Live Review: 2012 National Indigenous Music Awards

13 August 2012 | 11:07 am | Alice Body

The National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMAs) are looking spectacular as we enter Darwin's Botanic Gardens grassy Amphitheatre. The Darwin Festival has recently overhauled the entire area, its trademark orbicular lanterns hanging from the long-boughed trees that dot and fringe the venue, bathing its contours in their warm glow. A casual, family-friendly vibe follows such soft aesthetics along with the NIMAs all-ages and alcohol-free guidelines, and is reflected in the audience demographic – overwhelmingly made up of folk content to enjoy the show from languid positions on picnic rug stations.

The NIMAs feel refreshingly distinct from your usual awards occasion via a palpable impression that they are first and foremost an event presented by Indigenous people for Indigenous people. The awards also enjoy a reputation as being more enjoyable concert than stiff ceremony. The impressive stage has been decked out to the nines with multi-hued visual technics for the purposes of showcasing the several bands and artists scheduled to perform over the course of the night. The variety of these acts alone speak measures of the kind of creativity inspiring Indigenous musicians across the country, from Central Australia's Warren H. Williams' Enya-style synths meshed into the traditional combined vocals of the Warumungu Songmen, to the tight country stylings of national favourite Troy Cassar-Daley.

A few of these acts deserve special mention in my book. The first of these to hit the stage is the (frankly stunning, incidentally) Thelma Plum. Only 17 years old, the Brisbane-based singer-songwriter was flown up to perform tonight following her winning the NIMAs triple j Unearthed competition several weeks ago.  Looking positively goddess-like in a flowing white dress, Plum's performance turns out to be one of my night's absolute highlights, and I am only just short of devastated that her set only consists of the one gorgeously sombre acoustic track. Judging by the collective entranced expression on the faces of the audience I vouch they're of a similar mind. Plum is certainly young talent to keep tabs on.

Another huge highlight of my night is Yirrkala's East Journey, who pick up a couple of awards, including for Best Music Video. An absolute sprawling beast of a band with no less than nine members (that include relatives of Mandawuy and Gurrumul Yunupingu) East Journey deliver a simultaneously polished and rollicking set of straight-up rock'n'roll mixed with sounds of traditional Yolngu instruments, most notably the 'yidaki' (digeridoo) – with one of their earlier saltwater reggae tracks thrown in for good measure. Saltwater reggae is a musical genre that finds its roots in Yolngu country of North East Arnhem Land, and it's excellent to see it represented tonight.

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Following East Journey are triple j darlings, Queensland's The Medics who kick off their short set with their popular single Griffin before inviting legendary Coloured Stone frontman Bunna Lawrie (and drummer Jhindu Lawrie's father) to share the stage for a haunting rendition of Coloured Stone's Black Boy. The Medics clean up with a few awards at this year's NIMAs – including National Album of the Year and Best New Talent. It's all very much deserved in lieu of both the depth and clarity that the band use to wield their expansive indie sound.

The awards part of the night winds down once Troy Cassar-Daley has performed his headline set, and we are in for a couple of longer sets by Top End stalwarts Sunrize Band (and 2012 NIMAs Hall of Fame inductees) and Lajamanu Teenage Band. I have long been looking forward to catching Maningrida's Sunrize Band live ever since I came across some shaky YouTube footage of one of their gigs. Frontman Ben Pascoe was once likened by Santana to Jimi Hendrix, and finally tonight I get to check out the comparison. Despite the ten years that have passed since the peak of Sunrize's fame, Pascoe shows that he's still got it as he unleashes on guitar solos, decimating clichéd chords like a pro-bowler strikes pins in an alley, playing the guitar behind his head and with his teeth. Generally the sound could have been better during Sunrize's gig, but when Pascoe lets loose on those solos he positively lights up the stage, banishing such concerns from my mind.

I leave the Amphitheatre feeling privileged to be that little more savvy to both the talent existent and the potential inherent in Australia's Indigenous music scene. It's an exciting time for Indigenous musos – can't wait to see what developments are in store for the next NIMAs.