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February 5, 2023

Stalwart of Byron Bay’s drumming circle dies

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Wawan Prahara and friend, sunset drumming spot, main beach, Byron Bay, Easter 2012, Photo Harsha Prabhu

Harsha Prabhu

Every death is both inevitable and yet comes as a shock and a sober reminder of the fragility of life. Still, the death of a drummer must send reverberations to the skies as the drum is a shamanic tool, speaking to the spirits.

Wawan Prahara passed away at the Gold Coast University Hospital last Thursday after a stroke, surrounded by his family. He was farewelled in true Byron fashion with a big drum up at Encounter Byron on Saturday. Several hundred people were treated to a smorgasbord of music, a Balinese masked dance and eulogies by his family, his colleagues in the music and dance world and his friends.

Wawan was always at the drumming spot at the rocks at Main Beach in Byron Bay towards sunset, getting ready to pull his drums out of his car and set them up ready for a session.

With his impassive features and trademark hat, many thought he was from Peru, or even Native American – but he was from the Sunda tribe from the island of Java in Indonesia.

Even though I’ve know him ever since I came to Byron in the early nineties, I can’t really say I knew him well. He was a very private person. It’s only recently that I learn his name was actually Wawan Rodriguez and that he was half-Philippino. He is supposed to have changed his name when escaping from Suharto’s dictatorial regime.

Though most of us knew him as a drummer it was theatre that was his first love. He was a member of Bengkel Teatre Jogyakarta, working with WS Rendra, radical experimental dramatist, poet and activist who was jailed by Suharto, putting on shows that tested the censorship limits of the Indonesian government.

He came to Australia on a Flinders University sponsorship in the late seventies. He lived in Sydney and was a member of Amnesty International and supported Aboriginal land rights, democracy in Chile and other issues. He also worked in plays for Lismore company Theatre North, acted in a play on the Aceh tsunami in Hot Shorts in Mullumbimby last year and was a presenter on Suara Indonesia at BayFM.  He worked on arts projects for the Australia-Indonesia Arts Alliance in Byron.

I remember one memorable show at Main Beach in Byron with shadow puppets and Wawan as part of the Balinese Kecak, the animated monkey orchestra. His last movie role was in the Australian thriller The Jungle, by Andrew Traucki, maker of Black Water and The Reef.

Like all of us, he had his blind spots. Sometimes he seemed very possessive of the drum circle, treating it as his personal fiefdom. Sometimes, I would have run-ins with him about this. Perhaps he felt protective of the circle and the vibe.

That’s understandable: the facts are, he was always there, come rain or shine. He held that space and it became a hallowed ground where folks could gather and play drums and dance. Over the years, Byron’s sunset drum and dance spot became an iconic experience for residents and visitors alike, a quintessential taste of the vibe of the Bay – and some of the credit for this must go to Wawan.

He was also there when it counted: he was there when the Byron police came to shut the sunset drumming down in answer to a noise complaint on a busy Sunday in September 2012. He was always willing to bring out and play his drums at community festivals and fundraisers, be it Beggars Banquets, Nimbin Mardi Grass, peace carnivals, human rights for Palestinians or environmental and civic causes.

Recently, like so many of us, he lost his residence in Byron Bay in difficult circumstances and this coincided with a deterioration in his health. He was in hospital, being treated for a recurring pneumonia infection and undergoing tests for a heart condition, when he suffered a deadly stroke.

I never thought I would be writing his obituary as he seemed ageless.

He loved his garden and playing the Ngoni, the West African harp. He was 61. He will be sorely missed by his family and his many friends across the globe. He is survived by his son Djava, step-son Tsevi, daughters Pelangi and Melati and ex-partner Lorna de Jong.

A fundraising link to help his family is at: https://chuffed.org/project/in-honour-of-our-friend-wawan

There is a huge hole at the heart of Byron’s extensive drum and dance community which will be impossible to fill.

The best homage to Wawan I can think of is for folks to keep on playing at the sunset drumming spot in Byron Bay. So the sound of the drums and the sweet music and dancing may kiss the dolphins in the Bay and touch the sky and keep the spirits happy.

The beat goes on…

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  1. Besides being a a great drummer, he was a natural shaman The drum circle shifted into a higher dimension of consciousness when he drummed
    His energy activated the circle If you where playing singing dancing meditating and open to the beats the ray of healing was there for one and all He was a master of holding a simple drum pattern so all could enjoy and there where so many afternoon sessions that he facilitated that lifted the space into another octave of excitement. A Byron icon indeed??

  2. His light and love will live on in his children Pelangi,Melati, Djava and Tsvei, And with the souls of all who knew him.

    To Live in Hearts
    We leave behind
    Is not to die

    Thomas Campbell


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