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26 April 2023

The Final Thump

Home can take many forms: it can hold us in a moment; serve as a place of respite from the chaos of life; and provide a space to reflect and be ourselves.

For many of us in Melbourne, Naarm’s electronic music community, Inner Varnika festival has been a home. But what does it look like when a home has to move forward? What happens to the community that once belonged there? What will fill its place?

Over the Easter long weekend, we travelled to Inner Varnika X – the tenth and final instalment of the annual three-day event. We flocked to the grassy hills of Bookaar, winding through the dull green fields, our windscreen wipers working over-time as they coped with the slate-grey sky. We were ready to send this weekend off with one last thump.

And thump we did.

Courtesy Ethan Cassidy

Just as the weather forecast promised we would need the Kmart gumboots we scrambled to buy the night before, the sonic forecast promised a good time. The line-up welcomed international artists like Higher Intelligence Agency, Donato Dozzy and DJ Sprinkles, while giving us some of our local favourites like Sleep D, Ayebatonye, DJ Earl Grey, Andy Garvey and DJ Scorpion too. Each influencing the other, these musical pioneers have created a mindset, sound, and of course, a community for us to indulge in. Even though we were wrapped in layers of clothing, we were all exposed in some way – in our dancing, in our joy, in our sameness.

Inner Varnika X only had one stage which meant that every moment could be shared. Everyone was able to see the same artists, have the same sonic experience, and then talk about it after. One afternoon, I bumped into my friends, Daria and Sarah, who had sunk deep into the bar’s couches. We discussed the vibe on the dancefloor. “It’s so dark, therapeutic, and fun and energetic”, Daria explained. “It’s good to dance it out, good to get a bit grotty out in the mud. It’s a bit wild but it’s kind of cool.” Sarah agreed, “You’re kind of forced to let go … we’re in it together and it’s such a communal experience.”

Courtesy Ethan Cassidy

Kim Haworth is Inner Varnika’s Event Manager. She’s been facilitating the festival since 2013, when a few friends decided to throw an event together “at an unused football oval in Ruffy, near Seymour”, with around five hundred patrons. “We all loved going to doofs but wanted one that reflected the music taste of our peers, and put music at the forefront of its agenda, with one stage to encourage all attendees to gather for a communal journey.” 

A decade in the festival has a confidence and maturity that most festivals don’t have. It demands open mindedness and asks everyone to place their trust in the organisers’ sonic curation.

This trust enveloped at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, just as the main stage went quiet. Against the dark night sky, a small glasshouse, nestled into a grassy slope to the left of the dancefloor, came alive. Inside, Terre Thaemlitz, queer theorist and underground music pioneer who also performs under the stage name DJ Sprinkles, sat playing at the piano. What followed was a breath-taking 30-minute keys performance that incorporated elements of ambient and interpretive sounds.

Courtesy Ethan Cassidy

Community is a big deal here. “It’s smallish, but everyone’s on the same page”, Daria later reflected. There are no doof sticks and there is no bad behaviour on the dancefloor. Everyone knows everyone somehow. It’s a web of connections. This is deliberate. “We've never let things get so big that you can't find a mate on the dancefloor”, Kim explained.

Cath (67) and Lex (75) are integrated and valued members of the Inner Varnika community. They are icons of the Perth electronic music scene and flew to Melbourne especially for the festival. You can find them at almost every event, front-right on the dance floor, partying just as hard as everyone else. Whenever someone appears impressed or shocked to see them in the crowd, they respond, “we love to dance, and we love the music”.

When I asked Cath if she felt that there was an age-difference, she simply shook her head. “We’ve been so accepted by the electronic community, and we love their ethos”, she reveals. “We are both accepted as equals”. Leaning in, she chuckled, “We’re old, so all we want is fun. We want to dance. Inner Varnika gives us that space”. Every night, when my eyelids felt heavy and my legs trembled at the thought of more dancing, I would always cast my eyes to the front-right of the stage. Sure enough, there Cath and Lex were, always pushing on.  

Courtesy Ethan Cassidy

As follows in the tradition of weekend festivals, Saturday night was a big one. DJ Sprinkles followed up their piano set with three hours of genre-bending goodness. They brought us in and out of a meditative world and directed our journey through house, jazz and deep atmosphere, weaving field recording vocals in and out.

My friend Brooke turned to me after an hour. Complete in awe, they told me it was exactly how a dream would sound, and I couldn’t agree more. DJ Sprinkles had the crowd at their mercy – entirely engrossed, awaiting every beat.

Andy Garvey and DJ Scorpion then picked up the pace, playing back-to-back. It was a dynamic set, filled with energetic, trance and heaving techno. We were invited in. We saw the friendship unfolding behind the decks and chuckled at DJ Scorpion’s t-shirt that read “Bro, I’m filling every hole except for the one in my heart”. For the last dance set of the evening, Donato Dozzy didn’t muck around. He gave the crowd exactly what they wanted with thumping techno”.

Courtesy Ethan Cassidy

The third day was dreamy. As DJ Earl Grey (Nik) took to the decks, the clouds parted, the sun came out and the layers came off. Earl Grey gave us the perfect daytime set – downtempo, house rhythms infused with hip hop and street-soul. Wearing a plaid three-piece suit in line with the ‘Suit Sunday’ tradition, it was clear that Nik felt connected to the festival on both a personal and artistic level.

When I chatted with Nik after his set, he told me this was his third Inner Varnika festival. For the past two years, he has delivered banging afternoon sets to an enamoured crowd. “I’m still a punter when I’m here. I’m still here for the music and to see all the people that I adore”, Nik explained. “I feel really blessed to be able to contribute and do my thing on that stage… it is the biggest deal for me to play here.”

For Kim and the circle of friends at the festival’s core, Inner Varnika has been a point of consistency, which makes the end feel even more bittersweet. “I’ve had many bouts of profound sadness … Inner Varnika has meant so much to me and my wide friendship circle. We have been able to share musical experiences and come together each year to this special place even though many other things in our lives have changed.”

Despite the overwhelming sense of finality, there was also a sense of anticipation. We all wondered what will fill the hole Inner Varnika leaves in its wake. What will the next generation of artists, organisers and thumpers – those who have been musically raised at festivals like Inner Varnika – create? Kim hopes that “what we have done provides evidence to the young dreamers and creators that you can pull it off, and the results are worth it – however intangible they may be.”

Photography by Ethan Cassidy

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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