Bush Bands Business: Taking music from the desert to the world

By Craig Spann, SUGARRUSH Music

Monday, 10 Oct 2016

Red rock. Blue sky. Ask any of us hugging the coastline what we think about Central Australia and that’s pretty much the first thing that comes to mind. And while it’s not far from the mark, it fails to tell the whole story. By a long shot. There are colours and textures that defy labelling. It’s a place where simplicity and deep complexity seem to be in a constant tug of war. It’s there in the landscape, in the people, and most certainly in the music.

Just a month ago, I found myself about an hour’s drive from Alice Springs as a part of Bush Bands Business. This extraordinary project has been running for years now and thanks to the support of a core group of organisations like MusicNT, APRA AMCOS and the The Seed Fund, it has become nothing less than an institution – spend just a little time there and it’s not hard to see why.

At times I felt like I was on another planet. Concrete became dirt. The cityscape replaced by ancient ranges. 4G evaporated on the hot road out of town. Home for the next few nights would be Ross River – a campsite and optimistically titled ‘resort’ which once a year becomes the most exciting music incubator in the country.

On paper, the idea seems straightforward enough. Bring some of the best bands from remote communities into one place for a few days of focus, rehearsal, learning and mentoring. Then cap it off with a major community performance in Alice Springs, at the now legendary Bush Bands Bash.

But there is nothing straightforward here. For many of the bands, just getting there is an effort that would defeat most of us. Take the Irrunytju Band (pictured at top) for example. They piled into the perennial Toyota ‘Troopie’ and drove more than 1000 km (often on back-breaking dirt) to be there. Why? Because they, like the other artists drawn to this project, realise what a valuable step Bush Bands can be as they try to take their music from the desert to the world.

Greeting the artists as they arrive is something of a dream team of committed industry workers, artists, and people from around the country who recognise just what a significant project this is. There’s Peter Garrett (Midnight Oil), Brian Ritchie (MOFO Festival, Violent Femmes), Leah Flanagan (Singer/songwriter) and Buzz Bidstrup (GANGgajang, Association of Artist Managers) working alongside enormously respected industry types like producer Anna Laverty, manager/publicist Monique Rothstein and all round legend Paula ‘Jonesy’ Jones (pictured at left).  

Soon the place starts to take on its own kind of rhythm. Dotted across the campsite are a few makeshift stages and PAs set up under tents and trees. The air is filled with music. It’s an incredible mash up of kick drums, guitars and voices. At any one time you can hear hip hop, folk, rock, electronica and that desert reggae that defies easy description.

Rehearsals cycle through the day as each band runs through their songs, playing like there is an audience of thousands – when in reality it’s just a handful of attentive mentors and a sound engineer making magic happen with a well-worn PA. This is more than an extended jam in the country though as bands are walked through management contracts, songwriting classes, bio writing, photos and the kind of internal band discussions that not nearly enough artists have. Royalties, responsibilities, respect for each other – but most of all commitment.

It sounds clichéd, but music really is a pathway for these artists. Not just from a career perspective, but a way to find a voice, inspire their community, and keep language alive.

It’s hard enough for a band in a major city to make a dent, and then you think about the challenges these acts face, often living a day’s drive from an airport. But if the optimism is unshakable, it’s because the heart of this music is so strong.

While the songwriting may need a little work, the sheer natural talent on show across the week is never in doubt. There are guitarists who manage to make a guitar held together with wire sound like Satriani on a good day. The drummers attack that kick drum like Thor’s hammer. The keys players drain every great sound with flair and subtlety. And then there are the voices. Powerful, melodic, rich, and more often than not in anything but English which, for many, is their third or fourth language.

The message though is unmistakable. Rather than shying away, these artists embrace the challenges of their communities. They sing about the catastrophic impact of displacement, drinking and violence, and the uneasy relationship with police and authority. But there is also hope. These artists know implicitly the importance of music. They sing about returning to country and culture. And there is not one band that doesn’t talk about national unity between black and white, men and women. In fact, the presence of women at the Bush Bands camp for the first time is a revelation.

The latest incarnation of the Desert Divas gives voice to stories few of us have ever heard, while Kardajala Kirri-Darra’s (Sandhill Women) striking clash of electronica and traditional song is goosebump stuff (watch their performance below). To me, these women represent everything that is so important and exciting about contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music. It takes an unfathomably old musical tradition and recasts it in a whole new way. A blend of old and new like nothing else you will hear.

The show in Alice Springs now seems something of a blur of nervous jitters, burning energy and smiles. As band after band take the stage, the connection between the 3000-strong audience and artists falls away. This is music the way it should be. Uplifting, moving, inspired, genuine and utterly uniquely Australian. This is our music, and it’s time the rest of the country caught up.


Craig Spann attended Bush Bands Business as part of the APRA AMCOS Song Cycles InBound program.

All photos by Amy Hetherington for MusicNT. See more photos from the 2016 Bush Bands Business here and Bush Bands Bash here.


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