This article also appeared in an edited format in the October 2021 edition no. 144 of Trad & Now magazine – available in good newsagents and some sketchy ones too. Or by subscription at www.tradandnow.com.
This article was principally written on the lands of the Central Arrernte people in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). I’m creating this online version on the lands of Western Arrernte people and doing the most recent of many edits in Walyalup (Fremantle) on the lands of the Whadjuk people. I pay respect to the traditional custodians of these lands: past, present, emerging, and those to come. The author of this rambling tome was born on Ngunnawal land.
Endless Sky – A Personal, Musical Love Letter to Mparntwe
by Bill Quinn
Darwin Festival 2021 went ahead from Thursday 4 to Sunday 22 August 2021, and as the song says, it was against all odds.
Well, not all odds, but many.
In these pages [of Trad & Now magazine] we’ve discussed the challenges (and strangely the opportunities) that Covid19 or corona virus or SARS2 has presented to the worlds of music, arts, entertainment, and hospitality.
For now, I have to tip all of my hats in the direction of Harbour View Plaza in McMinn Street, Darwin and say the sincerest and deepest of thanks to everyone at Darwin Festival who made DF21 happen. That it happened at all is remarkable. That it blossomed forth in such sparkling, memorable fashion is an incredible accomplishment.
If you were attending the festival from out of town, or were new to the festival, it may have appeared a seamlessly professional and comprehensive series of so many events covering all the aspects of the yarts imaginable. Apart from three days off for Darwin’s Lockdown Light III (17-19 August 2021), the show went on, and every spot on the program that I can recall was filled with sparkling talent.
Yeah, sadly many southern artists could not make it to the Top End to join in the joy and fun. That was a shame.
Festival CEO James Gough and Artistic Director Felix Preval, and the scores of production, box office, talent-wrangling, stallholder-herding, sales, corporate liaison, sponsor-schmoozers, and volunteer coordinator Mathilde Mercadier – all of them ducked, weaved, bobbed, re-organised, rescheduled, reordered, and (strike me down, I’m going to use the P word) yes, they pivoted. (There goes a dollar in the buzzword jar.)
Together they created an amazing event, a jewel in a groaning, heaving, bloated, glorious calendar of Darwin and Top End events.
On Sunday 8 August, I was stood outside the Darwin Bowls & Social Club in Fannie Bay, Darwin NT. I’d bought a ticket for a show called ‘Red Desert, Endless Sky: Songs From The Centre’. Being a no-spoilers kind of guy, I had very little to go on, and wanted to know even less before I committed to going.
My motivations: it contained singers and music from Alice Springs, NT. The blurb was accompanied by a picture of three people who I later learned are: Xavia, Dave Crowe, and Casii Williams. That was all I had, and it was enough.
[Stalled at this point in the write-up process, I started playing the video version and began reacting to what I was seeing and remembering.
After the initial performance at Darwin Festival (which the concert was commissioned for) the massive array of musicians, singers, and producers, plus support crews then took the show back home. On Saturday 21 August 2021, they performed the show, rebadged as ‘Endless Sky’, at the magnificent Araluen Arts Centre theatre.
8CCC Radio captured the audio-visuals, and that’s the version available to you, dear reader, right now at Youtube via the station’s page. See the end of this article for the link.]
Bambadino. What an amazing revelation. Some people have musical chops. Some can write incredibly resonate-able lyrics. Some sing like you’d imagine an angel would sing if angels existed. Some are incredible collaborators who glide easily between their own personal art, and the sharing, caring, and collaborative creating-together process.
Some do all of that and more. And some have the added ability to radiate, beam, physically transmit the joy, love, pain, hurt, exaltation of what they do, what they’re feeling now, what they were going through when they wrote it, or what they were emoting as the lyrics tumbled on the page to be tinkered and shaped maybe many times.
Bambadino is all of that.
Next, I’m listening to my favourite song of 2021. I don’t always do this, but I’m going early and declaring ‘Saule’ by Xavia my favourite song for 2021. Because whatever song tries (probably in vain) to usurp ‘Saule’ is going to have to do a Force 10 From Navarone-like barrage of ordnance to knock this amazing piece of art off its perch.
Xavia, like all of the artists on stage, deserves several thousand words here on her own. Luckily, many others in the music media have already done so, and I urge you to go web-search all of them.
I’ll merely mention that Xavia is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, music producer, loop pedal artist, and more.
Just to backtrack briefly to that Sunday evening where I was standing on Conacher Street, Darwin outside the DB&SC, I was deeply fatigued and nearly trashed my ticket and headed home for bed. Instead I hopped on an orange dockless electronic bicycle, and trundled 4.4kms into Festival Park.
(It kinda changed the course of my year. Soon after, I cashed in my airfare to Perth, postponed plans to relocate to WA, and headed south to Alice in a camper van instead.)
Fortified and reinvigorated by a beer and woodfired pizza that night, at just after 9pm ACST when I was plonked in the brown Garramilla dirt of Sunset Stage at Darwin Festival, and Xavia walked out, sat down, and pulled her bow slowly over the cello strings, I had an immediate, instantaneous, and completely spontaneous visceral reaction. That response and action kept up for about three quarters of the hour-long presentation.
Let’s just say I was tasting salt before Resin Moon came on to perform their eponymous song.
Streams of tears. I’ve reacted to music and song before with a tear or two, but never such constant, free-flowing emotion.
If Xavia’s cello strings ignited an intense physical response for this little bronzed duck, then the very first strains of ‘Salt’ by Resin Moon (aka Dave Crowe Music plus Tom Cox) did so five-fold.
A bit of a gibbering mess that night.
Some concert videos I pick and choose snippets, but with the hour-long live version of Endless Sky, I’ve mostly only watched it from go to whoa. Again, like those favourite of favourite album tracks, maybe you need to hear the previous song or two to build the anticipation for what’s to come and to put each artist and song into some sort of context.
And so it’s been with ‘Salt’. I’d seen the live version maybe 20 times, but only in the context of the whole concert. Seven of those views were within the first 12 hours of its broadcast from 8CCC on 13 September 2021.
On that broadcast night, I was planning to be in Mparntwe at the Gap View Hotel for a live viewing, with many involved in the production in attendance at that fabulous watering hole, in the shadows of the East and West MacDonnell Ranges and just across from the The Gap itself.
I’d done that 1500km trip twice: once in a plane (headed south), taking 90 minutes to two hours, and once in a car (headed north) taking travel time 15 hours, and door-to-door maybe 32 hours over two days.
This time? After collecting my motorhome from Darwin’s industrial suburb of Winnellie, it took me 18 days.
18 days, via Darwin CBD, Zen Quarter (one night), Fannie Bay (eight nights), Parap (two nights), Coolalinga (five nights), Adelaide River (one night), Daly Waters (one night), then the last 910kms in one x 10hr hit including regular whistle stops.
What has that eye-watering level of travel itinerary minutiae got to do with Endless Sky? Quite a lot.
Because as I’ve written and spoken about over the years and recently, I have only one mental condition, as regularly checked by qualified shrinks: over-reactivitis.
After that initial exposure to all these artists, their music, their songs, and the Alice Sings community choir, I raced out of Sunset Stage and immediately publicly proclaimed my adoration of the concert to the world(s).
But I had a yearning need to know more about the Central Australian town and the community that had spawned the show. I trashed my plans to move to Perth in September, and started making plans to head due south instead.
I’ve now had my introduction to Mparntwe. To the REAL Alice Springs. The town, the city that you’ll rarely hear about, or read about, or see in the mainstream media. Which also brings us to Casii Williams and Paul Ah Chee.
I’m not saying I’ve saved the best for last, but for me, Casii is the beating heart, the strong strain of tight connection of singers, artists, musicians and people to the land, to this continental mass of many, so many, nations. ‘A Million Pieces’ will give you shivers up your goose bumps.
Endless Sky was a superb introduction to an Mparntwe, an Alice Springs I never truly met on my fly-by, drive-by visit in April 2021.
In less than two weeks of arrival, I discovered a place unlike any other that I’d encountered in 8.5 years being and on-again/off-again gypsy, in 16.5 years bouncing around the country to music festivals, or in 55.25 years as a born and bred white Australian.
Mparntwe/Alice Springs is stunning.
Its music, arts, entertainment, hospitality scene is electric, extensive, boundless.
The people here are more than mostly friendly, open, welcoming, invitational – in just over 24hrs here I’d been invited over for wine, cheese, and singing. Soon after, I was performing with that group at the Totem Theatre as a singing pirate in the Desert Festival.
And while in Darwin I got a very small boost along my very slow path to understanding more about the custodians of this land mass we call Terra Australis, it went from zero to 136kms/hour in Mparntwe.
In Garramilla, I gleaned bits of pieces about Larrakia country and the saltwater people. But it was dribs and drabs, which says more about my minimal efforts, engagement, and attention span than the amazing work done by Larrakia Nation, various associations and groups such as land councils, health services, community support groups, and so many others.
I’m going to say for sure and for certain that my eyes, ears, heart, soul, sole, plaice, place, and eighteen other senses would not have been so open, enquiring, and receptive to soaking up what I’ve gleaned so far of the people of Central Arrente (pron. Arr-uhn-duh), West and East Arrente, as well as Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjara, Luritja, and others – had it not been for Red Desert, Endless Sky: Songs From The Centre and its almost identical sibling, Endless Sky.
Casii Williams. Standing out on Lindsay Avenue between paragraphs, I had a resonance from 1986 with singers from another continent and cultures.
Sydney Entertainment Centre for Ladysmith Black Mambazo supporting Paul Simon live in concert. I’m going to rely on a dodgy 35 year-old memory here: I believe the group name may refer to firstly, a place (Ladysmith in South Africa), and secondly, Mambazo – strike me down if I’m wrong – but I reckon it’s something about a large machete-style knife because the lyrics cut like a knife.
And that’s how I felt (without making the connection until now) about Casii Williams and her two show-cased songs: ‘A Million Pieces’ and ‘Spirit’. Before both, Casii tells of the hurt, sadness, and despair she feels for her people. Of people lost and needing to reconnect. Of the need to go home to country and heal.
As I’ve told him to his face on Instagram and when we caught up many weeks later, Paul Ah Chee is a goddamn rock god. He’s got the look, he’s got the moves, he’s got the lyrics, the pitch, the tone, the cadence – he’s a fricken legend.
I have been wandering around, walking, driving and humming/singing the refrains to ‘Roll On The Wind’ and ‘All About A Girl’.
Time to call time on this very personal, very heartfelt love letter to Mparntwe, and all those – ok, most of those – who sail in her. You have lives to lead.
If it’s within your powers, get thee to Mparntwe (pron. Uhm-Bunt-Ah-Wuh) is my serving suggestion.
Come sit at the 8CCC Café and chase the shade or the sun, depending on the time of year, as it creeps up the long communal tables. Go lose yourself for days at the Araluen Arts Centre, stopping periodically at Yaye’s Café for all your coffee/food needs with distinctive South American/Spanish flavours, tastes, and sound.
Go to trivia at Monte’s Lounge on Thursdays, or their many music nights. See amazing musicians at Epilogue Lounge upstairs.
Then, and I’m not saying this did happen (but it probably did): come downstairs at closing time, and spend half an hour playing kick-to-kick with the first nations youff up and down Todd Mall – and get happily schooled by teens and tweens in how to boot an AFL match ball roughly in a straight line, not cannon it off the roofs, lampposts and passers-by. At and after midnight. With the tacit approval and/or disinterest of the local authorities in the sedans and vans with the blue flashing lights. “Carry on, nuffin’ to see here.”
On the supposedly mean streets of Alice Springs. Where thou shalt not tarry after sundown, lest thee fall prey to dark forces of evil and maleficence. [Insert rolling eye emoji].
“Let me take you by the hand
We’ll lead you through the streets of Alice
We’ll show some things
That may help to change your minds.”
(With attribution, not apologies, to Ralph McTell.)
That was my Mparntwe. I’d still be there, but the wind blew in from the north one day in December and took me down to Adelaide then up to Brisbane and Woodford, then clear across the country to Perth and Fremantle.
For now, you can see the whole concert that took me to the red centre for three months on Youtube courtesy of 8CCC Radio, Alice Sings, and a cast of many more: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYz4nm7y-24