Ian Browne, Independent Academia.com
I wasn’t going to miss the day’s celebrations in Nimbin for the 40th anniversary of the Aquarius Festival. The 1973 Aquarius Festival has since been the Holy Grail, the pinpoint in time when alternative folk gathered to celebrate their new rural community life in this exotic subtropical village.
I once lived in Nimbin and I just love it when older folk welcome me home there today. I had to pay my respects to the people of this creative town and valley. I wanted to capture the wealth in ethnicity present last Sunday, 19 May.
Outside the Nimbin Bush Theatre, by the creek on a sunny late autumn day, I was transfixed by a photograph in the festival’s photo gallery. All the photos there were fascinating and spoke of the Indigenous culture of the region and the life of the alternative people that have made this village home for the past 40 years.
But the photo that held me captive was of an Indian family singing at the 1973 Aquarius Festival. I couldn’t help but wonder what drew them to the streets of Nimbin to perform to all the people, and if they still lived in the region.
This large black-and-white photo must have held some strong nostalgia for those remembering the moment in the flesh. I spoke this aloud to those standing around me and the man standing next to me replied, ‘I was there, but I don’t remember it, none of it really!’
I have heard others say this over the years in Nimbin about the Aquarius Festival. This man was Gary Opit, zoologist, author, and for 16 years now an ABC radio presenter whose input was instrumental in the conservation of the Franklin River.
We got to talking about the times, but I couldn’t help but wonder what influence this Indian group, their Hindu culture, had on the region back then.
I spent the day socialising, interviewing and photographing musicians, songwriters, and those there to soak up the moment. Nimbin is a magnet for artists and musicians of all kinds.
Of all the places in the western world I have spent time within, it is this hippy town that celebrates music like no other. And even though more than half the crowd this day were alternative folk older than 50 years of age, like always, Nimbinites of all ages support the younger generation’s music with a passion.
Nimbin has always surprised me, as out of nowhere the whole town erupts into a frenzy of dance. It is infectious; everyone dances together as the introverted soul drifts away into another less flamboyant realm.
So, I set to work in the amazing subtropical autumn light, which posed challenges for me with the camera, but inspired me at the same time.
I met a young traveller named Jasmine, seen entertaining in town and dancing later in the day on the bridge.
‘I have had so much fun here in Nimbin and I really like northern NSW. I have spent some of my time with the Rainbow Family and they are very nice people,’ Jasmine said.
Sista Gurl is a local outfit whose two sisters, Nadine and Zahra, seem to enjoy themselves on stage as much as the partygoers they excite with their energetic hip-hop.
Their home is the Minyon Falls region, nestled within the jungle-mountains halfway between Mullumbimby and Nimbin. They have an interesting cultural background as they were born in South Africa and have Zulu, Irish, English and Lebanese heritage.
Within their crew they also have a couple of Aboriginal ladies, and the engine behind the tunes is a fella from Tasmania, aptly named Thylacine. I am guessing he feels at home in Nimbin’s cooling autumn weather and he must enjoy hanging out with such creative and energetic women.
I asked the two sisters what was the main message they share with their audience.
Nadine said, ‘It’s all about believing in yourself, and I guess what I am trying to get across is to make what you do what you love’.
Zahra added, ‘Yeah, as an MC I want to give the displaced people of this world a voice. I want to give truth to the world’s oppressed.’
Another well-known lady sharing her wisdom with the audiences of northern NSW is the voice and grooves behind Pyxidata, ‘Tanina Millis’.
‘Tanina is a Sicilian name, but my ancestry is actually Danish, Irish and French. I have been through some pretty hard times, battled some rough seas, but I really believe that being your own saviour, and taking care of yourself is the best way to pull through,’ Tanina said.
‘This is what I sing about. It’s all about “being the change you wanna see”.’
Good advice from such charismatic women.
Spending time with Francesca Von Reinhaart is a very worthwhile venture; she is so peaceful and eloquent as she whispers her magic upon your ears.
I asked Francesca what her music means to her, and how her cultural background influences what she conveys to those who enjoy her tunes.
‘I grew up on the Savu Islands within the Indonesian Archipelago, to the west of East Timor. Though I am Indonesian, my ancestry is Indian and Spanish,’ she said.
‘I enjoy singing songs about my island homeland and those beautiful island songs from along the equator in places such as Timor Leste, the Lesser Sundas, through the Moluccas and into Papua New Guinea.
‘One of my songs is from Timor Leste and it is a beautiful “goodbye sunset song” that tells of enjoying the moment while you are still here.
‘I also sing one of my brother’s songs, which are popular back home on the islands. This song speaks about how parents are like kings and queens, and when we lose loved ones, well, loss is hard on the island, so the song is powerful.
‘Old songs need preserving and they are now disappearing from the Savu Islands, sadly. Globalisation is also having an impact on my homeland.
‘Now, when I play at home to younger audiences, they think I am primitive; in fact the younger generation feel embarrassed when I sing the songs of past days.
‘Savu Island used to be more family oriented, but the West is now influencing the younger generation’s lifestyle. Ironically, the vast majority of this generation don’t actually know the West.
‘I feel it is a privilege to see western homes and to witness how people live here in Australia. I am happy and lucky. I am very grateful for my time in Byron Bay and for the musicians who sing along to my music.
‘I recently teamed up with MC Atom, a Japanese rapper who I have been working with on a musical project. I am so lucky to have people from overseas helping me to preserve my island’s music, and while we are doing this together my kids are also becoming interested in the music, which is wonderful,’ Francesca said.
If ever there were three distinguished gentry in this fine valley of Nimbin it would have to be Al Oshlack, Robert Corowa and Louie Burdett.
To many, Louie’s name is synonymous with a popular Whitlams song, reminiscent of a time when Louie shared a home in urban Sydney with The Whitlams’ front man Tim Freedman.
But it’s not just their love of music that these guys are known for, as their steadfast, yet patient protest of Indigenous rights has seen them in the headlights of the Australian media over the years.
Al Oshlack and Robert Corowa both have historical ties to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra and are prominent ‘movers and shakers’ in Lismore’s Indigenous Justice Advocacy Network.
I can’t tell you just how important is the work that folk like Al and Robert do in the protection of sacred sites from the perils of development. We have lost so much heritage and this is just unforgivable.
Bundjalung spokesperson Robert Corowa said that while working with the Indigenous Justice Advocacy Network in Lismore, he helped protect Aboriginal ceremonial sites and give a voice to Indigenous people around Australia, ‘communicating their desires and rights’.
‘I love playing didgeridoo at the Channon Markets and talking to people, as this is my way of helping keep the culture alive. We are still here and we are not going away,’ Robert said.
‘Let’s get together and live as one. It is important to get your message into the mainstream media. The people of West Papua are suffering at present and no-one in the mainstream media is printing this. Sharing knowledge is so important.’
A kind young lady named Aya Sternbach described to me what she thought about northern NSW, and why she has called the region home in recent times on her travels about the planet.
Aya said that her homeland is Israel and she was of Yemen and German heritage.
‘I love Balkan gypsy and Arabic music. I have fallen in love with this part of the world as it is “wild” and I love it,’ Aya said.
‘People here are so lucky as they all have their own piece of paradise, each of them. My homeland is nice too, but with the beautiful rivers and waterfalls here, everyone lives in such an abundant paradise.
‘What I like most is that the people of northern NSW have been so kind to me, they have taken me in and fed me. I have made some good friends from Byron to Mullumbimby and over the hills to here in Nimbin.
‘They have really opened their hearts to me. I am not sure where I will stop and call home just yet, as I am still travelling, but NSW is beautiful and friendly.’
Aya and her friends got into the spirit of the festival and danced with big happy grins on their faces throughout the day, and later on upon the rickety old wooden bridge above the creek on sunset, among a flag-waving hippy orgy of congo and gembee drumming heaven.
It’s great to see young enthusiastic travellers dropping in to learn and love this part of the world, and you could tell that Aya and her friends were confident and happy among new friends. That’s what it’s all about.
Rich in culture
That’s the main message I received on Sunday within the dappled autumn light of Nimbin, that we are rich in culture and everyone has a moment to share.
Wisdom is there to be gathered, there for the taking, but we must gather like this more often to discuss the intricacies of life, and to share our love for one another.
I salute the folk of Nimbin’s early 70s Aquarius birth, and I wonder, will Nimbin be as vibrant and passionate in the art of all things alternative in another 40 years? I hope so.
So as the thumping drums, dancing and flags caressed their connection to all of time, I left Nimbin, my forever home, to drive up the side of Mt Nardi to my other home in Mullum-Bruns.
Beneath me, the land of valley green transformed into the crisp of sunset’s ochre, as sleepy Sunday folks’ long, smoky spiritual fireplace-snakes funnelled out along the valley, breathed to the north by the majesty of Wollumbin.
And as I passed through the twilight jungle and farmlands of the range, I rolled out of the mountain’s forest to see the dark of early night swallowing the coastline below, where Byron Bay twinkled out from its kindness far below.
Aya, the beautiful gypsy lady, is right: we live in a land that is an abundant paradise to each and everyone of us.