celebrates Indigenous language and culture through music, and thereby give locals and visitors a deeper understanding of the traditional custodians of Central Australia and their land, lore, culture and languages.
BASSINTHEGRASS Music Festival
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BASSINTHEGRASS is Darwin’s favourite beachside music festival. Fourteen-thousand people gathered on Larrakia country for BASSINTHEGRASS 2022, a record turnout for the two-decade old festival. Last year’s line-up included New South Wales indie pop artist Jack River, who was performing in Darwin for the first time.
“I’d heard so many stories about BASSINTHEGRASS being one of the funnest festivals to play and go to, and that people in Darwin get a little bit troppo,” River told Rolling Stone Australia. “They’re present, they’re singing along, they’re dancing, and they really care about the music.”
BASSINTHEGRASS is held on Mindil Beach, right in the centre of town. This year’s festival is took place on Saturday, 21st May, with a line-up including NT favourite Jessica Mauboy; festival lifers Hilltop Hoods; Motown and Stax revivalists The Teskey Brothers; indie-pop singer Montaigne; and roots music guru Xavier Rudd playing to a sold out festival crowd.
“Playing [BASSINTHEGRASS] show made me realise how important music is and how much it brings to people, and that’s because of the crowd and how they were that day,” River said.
Walking With Spirits/Djarmalak Sunday Series
Walking with Spirits is a traditional Corroboree held at Beswick Falls (Malkgulumbu), an ancient Indigenous site situated near the remote Indigenous community of Beswick (Wugularr). Wugularr is a one-hour drive southeast of Katherine, the NT’s fourth largest town by population. The protected Malkgulumbu site is open to the public just once a year, for Walking with Spirits.
Details of the next Walking with Spirits festival are to be announced, but in the meantime event organisers, Djilpin Arts are hosting the Djarmalak Sunday Series. Kicking off on the fourth Sunday of June, Djarmalak consists of three unique events at Beswick’s Ghunmarn Culture Centre. The 2022 event program includes Miiesha, J-MILLA, Emma Donovan, Emily Wurramara and more.