Beswick/Wugularr, Northern Territory, Australia 2012
Years ago, when my uni student sons were still in primary school, my family hired a 4WD, packed our camping gear and set off from Darwin to the Walking with Spirits Festival.
The Beswick Aboriginal Community are Jawoyn people who live about 100km south-east of Katherine in the Northern Territory.
Members of the general public are granted entry to this land only once each year, when a limited number of tickets are sold to the festival.
The event culminates in a show that combines corroboree, story-telling, fire displays and other performance styles, presented at a sacred site known as Malkgulumbu.
At this beautiful location – accessible only via a rough 4WD track – the bush gives way to a lake. A stage is erected on the sand, with the water behind it and a backdrop formed by tall rockfaces that border the opposite bank. Stage lights splash the cliffs with shapes and colours after the orange hues drawn out by sunset fade away.
This 2012 show starts with a series of corroboree-style dances. To the accompaniment of clapping sticks and didgeridoo, members of the audience are encouraged to join local people of all ages as they kick and sway across the sand.
After this there is talk, more music, an animation. Then a group of middle aged and elderly women comes onto the stage. After sitting down cross-legged, colourful dresses and shocks of white hair stand out under the stage lights. Expecting a traditional song, I am startled to hear the opening bars of the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers.
I fell in love with The Beatles backwards, when, as a teenager, I discovered my father’s old vinyl copy of Abbey Road – the last album they recorded. From the first shuffling beats of Come Together, I was hooked. I would shut myself away in the lounge room of our house in suburban Canberra, put the needle on the record, lie down on the couch and lose myself. This ritual was reserved for evenings, as I had decided that it was an album best listened to around sunset.
Side 2 of Abbey Road is mostly comprised of a medley – brief snatches of songs that, threaded together, somehow create a compelling whole.
The original of Golden Slumbers is only about 90 seconds long, but under a chilly dry season sky the song is instantly recognisable, even with George Martin’s artifice and McCartney’s passionate vocals stripped away.
The women’s singing has a raw, nasal quality, and carries a sense of yearning. “Once there was a way to get back homeward, once there was a way to get back home, sleep pretty darling, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby …”. Soon the women introduce lyrics in their own tongue, creating new verses, moving from one language to the other and back again. Then a group of children appears and parades in front of the stage. They are holding up poles bearing foil models of sea-creatures, with long silver tails dangling and sparkling behind.
I wonder how the women of Beswick took this little tune into their hearts. By Beatles standards, the song is obscure – it’s not one that gets played on the radio. However, they came to know it, they have made it their own. At the opening of the show the MC told us that music has been performed at this site for tens of thousands of years and asked us to acknowledge the spirits of departed musicians.
As Golden Slumbers shifts between languages I think of George Harrison, dying of cancer in a Hollywood mansion, and John Lennon, stepping out the front door of the Dakota building to his doom. I wonder what they would make of this moment. I like to think that they would enjoy it very much. I can’t help imagining their spirits and those of a couple of ancient local elders standing up the back watching the show, then meeting each other’s eyes across the heads of the crowd and smiling.
And for a moment – no more than the flick of a silver fish tail – I feel like I catch hold of something. Something more than just “music brings us together”. Something about there being feelings of such subtlety that they escape the grasp of language and render it unnecessary. Something about the little miracle of a suburban teenage girl and an elderly Jawoyn woman both being able to spot the genius in a quirky suite of music created by some Liverpudlians. And something oddly hopeful in their shared view that it is perfectly suited to the time around sunset.
Stereo Story #596