Wildfire Manwurrk: ‘There’s Always Deadly Indigenous Music Around Us - It’s Exciting’

3 August 2023 | 10:09 am | Anna Rose

Wildfire Manwurrk are up for three NIMAs, but it’s not success they’re chasing.

Wildfire Manwurrk

Wildfire Manwurrk (Credit: Renae Saxby)

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This year’s National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMAs) returns to a live setting at Darwin’s Amphitheatre on Saturday, August 12, poised to be a glittering event that celebrates and honours the achievements of Australia's First Nations artists.

It’s an important date in the calendars of many; not only does it shine a well-earned light on the Indigenous artists who are, for the most part, overlooked at more mainstream events, but it also provides our First Nations community with connection, inspiration and fortification. These mechanisms are more and more important to the success and longevity of those communities, particularly for acts like the up-and-coming Wildfire Manwurrk, who have spent much of their career relatively isolated.

From remote Maningrida (Stone Country) in Arnhem Land, NT, Wildfire Manwurrk is comprised of the Rostron family, who have been playing music together since 2012. Writing and performing in their native language, Kune (koo-nay), they merge a thumping heavy sound with traditional elements.

This year, the six-piece are up for three NIMAs – New Talent Of The Year, Film Clip Of The Year (for Lonely Bangardi) and Community Clip Of The Year (for Mararradj). Through those categories, Wildfire Manwurrk have risen to the same podium as scene-leading names like Budjerah, Baker Boy, Miiesha, KDA Crew, Briggs and Kaiit – to name just a few of the recent years NIMAs’ winners. All of them, of course, went on to achieve high acclaim.

Wildfire Manwurrk’s vocalist and co-founder, Victor Rostron, shares a long list of the emotions he and his bandmates are feeling: happiness, nerves, excitement, apprehension… Being nominated for three NIMAs, and gearing up for a trip to Darwin for the ceremony marks a historic moment in the group’s timeline – and for their community altogether – that looks set to offer them a break into a more established and opportune arena. “I got a feeling something can happen,” Rostron says with a wistful smirk – though he isn’t just riffing on Wildfire Manwurrk’s three NIMA nods.

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Last November, the band released their powerful debut EP, The Next Future. According to Rostron, the band’s goal with that six-track effort was to get out and tell their stories – but in their efforts to do so, they faced challenges. “It was a really big struggle for us,” Rostron says, “coming out [of] the bush. It’s really powerful how many [people are helping] us moving forward.”

The music itself sees Wildfire Manwurrk combine several Western styles – namely ‘80s heavy metal and hard rock – with traditional sounds from country, like language and the didgeridoo.

Though Wildfire Manwurrk are relatively new to the scene and have only released that one EP, much of their work hasn’t been minted with national acclaim in mind – rather, their art is for their own community first and foremost. Outside of performing, Rostron and his mob have undertaken more extracurricular activities to encourage and mentor Indigenous youth in music. It’s a cause that he says is important to help raise the kids up.

Wildfire Manwurrk have found a way to marry their history and culture with sounds popular in the modern moment. In their production, you’ll hear a greater emphasis on the former. Musically and socially, there have been fewer challenges for Wildfire Manwurrk in establishing their sound (fewer than, say, what they may have faced if they were emerging in more mainstream settings ten years ago), thanks in large part to the success of similar bands – like King Stingray, of whom Rostron speaks highly. “Looking forward to meet them,” he says. “Different band than early days, but [they’re] really stepping forward and stepping up. We’re really happy to meet the challenge and be with these famous, professional people.”

Though Rostron says his current tastes reflect a mix of styles introduced by his mother – country, heavy metal and rock – his first taste of Western music was, surprisingly enough, gospel. “In the early days, I was singing and learning from all my people,” he notes, particularly shouting out his uncles.

When it comes to educating Indigenous youth for himself and giving them musical opportunities of their own, Rostron explains that Wildfire Manwurrk’s latest challenge is to bring their cultural heritage into the mainstream, continuing a long tradition of learning that he and his bandmates were exposed to at a young age. “I reckon,” Rostron confirms, “new things for people like us, coming out from bush, playing rock and having music… Good things gonna happen. Meet with a lot of people, and we wanna put our name out there.”

For Maningrida’s community, the increasing prevalence of bands that, as Rostron says, are coming out from the bush, is providing a massive boost of inspiration for their young people. With confidence not before heard in this conversation, Rostron says fervently: “I reckon that’s the number one, biggest priority. Confidence. In our community, we really love working with children and community; it’s really important to put [the] young ones out there.

“We got MusicNT, all of [these] Indigenous organisation[s], and we’re really happy to work with them at schools and learning on country – learning on country is really important for our young [people’s] future.”

There’s a unique role that music, in general, plays in communities like Rostron’s, which are often overlooked by the Australian government. “Our music is really important for every Indigenous [community],” he says, “but outside our community, outside my voice, we’re doing music in two ways: in Blakfulla way and Balanda [white man] way. Put them together, the communities together and work and educate young one, encourage the young one to be strong.”

With so many Indigenous languages and dialects still a massive part of Aboriginal ways of life, right across the country, Victor has no concerns that the work of Wildfire Manwurrk will translate to other Indigenous Australians. “It really easy for us,” Rostron says, “we [were] raised and born right there, and Dalabon and Rembarrnga language grew in our community. It’s a complicated one, but we understand each other really good. We sing with our language, play with each other and tell the story of Kune and Rembarrnga culture right there.

“We sing by our language, because our language is disappearing. So, we got a good chance – by playing music [and] sharing story – to keep that language and culture powerful, really strong.”

Rostron is ambitious – not only for his band but his people too – and his ambition spreads far beyond music: he’s passionate, committed and relentless in his pursuits to encourage young First Nations peoples to dream bigger and scream louder than he ever could, through every musical, political and financial avenue made available to him.

Whether Wildfire Manwurrk win anything at the NIMAs is moot; the biggest win for them is that they’ll be there, at the Darwin Amphitheatre, repping their mob loudly and proudly. And for a band that came “from out bush”, that’s a greater moment of ambitious realisation than Rostron could have anticipated.

“Fingers crossed we get a reward and win this thing,” he says, “but I’ll say it’s really powerful to believe in myself and my boys. I hope we get there and win some things, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t win, as long as we[‘re] there… to stand there and see us and recognise us, it like a beacon right there. Whoever wins, that’s a really, really powerful message. There’s always deadly Indigenous music around us. It’s exciting.

Before our conversation ends, Rostron reaffirms what he previously touched upon, about the importance of music in his community and the support on offer for the young people in it. “I want to mention about our band and our community,” he emphasises. “It’s really frustrating, and [we still have the] struggle we had in the early days – in our community, it’s really hard to go out and play Darwin, go out and share stories. Indigenous band [Wildfire Manwurrk] come up from bush, it’s really struggle and really hard to get that money and go somewhere and be seen. It really struggles.”

It seems Wildfire Manwurrk’s objective isn’t in the least bit selfish. “Now we’re stepping up, we want to share, and we want to share all Indigenous people’s music and work together. What I’m trying to say is we’ll have something in our community, like music stereo [radio], like mentor, or something like job right there [in] community. That’s what I’m hoping can happen when [the younger] generation come up.

“Someday, we’ll make something change. We’ll be independent.”

The 2023 NIMAs will be broadcast on NITV and SBS On Demand on Sunday, 13 August, at 7:30 pm. The re-broadcast will air on SBS Viceland on Friday, 18 August, at 11:05 pm and on SBS on Saturday, 19 August, at 9 am. If you’d like to attend the event, you can access tickets here.