The Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land are much more than simply the hosts of the festival; Garma is a celebration of their traditional culture.
The Yolngu people have lived in the region for at least fifty thousand years with many clans living today much like they always have; hunting fish and bush animals and eating with the seasons. The Yolngu culture has survived despite pressure to conform to a Western lifestyle and Yolngu Matha and its various dialects are the first language in many homes.
The 23 clans that make up the Yolngu, which is the word for person in the Yolngu Matha language, share the cultural custodianship of the festival and take turns running the afternoon ceremonies.
The event provides a platform for the sharing of knowledge and an environment where cultural traditions such as bunggul (traditional dance), manikay (song), miny' tji (art) and ceremony can be practiced.
Garma is overseen by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, under the guidance of Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM, the leader of the Gumatj Clan and a long-time fighter for land rights for the Yolngu people.
In welcoming visitors to the festival he draws on the language of Indigenous song-cycles to describe the significance of knowledge sharing at Garma:
“A song-cycle tells a person’s life: it relates to the past to the present and to the future. And as Yolngu we balance our lives through the song-cycles that are laid out on the ceremony grounds, the universities of our people, where we hone and perfect our knowledge.”
As CEO of the Garma Foundation, Mrs Denise Bowden explains, “at Garma you have a chance to be immersed in the oldest and greatest living culture in the world and you will be witness to a way of life that is unique.”
Garma is held at Gulkala on Gumatj land, where the ancestor Ganbulabula brought the yidaki (didjeridu) to the Gumatj people.
Set amongst the stringbark forests and looking out to the Gulf of Carpentaria, the meeting of minds that occurs at Gulkala is now affectionately named, “our Camp David”: a place for rest but also a place for discussion and confronting the issues that face Indigenous people.
The land is no stranger to important meetings and the Yolngu history describes how people have danced here ‘from the beginning’ on the ceremonial grounds. These ceremonies are captured in a bark paintings by Mungurrawuy Yunupingu made in 1967 which depicts dancers amongst the grey stringy-bark trees.
A Garma or public ceremony of different cultural groups sharing knowledge, is still generated as it's being carried on the same site; Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are brought together for this Festival.
The Yolgnu culture is at the heart of the festival’s events.
Each day the whole campsite will gather for bunggul, a ceremony of traditional dance celebrating the rich cultural pride of the Yolngu and sharing their songlines and stories. The event combines the performance of manikay (a series of songs passed downs through generations) with bilma (clapsticks) and yidaki (didjeridu).
Paul Grabowsky, an accomplished Australian pianist stated in The Monthly in October 2014 that the event was his favourite concert experience of the year.
“This was an exhilarating performance: virtuosic, challenging, beautiful and bursting with the joy of the performative moment. It was an example of one of the world’s oldest musical traditions, and we must do everything to recognise its enormous value to our lives as Australians,” Grabowsky wrote.
A program of cultural activities is run across the weekend with yidaki (didgeridoo), spear-making, basket weaving and creative writing workshops. In addition, language classes, an explanation of the complexities of the Yolngu kinship arrangements and guided on-country walking tours from the Yirralka Rangers is also on the program.
This year will see the new look Gapan Gallery which will showcase the miny' tji (art) from the Bula’bula Arts Aboriginal Corporation, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Ngukurr Art Centre Ngukurr Art Centre and Injalak Arts, providing a brief snapshot of the diversity of art across Arnhem Land.
The theme of the event is first written in Yolngu Matha before being expressed in English: Wana Naraka Ga Bundurr ‘The Land is our Backbone’. The Yolngu language runs through the festival with guests encouraged to the engage through a language guide in the event program.
Garma provides a unique opportunity for cultural dialogue and celebration between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, as it has done for many years.