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A deadly musical smorgasbord
Arnhem Land band East Journey pose with Mandawuy Yunipingu. Picture: Glenn Campbell.

Charlie Sheen would call it "Dar-winning" - four hot August nights in the Top End covering the National Indigenous Music Awards, which fall smack-bang in the opening weekend of the Darwin Festival.

The annual 18-day (and night) arts party kicked off with a warm welcome on August 9, with a free family concert at the Botanic Gardens Amphitheatre featuring Fremantle's own San Cisco, West Arnhem Land rockers Nabarlek and Cairns psych-rock sensations, the Medics.

The Medics have had raves for their debut album, Foundations, and are like a louder, looser and far more dangerous version of the Temper Trap in the live setting. Given that their sound is far removed from what we've come to expect from indigenous musicians, much was made of the fact that drummer Jindhu Laurie's father is Bunna Laurie, of Coloured Stone fame.

They would deservedly dominate the NIMAs in two days' time, but were perhaps overshadowed on this night by San Cisco, who prompted a festive stage swarm during their first ever performance in Darwin (completing the set of Australian capitals, according to singer Jordi Davieson).

After security tried to stop two exuberant types from dancing during the pop-tastic Rocket Ship, dozens of punters joined them in a show of solidarity. Hundreds soon leapt up, defying the now powerless guards during a smile-inducing rendition of San Cisco's Triple J hit, Awkward.

Nabarlek were equally mob-pleasing, the big garage band without a garage dishing up R&B-tinged rock, including a paean to Kakadu's Highway 21. The unaffected rock got hundreds of locals on their feet, as the three-hour gig wound down.

Some decided to keep on dancing and headed over to the Spiegeltent, where Melbourne doo-wop and soul group Clairy Browne and the Banging' Rackettes dished up old-school sounds, complete with synchronised dance moves from Browne and her three backing singers.

This mix of indigenous and non-indigenous, old and new sounds and musicians was a constant in Darwin. San Cisco and Brisbane's Last Dinosaurs took their sprightly brand of indie-pop to the open-air Lighthouse venue, which also housed the popular and sexy La Soiree cabaret throughout the festival. Tiwi Islanders B2M (Bathurst to Melville) showcased their positive and powerful hip-hop in the Spiegeltent, which last Sunday hosted the "traditional contemporary" (or is it "contemporary traditional") music of Shellie Morris and the Yanyuwa Songwomen.

Morris was adopted as a baby and raised in Sydney. She returned to Darwin in the 1990s, performing with Yothu Yindi and Warumpi Band, and eventually earned awards in the Northern Territory Indigenous Music Awards (the forerunner to the national gongs) for her own music. Morris has reconnected with her Borroloola family, with whom she performed the traditional songs and stories of their homeland. Some of these were collected on the NIMA-winning The Song Peoples Sessions album, recorded in community on a single keyboard. Morris described the process as "Casio dreaming".

Jokes aside, and there were plenty of laughs in the packed Spiegeltent, Morris and company's performance of traditional songs in their language with ambient, almost electronic backing was deeply captivating.

While visual arts, theatre and dance also had a strong presence at this year's Darwin Festival, music seemed to dominate once the sun hit the Timor Sea. Big-name artists, including Megan Washington, Kate Miller-Heidke, Holly Throsby, Lanie Lane and country legend Kenny Rogers (who plays Perth on Tuesday) will all have performed by festival's end on August 26. The premier NT cultural event sure covers a lot of territory.

But lots of Darwin acts also get their moment in the spotlight, although an unruly local thrash-metal outfit sent many scurrying out of the late-night Happy Yess bar on Friday night.

The best post-midnight show was undoubtedly the Darwin All Stars' soul night in the Spiegeltent after the NIMAs, mainly because seeing members of Elcho Island rock band East Journey doing "chooky" dance moves to Motown and Stax covers was precisely the cross-cultural moment festivals are built on. In a word - deadly.