In the beginning it was almost too small to notice. Back in 1988 and amidst the froth and exuberance – some would say the excess – of the Bicentennial celebrations, a much smaller group of Aboriginal musicians played a concert in La Perouse. The original Survival Day concert was to be a humble counter-movement to the wider bicentenary. This Australia Day, the Yabun Festival should attract over 25 thousand people and the festival theme, ‘Survive’, clearly draws its inspiration from that very first concert.
“Yabun is a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture in Australia and specifically Sydney,” says festival organiser, Kieran Satour.
“It reflects the continuation of that culture. It’s whatever ‘survive’ means for Indigenous people in this city, whether it be physical, emotional, cultural or spiritual.”
Singer/songwriter Leah Flanagan, a “born musician” who moved to Sydney from Darwin over a year ago, says she is happy and honoured to partake in Survival Day because it means she is a part of something that is trying to educate people about something they might not truly understand.
“People focus so much on Australia Day and they don’t actually really understand the true history and for Aboriginal people it means more than ‘let’s have a couple of beers and celebrate the flag’,” says Flanagan.
“Yabun is trying to tell the real stories of Australia. That’s why they call it the Survival Day Concert because Aboriginal people have survived through a lot. We are celebrating completely different things.”
Flanagan will perform some tracks from her album-in-progress, which she is currently working on with Jim Moginie (Midnight Oil). Also onstage at Yabun is Australian rock pioneer Bart Willoughby (No Fixed Address, Yothu Yindi) and his band, as well as performances by Emma Donovan and the PutBacks and Melbourne-based Kutcha Edwards.
The Speak-out Tent hosts the annual Kevin Cook lecture as well as a variety of panel discussions throughout the day. Kids activities range from face-painting in the Jarjums (children) tent to rock climbing as well as coaching clinics from Cricket NSW and the NRL to name a few. There are over 80 stalls with arts, craft, food and drink. The celebrations are bookended with the family friendly Yabun Film Festival in Memorial Park, Leichhardt on Friday January 24 and the after party at the Factory Theatre, Marrickville on January 26. Featured hip hop acts include Sky’High, Native Ryme and DJ Black President. There is literally something for everyone.
Some might see a Survival Concert on Australia Day as contentious. It’s a part of a debate that goes to the heart of our national identity. Some have argued that the idea of the ‘claiming’ of the continent on that day pushes Aboriginal people out of the picture, because it doesn’t recognise their continuity of living and existence on this land. It’s a debate that stretches all the way up to the highest levels of politics – ‘Redfern Speech’ & ‘Sorry’ – and down to the grassroots of the way one Australian gets on with another.
In the midst of it all people can’t help but feel the warmth, the inclusiveness and generosity of spirit that is Yabun. Almost half the volunteers are non-aboriginal and people of all racial backgrounds are drawn to the festival.
“That original concert in 1988 was a real political statement but the conversation has definitely moved on,” says Satour.
“It’s more of a celebration,” says Flanagan.
“In Darwin it’s a different world, still exposed to a lot of people who are still living on their cultural land but here in Sydney there is so much history that no one seems to hear about and there is so many people here that can tell it. This festival is a celebration so people can come down and learn a little bit more.”
Satour adds, “Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people alike come to Yabun because they want a celebration that isn’t so polarising. We welcome people of all racial backgrounds with open arms to celebrate with us on the day.”
For Satour himself, a descendant of the Gurindji, Arrernte and Worimi people, his work is clearly a labour of love.
“Artists from all over the country are eager to play here because of its great community feel and national profile,” he explains.
“It’s a really important day and celebration of Aboriginal culture and that’s what drives me. It’s such a pleasure to be there and experience.” (GW)
Yabun Film Festival, Jan 24, Sunset Memorial Park Leichhardt, free; Yabun Festival, Jan 26, Victoria Park, City Rd & Parramatta Rd, Camperdown, free; Yabun After Party, Jan 26, Factory Theatre, 104 Victoria Rd, Marrickville, $30, factorytheatre.com.au