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March 6, 2021

Interview: Judith Shelley on Harmony Day

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Lucy Gallant, one of the acts at the Harmony Festival

Celebrating cultural diversity in our community, the Harmony Festival is an important event that brings community together to celebrate with food, music and dance. The Echo spoke with Judith Shelley, the national coordinator for Australian Indonesian Arts Alliance, about the Harmony Festival, which moves from Byron to Mullumbimby this year.

Why did the Harmony Festival move to Mullumbimby this year? What does Mullum have to offer to your event’s growth? (Ironically Spirit Festival just moved from Mullum to Byron and you’re doing the opposite!)

There are so many reasons why Byron Harmony Day has decided to move to Mullum this year. The Byron Harmony Festival is the only public event celebrating multiculturalism in Byron Shire so after 11 years in Byron we felt it was time to share the love with one of our other major Byron communities – here in Mullum. Mullumbimby is also home to some of our most inspiring schools and community groups such as Shearwater and Mullumbimby High plus Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre and Rainbow Vegans, who are supporting Harmony Day this year. Byron Harmony Day is a FREE, non-profit, grassroots community festival compared with the majority of festivals taking place around Byron, which are privately owned, therefore we are free to relocate according to our philosophy of sharing. In this case we have always loved the spiritual atmosphere and vibe at Mullum Civic Hall, one of the most beloved venues of Byron Shire… and with Byron Spirit Fest moving to Byron it left an empty space we decided to fill in order to enjoy the beautiful relaxing energy that is generated in the lovely gardens there and to share the Byron Harmony love and amazing multicultural feel that is always created when we bring 150 ethnic and cultural artists to share their cultures with the community. The street life and atmosphere in Mullumbimby is community and local compared to Byron which is overwhelmed with tourism – leaving us residents in the minority. We don’t have a ‘business plan’ or ‘growth plan’ as we just want to create harmony and celebrate multiculturalism wherever we can; it was an intuitive decision more than anything and time for a refreshing change!

What is the guiding philosophy for Harmony Festival?

Equality and Sharing. Harmony Day is the national day for celebrating multiculturalism across Australia. Harmony Day is officially held on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and is celebrated in communities, schools and workplaces across Australia, often presented by local councils or migrant services. Here in Byron Shire we noticed that there was no celebration of Harmony Day so we decided it was an event that really had to take place, and 12 years later we are still going. The policy of multiculturalism celebrates and recognises the value of cultural diversity and we feel it’s really important to stay strong in support of equality and anti-discrimination for all people everywhere.    

How has the event grown?

Our event has grown along with the natural growth of our multicultural community, gradually expanding to include new ethnic communities. Many people are aware of new residents arriving in Byron area and have noticed the Japanese community, Brazilian, Israeli, Thai and Filipino communities growing in numbers. So this year we have even more beautiful, traditional cultural performances from Japan, Thailand and Brazil than ever before. There has been a great flow-on effect from Harmony Day, which inspired the creation of the Byron Wagakki Band last year. From there the Japanese community went on to create the first ever fabulous Japan Festival, which was held in November 2017, and from there we have been blessed to have many new Japanese performers joining in for Harmony Day 2018 with eight new Japanese groups joining our program for the day – especially the beautiful Sakura dance group in full traditional costume and makeup, Kizuna Taiko Group and Wadaiko Sho coming all the way from the Gold Coast. Also don’t miss the exciting Brazilian women’s drumming group Meninas da Lua as well as Abada Capoeira and Brazilian DJ set.

What kind of engagement have you seen from the community?

Local Mullumbimby community groups and schools have been great in coming onboard to help us launch our first event in Mullum. For example the Rainbow Vegans are sponsoring us as well as holding an animal rights-awareness stall, Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre is providing the courtyard space, and The Hub will be set up as a green room for the performers. St Vincent De Paul and Anglicare migrant workers will be sponsoring the event and also present the info stall on the day to promote their services. The Japanese community has been a fantastic help in bringing lots of performances, stalls, food and activities, and the Thai community are bringing adult and children’s dance groups all the way from the Gold Coast.

Why do you think the Harmony Festival is important?

I remember one day I was visiting the Sydney art gallery and there were a few men on soapboxes in the Domain – one was promoting an end to sexual-harassment law – so I stopped by to destroy his arguments, then the next bloke was handing out leaflets and promoting racist political groups such as Reclaim Australia and One Nation. So I stopped by to have a chat with him, and asked him, ‘Why are you promoting racist groups? Are you a racist?’ He told me he is from the southern suburbs and he was upset about the Chinese community ‘taking over Hurstville’. So I said, ‘Actually I am originally from Hurstville area and Hurstville shops were my local shops. I really like it that it’s like Chinatown there now because I really like being able to buy some of my favourite foods locally.’ I chatted for a while then finally mentioned nonchalantly, ‘And also by the way my daughter is part Chinese… ’ his jaw dropped to the floor: ‘Really… is she really Chinese?’ ‘Yes she really is Chinese!’

Children are the most vulnerable members of society and the most frequent victims of bullying including racism;  unconscious bias, subtle or not-so-subtle racism has devastating long-term effects. Even just going to school feeling different, being the only Asian kid in class, is hard to cope with on a daily basis. There is no doubt that in recent years racism has been growing in Australia and white supremacy is sitting in seats of power here in Australia and elsewhere. It’s up to every person who cares about equality to stand up against the influence of racism and support multicultural activities such as Harmony Day.

This year we will again support Asylum Seeker Awareness by holding fundraising for refugees and speakers such as Gunela Astbrink from Ballina Region for Refugees. Local social issues such as West Byron will also be on the program with speakers such as Cate Coorey and the West Byron Song from the Byron Lighthouse Band.

What should we expect from this year’s event?

Lots of fun – a really amazing day of brilliant colourful music and dance! This year the program for Harmony Day will be bigger and more exciting than ever with many performing groups arriving in Mullum who have never performed with us before – such as Kizuna Taiko Drum group from the Gold Coast, Sakura Japanese dancers, stunning Thai dancers, new group Byron Lighthouse Band, an exciting new Mullum group called Mullum Folk, as well as our incredible bellydance groups Veil of Dreams and Spirit Belly Dance, and some of our usual highlights El Bari Flamenco, Gabriel Otu and Bollywood Sisters. This year for the first time we will be focusing on creating a multicultural market with all kinds of handcrafts, food trucks, clothes, healing sanctuary featuring Japanese Shiatsu and Thai massage plus new activities such as spinning, calligraphy and Aboriginal activities, plus raffles and silent auction.

Many local community groups will be sharing on the day such as the Rainbow Vegans with free cakes and snacks, refugee fundraising stall and more! Byron Harmony Day will be a great event to top off school-holiday fun for the kids throughout the day with Aboriginal activities, spinning, drumming, dancing, face painting, juggling, crafts and heaps of kids’ groups onstage! This event is supported by Byron Shire Council to be waste free so please bring your plates and cups and washing-up station will be available! For more info or stall booking phone Judy 0405 463 663. 

Saturday at the Mullumbimby Civic Hall | 11am – 9pm

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