Jabiru is gearing up for their annual cultural event, the perfect place to soak up some incredible art, food and music, not to mention the last wonderful days of the Dry.
Top Enders have roughly one month left of this particularly gorgeous weather, or until the idea of spending a day outdoors becomes a thing to resist rather than to relish. While there’s still time, why not take a journey to Jabiru for the Mahbilil Festival, an annual event taking its name from a seasonal zephyr characterising Gurrung, the Gundjheimi word for the short season preceding the build-up.
“Mahbilil Festival is a community festival that’s been going since the mid-80s,” Festival director Andrish Saint-Clare explains. “Although back then it was more of a ‘get drunk, jam a bit and fly a few kites’ kind of thing.” Saint-Clare came on board in 2004 to focus the festival on the rich cultural content of the Territory’s remote Indigenous communities, both in the immediate region and beyond. The festival has since developed into an event sharing many facets of Aboriginal culture. This year expect a performance by the critically-acclaimed Black Arm Band, the taste of bush tucker including the signature earth- baked magpie goose dish, and visually striking lantern sculptures throwing traditional rock art designs into three glowing dimensions.
Local artist Techy Masero is behind Mahbilil Festival’s trademark lanterns, and shares Saint-Clare’s philosophy that the festival should draw the majority of its content from the wider region’s traditional resources in her own creative process. “It’s been very rewarding because there is the understanding that when we are working, really the Aboriginal artists are facilitating the works,” says Masero, who sought and received permission from community elders to reproduce the ancient images. “It’s a combination of a different artform and their traditions.”
It was only over the course of several years that Masero was collaborating with Aboriginal artists that she was given the go-ahead to represent the sacred yawk yawk (mermaid) spirits in the otherworldly, mermaid-like figures that hover just above Lake Jabiru. “The yawk yawk needed to be a specific design, so when I asked permission to represent them it was quite a big step,” she reveals. “It’s not something where you can just go and say, ‘Look, I want to do this.’”
Performing fire artist Peter Stafford, or Psycus Pete as he is known on-stage, has also discovered how being a returning artist at Mahbilil Festival is an inroad to bigger and better things. Stafford and performing partner Steve Kelly spend a week immediately prior to the festival running circus skills workshops at the local school. The stint of training leads up to a Mahbilil Festival production showcasing the community’s young performing talent. “I’m very excited about coming back this year, and I’m sure the children are as well,” Stafford enthuses. “We’ve got quite a popular little base over there at the moment, having gone there the last few years.”
Although Stafford and Kelly throw in a professional performance of their own for the presentation, Stafford notes that some workshop attendees have significantly developed performing skills picked up from Mahbilil Festivals past. “I’d say almost half of the kids that we have from the shows of the previous year come back interested, which is awesome because we can take that skill level to the next level,” he continues. “We’ve already got that initial building up of confidence and getting some bonding happening. It can often take a while to get that confidence between kids, especially in the more remote communities.”
It’s fair to say the Territory’s regional festivals have had a tougher time of it this year with Barunga Festival, Fred’s Pass Rural Show and the Alice Springs Beanie Festival having all teetered precariously on the edge of not happening at all. “All through the NT its been very difficult this year,” Saint-Clare confirms, adding that the Mahbilil Festival has also felt the squeeze, to the extent that it has sought extra funding from further afield. Yet Saint-Clare is adamant that festivals such as Mahbilil are well worth fighting for: “It’s about more than just putting on a concert and a dance. There’s a whole social aspect that goes with that.”