Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu walked onto stage at the annual Barunga Festival to adoring applause from the thousands that gathered for his first public show in the NT for five years.
These days Gurrumul plays as much for royalty and presidents as for the common people and the faithful turned up in drives to witness the all-too-rare return to country of a beloved son too long away. Gurrumul last played Darwin in a closed show for US President Barack Obama in late 2011.

An hour later Gurrumul had graced us with his beatific presence and angelic voice for ten other-worldly songs that transcended and transformed. We shed tears and shared a long mournful pause to reflect on the recent loss of Gurrumul’s family member and mentor Mr. Yunupingu. For mine the highlight was Gurrumul’s rendering of his joyful, hiccuping tribute to my favourite megapode, Djiḻawurr, the Orange-footed Scrub Fowl.

Gurrumul was joined on stage for one song by John Butler, who earlier had warmed up the crowd and the ‘mature quails’, one wag’s description of the well-heeled hippies-of-a-certain-age that regard Butler as a counter-cultural sex bomb.

For mine I find little about Butler that appeals, and I am particularly irked by his willingness to take a perfectly good 3 minute song and wring it’s neck for another ten and to play fifty notes where five would do just fine.

Gurrumul ended his set with the plangent personal history of ‘I was born blind‘, a song that has sent shivers down my spine since I first heard it many years ago at the basketball courts at Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island where Gurrumul played it with the Saltwater Band.  ‘Born blind‘ has lost none of its power over the years and Gurrumul left us enlivened and uplifted.

Tiwi Islands-based  boy-band-grown-into-men B2M (Bathurst [island] to Melville [island]) had the unenviable task of following Gurrumul’s set.

B2M bought their high-energy party game and hit the crowd hard with a racy hippity-hop show of sex, brutal beats and more sex. Just what the crowd needed on a cooling June night. They, and the band, went off.

Sammy Butcher is the coolest man on the planet.
I’ve known Sammy since we worked together in the Warumpi Band in the mid-eighties (I mixed the sounds that he and the band made) and while we only run into each other from time to time I’m proud to count him as a friend.
Sammy is also the king of desert-surf-rock-reggae and had driven 1,500 kilometres from his dusty home town of Papunya west of Alice Springs with the members of his family that make up the Tjupi Band.
I’d last seen the Tjupi Band at the Bush Bands Bash in Alice Springs three years ago and while their show at this year’s Barunga festival wasn’t up to the hyper-energetic set they played back then it was wonderful to hear Sammy’s sublime guitar licks yet again.

Sammy also came to Barunga to catch up with family – he dedicated each song in his set to family from named townships to the east, north, south and west – and to support the scratch footy team that Papunya had assembled for the weekend.

I caught their hard-fought win in the second semi-final which earned them a place in the final.

One problem for the Papunya team was that this year the footy final would not be held on the Monday of the long weekend, which gives the teams a chance to rest overnight, but straight after the second semi-final.

This meant that Papunya had to run back onto the field to battle through a grand final twenty minutes after winning a tough semi-final. Their opponents, the Ngukurr Bulldogs, had the benefit of a much longer rest between games.

Papunya gave a good account of themselves in what was a gripping game of speed-footy but on the day Ngukurr had the better leg speed and hamstrings and took the grand final 8.3 – 51 to 6.2 – 38. On any other day my money would have been on Papunya.

This year’s edition of the Barunga Festival was right up there with the best of the many I’ve been to.

Festival organisers Skinnyfish Music deserve praise for their efforts and are in negotiation with the traditional owners of the Barunga township and surrounding country, the Bagala clan group, to run future festivals.

Next weekend the Skinnyfish Music bandwagon rolls onto Ngukurr in south-eastern Arnhem Land to run the Yugal Mangi Festival.

If you are in the area you’d be mad to miss it.