Back in the day – mid 90’s there was a crew of people who used to gather in the Warby ranges to hang out around fire barrels, play music in a rotunda and generally get down with music and mates in the bush. At this time Hamish Skermer was on the Mittagundi Outdoor Education Centre Council. Hamish decided to lead a sub committee to raise much needed funds for this amazing outdoor education centre situated in a remote valley out the back of Falls Creek. He was studying Environmental Science at RMIT at the time, so fitted it in around study and work.
For about a week Hamish thought of holding a B & S ball. Ultimately that just didn’t feel right. It was whilst watching The Waifs and Oombah at The Public Bar in North Melbourne in March 1996 with a few friends that the inspiration was formed. It was decided that having a few bands and around 300 people would be a great way to have a fundraiser and that it should be in the bush near Wangaratta, aka Simon Wearne’s back yard.
So the next Thursday a mob of people came together to see Chris Wilson at the Royal Derby in North Fitzroy. Over a few beers a plan was created. That plan was to have a few more beers and then make a plan, involving a few beers, talking about music and talking about beers.
When the potential venue in the Warbys became unavailable, Hamish asked his folks if it might be possible to hold the party/ festival/ fundraiser at the family property Bilyana in Eldorado. To some surprise, Tony and Marg Skermer embraced the whole idea with open arms and minds. It was set for the first weekend of summer and it had a name, ‘The Festival of Folk Rhythm and Life’, which was a fancy way to say; music, mates and the bush, as well as a clever way of saying ‘red necks not wanted”.
The original committee consisted of about 11 people, none of whom had ever done much more than hold casual parties, but most of whom had had plenty of experience in enjoying a good ol’ rip roaring. For months the crew met at the Royal Oak Hotel in Nth Fitzroy. With so much discussion FRL was really a philosophically based festival. We always knew that we would be somewhere between a party and a festival which was perfect. Our mission statement from the beginning was to “develop initiatives and initiate developments concerning community environment and the arts”. From the very beginning the committee tried to implement the best environmental practices we could think of, or could find elsewhere. We were committed to sustainable thoughts and actions well before we started the event and so this was a key focus right from the start.
In the first letter written to musicians it was stated that FRL would be a place where ‘the boundaries between performer, organiser and punter were blurred and often disappeared’. It was also suggested that FRL would be a meeting place between ideas and peoples – folks from the city, high and low country, music lovers, families, students and workforce.
Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter were approached and were the first to agree to play. Their impact was massive and lasts to this day. If it was good enough for Archie then it was good enough for the rest of the bands. Chris Wilson then agreed along with Shane O’Mara. FRL was off!
Living in Fitzroy made life for a music lover simple. All people had to do was go out side and there it was, pouring out of every crack of every wall in Brunswick Street. The Punter’s Club and the Evelyn were in their prime as was the ‘Derby and a host of venues all the way to the nether regions of South Fitzroy and Fitzroy Central – the Rainbow Hotel. We aimed to marry this energy with an appreciation for the bush and community, with a weekend of rockin’ tunes and good times camping in a beautiful land.
What was to be three bands turned into 31 in the first year. Over the months preceding the festival, Hamish would calmly drop to his folks, “yeah so about 500 people, no more than 650, like 800, 950 what do you say?” Marg and Tony Skermer shook their head and wondered where Hamish got his faith.
The bands all agreed to play for free with some not even accepting petrol money.
A work party consisting of 14 young people, who had been to Mittagundi, made plans to build the stage. Led by Jimmy Findlay, Tony Skermer and Tommy Taylor, the stage was built in 6 days with six inches of rain. All the timber for the stage structure was from the property – red gums that had fallen in a recent storm and stringy barks used for rafters. All of the joists and bearers in the floor were cut on the property using a Lucas mill over a huge Grey box tree that had fallen down in front of the house. It was so wet we were getting wheelbarrows bogged.
In fact 1996 was so wet that every single day that the site was visited prior to the festival it rained, right up until the Thursday night prior. The week of building the stage really set the energy for the whole event. A heap of blood sweat and tears went into raising the poles with the only machine being a Landover winch. The floor came from a building site in Melbourne that was destined to be scrapped. In the end the stage cost all of $160 for some all- thread steel, some wire and some screws.
All pre sold tickets were rewarded with a free meal. Tommy Taylor took on the chef role and banged out a Hungi to feed the masses. With 368 tickets sold the festival opening came. Somewhere between 800 and 1100 people turned up. Needless to say we had no real idea other than it was a ripping success.
Two days before the gates were to open, Hamish suggested to the gang that we record the whole thing and release a CD. Most people let their jaws hit the floor with comments like, “FFS Hamish, lets actually get this gig off the ground before we start on something else”. Upon which Hamish came back inside and said over the phone to Tim Cole, ‘Lets do it. The CD is on.’
ragically, great mate to many and sister to co-founder Mark Wearne, Anna Wearne and her man Arun were killed in a car accident in the January directly after the first festival. For many it was the first knowledge of death and it was a life changer for all. The first CD was and is dedicated to Anna. Entitled ‘Bilyana – the recordings of the Festival of Folk Rhythm and Life’, the album has stood the test of time and still rates very highly today with cracker live performances filling its rammed 72 minutes.
A true feeling of euphoria was created and experienced by most of the people at the first festival. It was the sense of community that was created that was strongest. We opened up to the world and allowed anybody who could or would help us get over the line. From Ben Morris and Jake Brown on the pushbikes parking everybody tightly in the surrounding bush to Megan Benne scrubbing the dunnies, a whole heap of people stepped up to put the show on. Tim Cole led from the front being our chief sound engineer, MC and stage manager. When Tim finished after a few festivals a team of six replaced him!
Some of that feeling abated as the very few of us left to clean up were still finding stuff to do in the new year and we wondered if we would ever finish. There was the odd bit of swearing as we found yet another bag of rotting food left by a food trader. Fortunately some wise soul dropped the great line ‘if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger’.
The outcome of the first year was to raise $6000 + for Mittagundi and to produce 500 CD’s that would raise money for Anna Wearne Trust Fund as well as Mittagundi, whilst showcasing the artists to new ears.
Bilyana the CD was released in July 1997 to a full house at the Dan O’Connell pub in Carlton. The Dan would then go on to host another 5 albums launched over the years as well as four profile gigs as we brought the party from the bush to the city.
During 1997 the line up grew a little, with many return performers after a sterling debut, as did the number of punters. The chaos was only slightly reduced allowing the uniqueness of FRL to continue. Playing times in particular were very fluid, however another successful event was had, with most saying it was even better than the first.
Wally Cooper, a Yorta Yorta Elder opened the festival for the first time that year, which was to become custom for each year since bar one, due to miss communication on dates. It was during this first visit that Wally let the Skermer family know that he had been camping on the property for many years prior to their arrival in 1983. Wally told them that Bilyana had a special energy and was very much likely a gathering place from the old times. That made perfect sense as Hamish had felt dancing and singing energy in the paddock as a 14 year old but had been unable to give it context until that moment.
Due to the omega shape of the creek, gemstones that have poured down the valley in times of flood and dropped out in the bend have come to rest in the banks that enfold Bilyana. There is a lot of quartz, ruby, agate and gold here. Quartz is known in many cultures to have healing properties and it is believed Bilyana was a place of fertility and birth to the traditional custodians of this land. The water hole in the creek is as near to permanent as any other for miles around which is also an indicator that it was an important place to both people and wildlife.
In a chance meeting in Melbourne, again at the Public Bar, Hamish was told by aboriginal elder Bluegum, that Bilyana was part of the a webbed journey through the Australian landscape know as the Songlines. In particular Bilyana was a place where people meet and participated in culturally important times that would have featured singing and dancing.
A second CD was produced and released mid 1998 titled Murrup Wokka, named by Wally and meaning ‘Spirit ground’
Up to this time each band was graciously asked to play. However, over the years as FRL’s reputation had grown by word of mouth, we began getting more requests to play than we had spots – or so we thought. Numbers of both bands and punters grew ever so slightly and for the first time FRL had to start turning applications down. 1998 had about 45 bands compared to the 100 odd that we do now!
In essence the same crew put on the third festival in 1998, however the seemingly never ending pack up afterwards pretty much saw a near complete changeover of people committed to putting on the next one. Undeterred, Hamish returned from 7 months in the Philippines as Australian Youth Ambassador, with seven weeks to go before the first weekend of December. Bill Skermer, his elder brother joined for the first time having returned from 3 years living in the UK, and together with just five weeks and a brand new committee the 4th festival was launched and produced.
The bands were booked by walking down Brunswick Street and talking to people in every bar as well as having at least 20 return performers from the previous year. To some people’s amazement, but not their own, the Skermer brothers led a team that put a festival on that was widely regarded as ‘The best yet’ – a term heard after every festival since.
Whilst 1999 was the year that produced the least donations – just over $2000 raised for Mittagundi, it seemed that FRL had grown wings and was becoming an important celebration and gathering in its own right. It was not so much about how much was generated, but about how it was generated and the positive impact that it had on all who participated and attended, including and especially the musicians. FRL had become a musician’s festival, where sharing ideas, new collaborations and spontaneous creativity were flourishing. Fostering opportunities for growth and development for musicians is still a core value of the festival.
1999 saw FRL bring six young women to Australia from Timor Leste on a musical and leadership tour. Highlights of this were performance of traditional Timorese dance and song as well as several regional gigs. Three musicians and artists were also brought over from the Philippines and are featured on the CD Grouse.
Four festivals didn’t seem like a good number to stop at so the 5th festival for 2000 was declared ON and yet again we went ahead. A new and invigorated crew gave life to the inspiration and again hordes of selfless people provided the brawn and the brains to get the show on the road. By mid 2001 we had produced and released five CDs – Bilyana, Murrup Wokka, Gathering, Grouse and Momentum. So many great songs and great artists all recorded live on to 1-inch tape. Analogue recordings gave a great sound and also showed that we were about the 1970’s not the modern digital word.
Perhaps a highlight of 2000 was the first version of large shaded areas. Made using fencing staples and wire to attached cotton material in huge swathes, the shade gave relief to the 39 degree sun and made beer drinking more fun.
The crew that came together for the 5th festival basically stayed together for another four years pumping out 2001 – 2005 our tenth year. The original vision was either one or five. After most of the festivals in the first decade, there was serious question as to whether the festival would go on again. However by the time the 7th festival came it was decided to go for the ten. In that time we added another stage in the camping field. After getting some consultants in we decided to call this ‘The Camper’s stage’.
By this time, the short drop loos that we had used from the start were beginning to concern the local council. After a good battle, FRL was forced to reconsider the toilet situation. Admittedly the last run of short drops had what one might call a communal feel, with privacy walls only reaching chest height. Whilst some might have found this slightly embarrassing, others embraced the experience and enjoyed a great view of the festival whilst dropping a load..
The council tried their best to enforce the use of porta-loos, but we steadfastly refused. Copping two years of fines for $500 and threats to never be allowed to have gigs again, we looked to develop another solution. It was through this process that Hamish, old mate and FRL stalwart Simon Ellis and brother Jack Skermer, came up with the compost dunny block that is still in use today.
Another work party was put together with some all-star enthusiasts and ‘bam’ the original festival composting toilet block materialised. As it was built, the vision and of importance of the loos crystalised- we knew that what we had done here would have national and international significance with a reach well beyond the relevance of festivals. Needless to say, the FRL patrons received the loos for the first time with much praise and appreciation in 2002.
From the outset Hamish and Simon knew that there were many many miles to travel with these loos, and set about letting the world know with the inception of a company called Natural Event ‘changing the world from the bottom up’.
Not known for its punctuality, FRL had bands play later and later. All of a sudden bands were playing when the sun was rising and a real highlight was Breakfast with Bakehouse and a massive dance to Morph as they finished at 7am (having been told they would play at 2am). Rather than ruin the festival, this free form of timeslots allowed people to let go of schedules and just be in the present. Clocks were totally superfluous as nothing ever went to time. Embracing this timelessness has always been a big part of FRL, as if each festival could in fact be the first one. That it is only a couple of days a year, now every two years, brings a decade or two together as people link one festival to the next whilst the rest of the year seems to fade into the background….
After the tenth festival in 2005 it was again seriously considered by the Skermer family to pull the plug. A whole decade had passed with the set up of one festival starting after what seemed like minutes since the last festival had been packed away. Rather than stopping at ten, we squeezed one more out, and for the first time got close to 2000 people on site by selling about 1400 tickets. Our organic word of mouth growth had taken ten years to add on 500 people. We considered this a great thing, just like a slow roast – sweeter and juicer because it took so long.
Over this time the greatest growth came from the number of bands who wanted to play. We had kept the same ethos where all bands played for travel and catering rather than an actual talent fee. This had fully entrenched a totally egalitarian vibe amongst the bands instead of an ego driven headliner attitude where a festival values some bands exponentially more than others. FRL treated bands like all others, as great human beings with a talent that forms a vital part of the team – just like the dunny scrubbers and car parkers, the festival would be knackered with out them. Rather than deter bands from wanting to play, our method of booking bands because of attitude rather than because of their reputation and ability to put bums on seats, meant that the list of bands we didn’t put on became even larger than those we did. Well over 50% of bands returned each year and became like the furniture of the place. It’s always been a great feeling to give bands their first festival or even first gig – the only criterion was that they could actually pull it off and sound great. Thus a new application was submitted to council that permitted events for the next ten years. (the permit was used 26.2.2006)
By 2006 FRL had already been serving beer in reusable cups for several years in order to totally remove beer packaging as a waste stream. With this initiative, and other improvements including stringent policy for food stalls in relation to sourcing and waste, transitioning to as much local small brewery beer as possible and the compost loos, FRL had become the unsung leader in sustainable event management. We had also moved to total off site parking. In the early years parking was located in the bush around Bilyana. However with the change from State to National Park, and the growth of the festival through tough drought conditions we had to move with the times and reconsider our vehicle strategy. Parking was relocated to the Brendel’s paddock directly opposite the Top Cut swim hole and shuttle buses were hired in to bring people the 2km between their cars and the festival. People readjusted to this arrangement well, with an additional positive impact being a rationalisation of unnecessary luggage in following years.
It was during the very prolonged drought in 2007 that the festival was not held for the first time. The paddock had taken a smashing over the last few dry festivals. The creek had not only dried up the earliest within living memory but had also stopped flowing for the longest period that even the oldest residents of Eldorado could recall. The only thing needing a rest more than the festival grounds were the Skermers. Eleven years of non-stop festival action had taken its toll on the family as well as the land. A huge call was made for the festival to be ended. At the time it what not envisioned that FRL would come back. A few tears were shed as the final poles were removed from the ground as this marked an end of an era. A mighty source and sink of passion had come to a close.
Energy was refocused and it was during this time that the composting toilet business, Natural Event, that started at FRL really took off. Huge tours of the east coast set up the training to take the loos to the UK and Europe.
However with some summer rain in 2007 and a mild autumn in 2008 it looked like the drought had lessened its domination of the landscape and allowed consideration of a return for FRL. A whole heap of soul searching was done by the Skermer family who looked at all the highs and lows of putting the festival on. Donating money, facilitating a small community of like minded people, having so much excellent music and many generous people involved was enough of a lure to balance the lows that such a gathering produced, even incrementally over the years.
Part of the council’s consideration was that we might have to seal the road ourselves to accommodate the increase of traffic so we adjusted the ticket price up to $100 for the first time to allow us to have a pool of money to call upon if indeed we were asked / forced to spend large sums, either on the road or else where to satisfy council demands. I think this irrelevent.
Bill Skermer stepped up in 2008 and greatly assisted Hamish with the band bookings. Hamish had done this almost exclusively for the first 11 festivals, but was now neck deep in the proverbial getting Natural Event established at festivals in the UK and EU. We were still using our trusted old method of ticket sales by receiving cheques and money orders in the mail. The committee was a mix of really old school, recent and new people with a great mix of men and women, new ideas and general enthusiasm. All the Skermers, Marg, Tony, Jack Bill and Hamish were fully involved by this stage.
2008 was more of the same old good stuff. Plenty of ripping music, a great mix of genres, and some light sprinkles of chaos with some newfound order. Slowly but and surely the running list for bands began its journey from mild chaos to the resemblance of structure, however we had removed public disclosure of time slots to stop us ever being late! The crew and family all felt good about the festival’s return, and even more welcomed was the return of the break. Still unsure if it was an on going concern, a bi-annual event or a ‘when ever we feel like it festival’ the absence of the festival in 2009 was well used and appreciated.
The early months of 2010 had the family meeting again and around May it was decided to have another crack at it. Still driven by the notions of philanthropy and community support lots of the 2008 crew returned and became the glue of the current festival gang.
In 2012 it was felt for the first time in a long time that end of the festival may be around the corner. The passions that had driven the festival from the beginning had grown from just supporting Mittagundi to some wider purposes. Life had also changed for the Skermers with the beginning of the next generation. A change was made from an incorporated association to an incorporated company called ‘Old Bilyana’. The motivations were similar except this time the Skermer family decided to have “a red hot go” to make even more donations and set their sights on $100,000. This was achieved for the first time with $98,500 given away after the festival with the balance as dedicated in kind/expenses support for several fundraising stalls operating at the festival.
One hundred seemed to be the number of the day as for the first time 100 acts played. Back in the day we found it hard to say no to awesome musicians and again during 2012 we found it hard so we added another stage rather than refuse offers. Over the years it had become a real highlight for some musicians to play at FRL, with many, many applications coming from people who had said they had been coming for years or they would be coming anyway. That so many of the bands playing were previous or current attendees gave example to the original vision that FRL would be a place where the boundaries between performer punter and organisers were blurred.
Up to this point Bill Skermer had played in over a dozen acts whilst Hamish had been invited to play harmonica a few times over the years as well. Not forgetting Jack who had brought his didge on stage more than once during the legendary after festival jams. Quite a few committee members have played in bands over the years and many band members have turned up early to dig trenches, hang lights and add their non-musical touch. The jams themselves had become a festival favorite for many, turning the Sunday into a Monday morning with out any warning and nobody yawning.
We all took enormous pride in some developments during 2012. We used a digital ticketing system for the first time and radically improved the front gate system, which was done by some true superstar dudes in the parking paddock. We, as a committee and family, had some set causes we wanted to support as well as opening up to the entire musical collective to nominate particular causes that were important to them.
FRL in 2012 gave money to the Goolarbaloo mob in their fight to protect James Price Point in the Kimberly, supported a Sanitation Project developing a specific urinal facility for women and girls in Uganda, proved needed funds for N.E.S.A.Y. in Wangaratta, gave money to Mittagundi, supported Wollongarra, Songlines, regional and local CFA, helped out with an indigenous music and arts festival on Bruny Island Tasmania, supported a woman’s arts project and also again supported local community projects. We were also very proud to support the Sea Shepard campaign as well as Familia Mojo, an organization and orphanage in Kenya started by Jess White, an ex local legend.
In 2014 FRL spread its donations over:
Archie Roach Foundation
Nepalese earthquake appeal
Asylum Seeker’s Resource Centre – www.asrc.org.au
Happy Football Cambodia Australia
Wangaratta Special School – We replaced some adapted bikes that were cruelly stolen from them. (http://wangarattachronicle.com.au/2015/02/21/community-responds-to-bike-thefts)
King Valley School Cluster for Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program
Rumbalara Football and Netball Club
Give Love sanitation training program launch in Nicaragua
The CFA group 23
Our local El Dorado CFA junior training program
Over the decades FRL has donated in the order of $350,000 to a whole heap of groups and causes. Bilyana was the first festival venue in the world to have 100% composting loos, matched by complete on site composting of all organic material produced at the festival.
Stalls have to comply with a rigorously enforced packaging plan and a tireless team separates the ‘waste’ into useful streams. The last three festivals have been powered 100% by generators fuelled by locally sourced biofuel from lard – with the exception of the solar powered stage. All cups used for the bar are reusable and collectable schooners or steins, which are made by a local potter. Food stalls need to buy at least 80% locally or organically and all the coffee sold is fair trade. We take our role as innovators of sustainable practices seriously and have worked with other festivals to help them to as well.
The future of FRL is never certain. It is a year-to-year consideration. However it falls we are immensely proud and grateful for what we have been able to create and for the many, many people that have been so integral to the fabric of this wonderful gathering and journey.
Thanks for your ears and eyes
Frankie R Love