Narana means “listening and learning”, and at this year’s NaranaFest, held by the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre, locals are able to do this by embracing the exquisite sounds of Indigenous music. Up and coming musician Yirrmal Marika is a headliner for the event, and he can’t wait to share his culture with locals.
“My music is about my culture, my land, my home and my people. And mostly just representing my culture,” he says.
Yirrmal is from the community of Yirrkala of North-East Arnhem Land. A relative of Australian icon Gurrumul, his father was also a dancer and singer for renowned band Yothu Yindi. Therefore, in many ways, just as his country is in his blood, so is music.
When I chatted with Yirrmal, he had just recently received news that his brother had passed away. He explained that it is moments like these that make living away from home hard.
“Look, other than that with my education and music, I don’t mind living in Geelong. But something that is more important to me – like my family – when my family member passes away, that’s the hardest thing. I really miss my home and I wanted to go back…but other than that it’s Australia. I love getting down to Melbourne.”
Moving to Geelong in 2011, Yirrmal is a part of a leadership program lead by the Marrma’ Rom’ Two Worlds Foundation, which gives young men from North-East Arnhem land an education in Geelong.
“[What] the Marrma’ Rom’ Foundation means is ‘living in two worlds’ of non Indigenous and Indigenous. So we kind of build the bridge. Then back home, [we] be a good role model for our people, and show them what we gain out of the western world. And that’s the point of why I’m here,” he says.
Just as Yirrmal lives between these two worlds, his music also encompasses the broad range of tones and techniques that cross cultural boundaries.
“My music is more singer-songwriter, acoustically hollow. I was performing acoustically with the Yolngu Boys; that’s my heritage, Yolngu. But they went back home and I’ll just do solo and just play a solo performance. And that’s my genre. Singer-songwriter, acoustically, and singing language and English. So it’s more like contemporary,” he says.
Already sharing the beauty of his song ‘Deep Sea Blue’ with people all over Australia, Yirrmal is set to release his EP early next year. Working closely with mentors Neil Murray and Shane Howard, it is clear he has been inspired by their expertise in the process.
“I’ve been working with them. Collaborating, writing songs – they were amazing. They motivated me with their ability, and I absolutely am honoured to work with them. It’s been a great, great journey you know, working with these unreal musicians and learning from them,” he says.
Along with his time at NaranaFest, Yirrmal is also headed to the AWME, and will bring his songs to Geelong for the StreetLife Laneways Festival in November. “It’s a great experience for me and I’ve been looking forward to getting out my EP. A lot of people, when I was travelling around and playing gigs, have been asking me for CD’s,” he says.
It is evident that Yirrmal’s love for his culture permeates his life, and as I asked him what it would be like to perform alongside Archie Roach at NaranaFest, he opened up about how he hopes to follow in Roach’s footsteps.
“He’s an absolute legend. Archie you know, he’s like a leader that many of us will look up to. He’s done a lot of things for Australia and for himself, and for his family, and you know, it’s a beautiful thing to look up to him,” he says.
In fact, Yirrmal penned his song ‘Young Blood’ about the musician after meeting him at a festival. “After my gig I came to Archie and I spoke to him about how did he become a young man, an Indigenous young man, and to become a strong role model. And show that positive leadership to younger generations,” he says.
“Archie spoke to me – he inspired me by his words and he said, ‘You’re a young man, and a young blood, and you’re a strong person and you are away from your home. You’re living down here, and you’re carrying your tribal voice with many of the people back there looking up to you, because you’ll be a leader way beyond the future.’”
The weight of these words drives Yirrmal as he seeks to be a role model for his community. “It’s a call for all of us, you know, for the young generation to rise up and be strong and stand strong, be wise and look up and think way beyond the future. Archie’s a great example for us, all of us,” he says.
A voice for a new generation of Indigenous people, and a young man full of passion for music that moves you, Yirrmal Marika is a special sort of performer. Not only does he sing from a place of transparency, but he also lives out the words he writes. I wrapped up my time with him by asking about the role he believes music plays in reconciliation. His answer left me speechless.
“Music is about how you can hear it or you can feel it in any way. It’s all about heart, right? What it’s about, in my opinion, is when you see how many black kids there are, and how many white kids there are. If you count it, how are you going to relate those kids to minor and major? [sic]”
“Minor, is a heavier sound, and a major is a lighter sound, and when you relate those black keys, white and black keys, they will make so much beautiful sound. I play with my soul, I play with my heart and experience. I feel it, and I sing straight to the people where the heart is, and music is such a beautiful thing to me.”
You can see Yirrmal at NaranaFest on Nov 14. Located at the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre on the Surfcoast Highway, tickets are available at oztix.com.au.