An Ode to Woodford Folk Festival
It was barely 11 in the morning, but the tent was crammed with people. Bums were packed onto seats and patches of grass; some were even craning their necks from the outside to get a glimpse of Archie Roach.
“If you wanna use that word,” said Archie, a proud Gunditjmara/Bundjalung man, singer-songwriter and the most recent recipient of Victoria’s Australian of the Year Award. He stroked his chin.
“Some people misappropriate it… like government.”
He was met with howls of laughter.
“We’re all descendants from the original people of the earth. Chronologically, people moved away from that place, some people stayed, and it’s simple to retrace your footsteps … A lot of things that divide people are just a construct. We’re all pretty much one mob split up into different factions, but we come back together. So that’s a good way of looking at it, if you wanna call it reconciliation.”
Woodford Folk Festival has a long history of people together – more than 130,000 people a year, to be precise. It all starts with the tree planting. One weekend in May, an intimate, multi-layered gathering takes place on the site of what once was a barren and degraded dairy farm in south-east Queensland – now a lovingly regenerated 560-acre block covered with 120,000 trees and plants.
Next, in early December, comes the building of the village. From all over the world, hundreds of volunteers and contractors come together to create Woodfordia – a vibrant, sprawling and eclectic wonderland where the arts, humanities and folklore rule.
All this finishes the day after Christmas, just in time for everyone to digest that extra slice of pavlova, pack up their camping gear and hit the road – families and singletons, children and the elderly, veterans and first-timers alike. Though, as a sparkling-eyed septuagenarian told us on his way to an early-morning meditation class, “Once you’ve been to Woodford once, you’ll come forever.”
And why wouldn’t you? Attending Woodford is like stepping into an alternate universe – somewhere you can escape the bland mundanities of everyday life and our country’s stifling politics in order to coexist for a week in a throbbing, multilayered community. Where else do towering papier-mâché Elders roam the lands, watching over everyone as custodians of the festival? In what other world do you run around dodging jellyfish ladies on fairy light stilts trying to wrap their glowing tentacles around you? At what large Australian gathering is the only invasive authority presence old fashioned British Police officers, PC Plod style, and humans dressed as enormous sniffer dogs?
Safety is perhaps one of the best parts of the festival: there isn’t any need for excessive police presence or control, as the atmosphere is warm, inclusive and feels mostly drug-free. Sure, there are tents and bars that go off until the early the wee hours of the morning, but none of this gives way to any unsafe or inappropriate behavior.
At Woodford, you can rise with the sun for a yoga class, listen to a spot of poetry over breakfast, do a jig to a troupe of fiddle-players in a sea of hundreds, handwrite a letter to a crush and have postie deliver it to them by bike, and get Dr Karl to explain the answers to the universe and any other itchy questions that have been burning a hole in your brain all year.
After lunch – which could be a steaming bowl of pho, a buttery Yemeni wrap or a zesty plate of oysters – you can watch a troupe of impossibly strong women perform acrobatics, learn how to make a didgeridoo, get lost in meditation deep within the labyrinth, attend a Harlem jazz dance class or tap your feet to Palestinian Dabke.
Later, you might debate world issues with a politician, giggle at a ventriloquist or a round of comedy, whittle away the evening listening to a mournful Irish orchestra over a bottle of red, join a late-night sound bath and boogie with maracas at the Pineapple Lounge, all before ringing in the new year with three minutes of silence: perhaps the most cherished and magical moment of the whole festival.
The traditional Custodians of the land on which Woodford is held are members of the Jinibara Nation, and songlines run throughout the festival. In workshops, dance, ceremony grounds, performance, visual arts, traditional healing, campfire story circles and discussion, the foundation cultures of Indigenous nations across Australia and indeed the globe are welcomed.
Since its inception in 1987 at the Malaney Showgrounds – the brainchild of Bill Hauritz – Woodford’s only real problem has been the creation of greater and more fantastic infrastructure to cater to its staggering number of attendees, performances and events. In 1998, Bill and his partner Amanda Jackes summarised the festival’s marketing objective with the following words:
“So sell $2 million dollars in tickets for people to come and camp in an ill-prepared campsite, use less than quality amenities, in either searing heat or teeming rain for a week to listen to a host of obscure artists. The advertising budget is zero.”
Fast-forward to the turn of 2019/2020 though, and the amenities are fabulous. Showers, toilets and even hot water are plentiful, with perhaps the most impressive addition being Lake Gkula. Named after one of Woodford’s principal spokespeople, Uncle Noel Blair (whose indigenous name Gkula means koala), the lake is teeming with plants, fish and crustaceans. Its constant water flow and high levels of oxygen ensure the waters are purified much the same way as human kidneys, and its cooling depths provided a very welcome relief from too much dancing.
There is something charming about people so dedicated to creating a space for freedom of creative expression to come together and trade reality for the ethereal. A feeling of collective consciousness permeates the festival grounds, with everyone unafraid to express their true selves and get intimate, earthy and wild for a week.
There is a lot we can learn from the whimsical world of Woodford, from how important it is for community to gather together, for people to enjoy music and arts from all different cultures, to try new flavours and new things, and to listen to stories, to create our own stories, and to agree to do it all again the following year.
“We are all story,” continued Archie. The crowd was hanging onto every word. “We all come from story. We might come and go as people, but story remains in the land, in the birds, in the animals, in the fishes in the sea. Story continues through them, even if we all disappear from the planet, from this earth, it will replenish itself and story will remain. So yeah – we need to talk about each other and hear each other’s story. Music is a good way to do it, through song, through story, through dance, art.”