Part awards night, part mini music festival, the annual National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMAs) herald a night under the stars celebrating the music of Indigenous artists both in the Territory and Australia-wide. This year’s event is sure to be a corker, with a stellar lineup including indie darlings The Medics, legendary nineties rockers Sunrize Band (pictured), country music icon Troy Cassar-Daley, and newbies East Journey.
Once dubbed “the ARIAS for blackfellas”, the NIMAs have come a long way since 2004’s inaugural event. In that time audience numbers have more than tripled, the awards have begun extending their Territory roots nation-wards, and – most recently – nominations were opened to the general public, making the pool of talent into which the NIMAS dips its toe very deep indeed.
“We changed it this year so anyone could nominate any band, because nominations have no bearing on whoever wins,” explains event organiser MusicNT’s Mark Smith, referring to the NIMAs judging panel of music industry experts. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase of bands nominated.”
The boost in nominations is what makes this year’s NIMAs particularly exciting, painting a richer picture of what’s going on in the Indigenous music scene right now, and offering Indigenous musicians in the country’s remoter corners the chance to appear on big fish radars. Ben Pascoe of Maningrida’s Sunrize Band can personally testify to the potential and patent diversity of his country’s emerging musicians. “You’ve got all types of music here,” he says. “You’ve got country, you’ve got reggae, you’ve got hard rock, you’ve got heavy metal. It’s all on, and there’s talent up here. Talent,” he repeats emphatically.
Solid endorsement indeed from the man Santana once dubbed “the Jimi Hendrix of Arnhem Land”. Huge in the 90s, Sunrize Band cut short their success for cultural reasons following the death of guitarist Kenny Smith. More than ten years later, the NIMAs represent Sunrize’s big stage comeback. “We will play some of those old songs from the 90s,” Pascoe promises. “Land Rights and Black Boy Rock and Roll. I can imagine people still have that bouncing in their heads.”
A newer Arnhem outfit set to play the NIMAs are recent NT Song of the Year finalists East Journey. Boasting no less than nine members, the band is a sonic freight truck for a distinct musical style that fuses contemporary instrumentation with the ancient yidaki (didgeridoo) and bilma (clapsticks). “We have developed a new style of Western rock and acoustic mixed with the traditional sounds of our ancestors to engage our audience,” says drummer Gathapura Mununggurr, citing the invocation of Yolngu culture as one driving force behind the band’s music.
Sitting on the other end of this year’s NIMAs spectrum is Triple J favourites The Medics, who will be performing with drummer Jhindu Lawrie’s father, Coloured Stone’s Bunna Lawrie. In stark contrast to East Journey, The Medics’ music does not directly incorporate any Indigenous elements, “Yeah, we’re just a normal band,” singer Kahl Wallace laughs, adding that the band connect with their Indigenous audiences through representing the new wave of Indigenous acts coursing through the national arena – Jessica Mauboy and Busby Marou just two other examples. “There’s a world out there,” Wallace says. “It’s about not making the world a scary thing.”
The diversity of finalists at this year’s NIMAs speaks volumes of the road Indigenous music has traveled in Australia. “I think it’s good that Indigenous isn’t considered one genre of music,” Smith says. “It’s more that Indigenous people are playing music. The music is standing on its own.”
Published in Off The Leash, August 2012 issue