Interview with Elverina Johnson, Singer, Producer and Indigenous Arts and Culture Leader

Elverina Johnson is a highly respected Gurugulu and Indinji Gimuy woman from Yarrabah in far north Queensland – and one of Australia’s most highly respected Indigenous artists. With creative talents spanning the spectrum of visual and performing arts, Elverina has been involved in the arts industry for over 30 years as a singer, songwriter, playwright, actor, photographer and artist.

She believes that the arts can empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and restore a genuine sense of pride in their culture and communities, and works with youth and Elders alike to promote cultural respect and integrity.

Elverina volunteers her time to address critical social issues impacting on the lives of people in Indigenous communities, living true to her traditional family name -Bunya Badjil – which means “Good Woman”.


Hi Elverina, thank you for chatting with us today. You have an extensive career in regional arts spanning over thirty years. How did you first get started?

I was actually thinking about this the other day. I come from a family that are into music and are creative. Growing up, my grandmother was a soprano singer in the church choir, my mum sews and is a singer as well, all my uncles are all musicians and sing; I kind of grew up in a very creative environment.

When I was in primary school, I was part of the school choir. My music teacher noticed something in me, so I was chosen to be part of a large event in Cairns, singing, but I didn’t go. I didn’t want to go, so obviously I didn’t see what he could see. I remember at school I used to draw a lot in class rather than paying attention. I think I really started singing in church with my mum; we grew up with that Christian faith foundation. I started writing my own songs when I was maybe 17/18, but I don’t think I took it seriously. What teenager takes anything seriously? Then I started becoming interested in courses around the arts. Without actually knowing what I was doing, I ended up travelling to Melbourne where I completed a graduate certificate at Melbourne University in Indigenous Arts Management.

Over the years, I’ve just been sort of trickling into different genres in the arts. I was working for QPAC; they were interested in what I was doing, if I had any particular story I wanted out get out there etc. I talked about a story I had been told about at a very young age, a story I had heard from my grandmother that was about the Yarrabah Brass Band. That is how it all started. I was employed by QPAC to research the history of the Indigenous Brass Bands, Yarrabah Brass Band in particular. There wasn’t a lot of stuff out there, so I had to do a lot of digging and in turn found out that was actually a few Indigenous Brass Bands throughout Queensland.


So you’ve been with the Yarrabah Band festival from the very beginning?

I’ve been with the festival from, yeah, I think, from the very start.


How many years is that now?

I think this is the seventh year. The first year I was part of the some of the consulting. When James Morrison first came up and started thinking about it with Greg Fourmile that was the new Brass Band. In the the second year, I started to get a bit more involved and was contracted in to do the local coordinating with the festival. This year I’m producing it.


That actually leads nicely into my next question. This year you were appointed as the first Aboriginal Producer for QMF, with the newly renamed Yarrabah Music and Cultural Festival. Having been a part of the festival from conception, what direction do you see the festival going in this year?

Obviously, I’d love for the festival to become fully sustainable and be more community managed so that eventually we can run and manage the festival within our own community, with at least 95-100 percentage local people working on the festival. Previously, a QMF team from Brisbane has always come up, but in 2019 since I’ve been on, I’ve made a few changes. Part of that process, which has always been part of my vision for QMF, is to train up locals in areas so that eventually they could be comfortable in being able to take over those positions. We have about 6 or 7 positions established this year for local people.


Are you seeing a new wave, or a younger generation come into the festival to fill these roles or is it people who have been previously involved?

We’ve always had local workers in terms of the grounds crew, but this year there’s been more specific roles for local people. We now have an Assistant Stage Manager, Assistant Site Manager, and even this year, that I’m very happy about, is we have a local young fella who’s going to be Assistant Sound Engineer. This is part of our strategy to engage our local people so that long term they’ll become part of the production crew. The training is being provided through QMF and I’ll be mentoring them as well. There’s been some good feedback since we’ve done it, about having local people in place; some of them have said, ‘we’ve been working in local events’, but this is bigger again and completely different. They are getting a completely different perspective on how festivals run and it’s completely different to a local event where you can be lenient about things. They are learning a lot about time management and risk assessments, all that kind of fun stuff. The important things that you can’t be slack about.

It should be the basis of any festival in regional areas and within community that you have a long-term goal to train up local people. You need to have people on the ground that have a relationship with the community that live there, that know the stories, who act as a go-between between the community and the festival or the hosting organisation. That helps to build capacity and it builds trust and knowledge, for both sides.

The festival has been something that has brought the community together. People look forward to it because we don’t have multiple high-level festivals held throughout the year. There’s this one major festival to look forward to and each time people are always excited about who’s coming to perform this year. People are already excited about having Yothu Yindi, so we’re expecting a lot more people from other communities to come. We’ve already had a lot of feedback from people coming from the Cape, from Townsville, to see Yothu Yindi and to see Baker Boy.

I’m hoping Yarrabah will have the profile of being the festival for major artists and they’ll be able to say ‘If you haven’t done Yarrabah, you haven’t done festivals!’ It’s also an opportunity for local artists to get up there. This year we’ve changed our format as well so as part of the strategy to lift local bands game we’re putting them in between the major artists, not just as beginning acts so that they get the experience of the lights, the big crowd etc. Before the festival when I go back, I’ll be having a meeting with those bands and saying ‘This is your chance to shine and this is the chance to lift your game!’

For me, everything that I’m doing, there’s a purpose in it. It’s all about supporting our local artists, giving community a chance to own it a bit more and giving festivalgoers the opportunity to engage in some of the cultural activities, not just the music but experience Yarrabah in a different way. This year there’s going to be cultural workshops, such as spear-making and weaving workshops. The Yarrabah Arts Precinct is having something on the Friday as a lead way into the festival to complement it, but also on the Saturday before the actual festival starts there’ll be an exhibition opening. It’s eventually going to turn into one whole weekend of festivities.

I’m excited about bringing the new concepts in and to see how that’s going to go. Every year we’ve had the VIP event separated from the actual festival itself, so this year we’ve taken that separation out and brought in what we’re now calling The Elders Engagement Activities, for the VIPs when they first come through the gate. This year they’ll spend some time, sit with the elders who will welcome them, have a cup of tea and then they get the chance to go on and be part of the exhibition opening, the rainforest walk and, if they’re up to it, they can go join in some of the cultural workshops. This year we want the VIPs to feel part of the festival and experience the love, the culture and the workshops as well as mingling with the people.


That sounds amazing Elverina! I also wanted to talk to you about your recent trip to Indonesia as a part of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation Program. Can you tell me a little bit about the program and your experiences?

It’s a fifteen-month program. All applicants go through a selection process, I think they get up to 300-400 applicants per year and they boil that down to 30? I applied and got through with my sponsor, the Australia Council for the Arts. There’s five parts to the program. The first part they take you to the Kimberleys and we spent two weeks out there; it was all learning about yourself and all about First Nations and the country of Australia, the foundations around that and the beautiful stories. The second part is you go to another place, here in Australia, where you debrief about the first trip and talk about some issues that may have been raised. The third part of the program goes international; I’ve just come back from Indonesia, where I spent two weeks as part of the program engaging with local leaders and entrepreneurs and seeing what they are doing. It’s about being a leader, specifically a leader within your field. Most of the applicants were all farmers so I learned a lot about sheep and cattle on that trip! There were also doctors, farmers, artists, local councillors; there was a good variety of people in different leadership roles, which is really good, so it’s very diverse.

Going over to Indonesia was quite an experience, it was very different from Australia. Our host organisations and local guides took us for visits to farms and tea plantations. We had two different fashion shows in one day; going to the fashion show and actually seeing artists doing a live batik demonstration, it was really an experience. There were all different things we went to see.

This is our Fourth block now, so we have one more to go. The final part of the program is in Canberra. We spend a week basically talking about the whole program and reflecting on what we have learned. The outcome of the program is that we also have to be working on some kind of initiative, which you have to present in Canberra. We have one where we are working as a whole team based around communicating with schools and getting schools them more involved within community, and then we graduate while still in Canberra.


What is next for Elverina? You’ve got you the leadership program, Yarrabah Music and Cultural Festival, do you have anything else on the cards?

I’ve got a lot of stuff on the cards! I’m a guest speaker at a women’s leadership program in Cairns at the end of the year called Radiance. I’m also involved in First Nations fashion design, where I was selected from two other women to be part of an inaugural First Nations fashion company showcasing designs; it’s a good busy. What artist doesn’t have a few things happening? I’ve done a couple of singing gigs with Jessie Lloyd and we’ve been working on a new project recently, but that’s still in the development stage, as well as the fashion stuff and I’m also involved with local leadership in the community. As well, I have four kids and two grandsons. When I’m not doing all those things I like to go fishing to relax.


You definitely sound very busy so I won’t keep you any longer. Thanks again for chatting with us today and have a safe trip back up North.


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