Musician Emily Wurramara is a Warnindilyakwa woman from Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island in the Northern Territory. Wurramara has deep roots in the two Gulf of Carpentaria islands, dating back to her grandmother and grandfather, who both grew up on Groote and Bickerton.
In a new video produced by Rolling Stone Australia and Tourism NT, Wurramara shares her affection for the islands’ natural wonders and the cultural highlights of the NT.
Growing up on Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island, Wurramara spent a lot of time at the beach. “The water for us is very sacred,” she says. “A lot of the men in my family are hunters, so they’d go on the beach, on the canoes, and they’d go hunting for turtle, for dugong or for stingray.”
A lot of Warnindilyakwa songlines run through the sea. Songlines are essentially directions for travel held within Indigenous songs. Generations of First Nations people have memorised songs in order to reach certain destinations. Songlines also possess spiritual significance, each containing and preserving specific ancestral stories.
As a kid, Wurramara’s grandparents would take her fishing at Jagged Head Point, on Groote Eylandt’s northeast arm. “That’s an amazing place,” she says. “You can literally put your hand in and you come out with clams and oysters. It’s so magical—it’s like a marketplace for fish.”
Wurramara now lives on the island of Lutruwita/Trowunna (Tasmania) and has previously lived in Meanjin (Brisbane). But returning to the red landscape of Groote Eylandt always conjures up a lot of emotion.
“When you see that dirt … it’s a peaceful feeling—I feel really grounded and I feel really at home,” she says. “It stains my skin, so I try to rub red dirt a lot on myself before I go back to Hobart.”
Wurramara is a nationally recognised songwriter and performer. Her debut album, Milyakburra, named for the Bickerton Island community in which she grew up, won the 2019 ARIA Award for Best Independent Blues and Roots Album. Milyakburra was nominated for Best Blues & Roots Album at the 2018 ARIA Awards and Album of the Year at the National Indigenous Music Awards.
Wurramara was recently invited to record a version of The Wiggles’ “Dressing Up” for the group’s ReWiggled compilation. In February of this year, Wurramara released her own collection of children’s songs, titled Ayarra Emeba (Calm Songs). The four song release features adaptations of popular Australian nursery rhymes, including “Kookaburra”, sung by Wurramara in Anindilyakwa language.
Wurramara is now 26 years old and has been a touring artist for more than half a dozen years. Many of her favourite places to perform are in the NT, including Garma Festival, held at Gulkula, in north-east Arnhem Land.
Garma was conceived by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, a community organisation established in 1990 to promote Yolŋu cultural development. Garma prides itself on being Australia’s “leading Indigenous cultural exchange event.” After two years of cancellations, Garma 2022 will take place from Friday 29 July – Monday 1 August, 2022.
“Every time I go there, it’s just all family and it’s all love and it’s so lovely to see everyone coming together from the communities,” says Wurramara
Another of Wurramara’s favourite events is Walking With Spirits, held at Beswick Falls, just outside of the remote Indigenous community of Beswick/Wugularr, approximately an hour’s drive south east of Katherine. Walking With Spirits is a traditional Corroboree organised by Djilpin Arts, a not-for-profit organisation that maintains, develops and promotes the art and culture of the Beswick/Wugularr community.
Djilpin Arts oversees the Ghunmarn Culture Centre, a place where visitors can engage with local people and artists and gain insight into traditional life and culture in Wugularr. Ghunmarn Culture Centre houses the Blanasi Collection, a permanent collection of Indigenous artworks in the West Arnhem painting style.
Wurramara also has a soft spot for Darwin Festival, an annual event held in the city’s vibrant CBD. This year’s Darwin Festival is locked in for 4-21 August, right in the middle of the Territory’s dry season. August in Darwin is dry, warm and sunny. The nights are cool by NT standards, but Darwin Festival promotes itself with the promise of “hot winter nights”.
The 2022 line-up is yet to be announced, but previous instalments have featured performers such as Emma Donovan & The Putbacks, Darwin Symphony Orchestra and Flight Facilities, as well as comedians Hannah Gadsby and Ivan Aristeguieta. Each year, the festival hub, Festival Park, is set up on the corner of Smith St and Harry Chan Ave in the Darwin CBD. It’s a luxurious area with bars, dining options and comfortable seating, open day and night throughout the festival.
“There is so much going on,” says Wurramara of Darwin Festival. “It’s such a beautiful way to experience the Northern Territory.”
Wurramara has performed at music festivals all over the country, from Woodford Folk Festival to Dashville Skyline, Port Fairy Folk Festival and Adelaide Festival. She’s played gigs in Canada and Ireland and supported the likes of Midnight Oil, Icehouse, Rob Thomas and Cat Empire. But going back home to perform in the Northern Territory is always an extra special experience.
“The land is so wet with spirit, with song,” she says. “It’s really beautiful to see everyone coming together on the land and just dancing and having fun.”
She adds, “It’s just who we are as mob. We’re peaceful, we’re beautiful, we’re thriving.”