The Rostron family is in its element thrashing guitars, riding on the back of troupes and hunting on stone country in Central West Arnhem.
Victor Rostron, his four sons and nephew make up the band Wildfire Manwurrk, which last week won two National Indigenous Music Awards.
Their song Mararradj took out the community film clip award, and shows the band painting rock art, singing around a campfire, and setting fire to the country, as they play guitar in creek beds and dance on top of the Arnhem Land escarpment.
The band has been 12 years in the making, and Mr Rostron says although making the film clip in remote Arnhem Land was a “really, really big struggle for everyone”, it is a work of great integrity.
“The story, the songlines, everything [is] there, and that’s where we should be doing it, on country,” Mr Rostron said.
From a cave in the middle of nowhere
Mr Rostron remembers the night his family started creating the sound that would become Wildfire Manwurrk.
“We got a generator and got a little second-hand instrument, we went bush — middle of nowhere — and then started making noise,” he said.
Lighting a massive fire behind them, they jammed.
Weaving ancient stories and songlines, with metal, rock, and punk music, something magical happened out there on stone country.
“That’s where we start the band from, the bush, middle of nowhere,” Mr Rostron said.
The band started playing as Karrkad Kanjdji or KK band, doing gigs at stations and festivals in the Northern Territory for years before recording its first EP, The Next Future, in 2021 under its new name Wildfire Manwurrk.
‘The only chance we’ve got’
The Rostrons and their extended family are some of the last speakers of Kune, an endangered dialect of the Bininj Kunwork language, which is spoken to the south of Maningrida.
“We don’t want to lose that language, our Kune, because some languages [are] already gone,” Mr Rostron said.
The members of Wildfire Manwurrk each speak at least five Indigenous languages, and most of their songs are in Kune language.
“We want to sing in our language so people can hear we still got that language and culture,” Mr Rostron said.
Australia has one of the fastest rates of language loss in the world.
While more than 250 Indigenous languages were spoken prior to colonisation, only 40 now survive, according to a 2021 study by the Australian National University.
“We got a big, big chance, that’s the only chance we got, through music,” Mr Rostron said.
“We want to keep that language and culture really strong.”
‘Heartbreak is really powerful’
The band is passionate about sharing traditional knowledge alongside the harsh contemporary realities its community faces.
Lead singer Sires Rostron, 31, said his song Don’t Smoke was inspired by what he saw in community.
“I saw parents smoking cigarettes near children,” he said.
“That’s so bad, small children smelling the smoke, bad for their health.”
He wanted to send a message.
“I was thinking, I’ve got to make this song so parents can listen and think, ‘Ah yeah, don’t smoke cigarettes near children, our children.'”
Mr Rostron agrees that health problems, from smoking and heart disease to diabetes and mental health are overwhelming in community, and their impacts are felt intimately.
“In every remote community there are suicides. And suicide is not our culture, it’s really new for us mob,” Mr Rostron said.
After speaking about the impact of suicide at Wildfire Manwurrk performances for years, tragedy hit Mr Rostron last month when he lost his eldest daughter to suicide.
“Heartbreak is really powerful,” he said.
While Mr Rostron continues to grieve, he emphasises “the healthy country behind us” is one of his key sources of strength.
“Always three things: music, art, and country. Put together, they make you strong and powerful,” he said.
The family are traditional owners of Mimih ceremony, and mimih creation spirits are depicted in rock art that dates back 50,000 years.
Mr Rostron and Jay Jarrupula Rostron, mother of Mr Rostron’s sons in the band, are respected artists and continue the family tradition of painting rock art on country.
Most of the family works as rangers as well as playing music, and Mr Rostron’s younger daughter Cindy Rostron, 18, has established a second career as a model.
Frequently flying between Maningrida and Sydney Ms Rostron models for major labels, has appeared on the cover of Vogue, and has more than 150,000 TikTok followers.
Balanda and Bininj, Whitefella and Blackfella, way
Despite the family’s gradually growing public profile, the challenges of walking in two cultures and worlds are constant.
“For bush people, it is really hard to get out from the Northern Territory,” Mr Rostron said.
In the wet season, roads out of Maningrida are inaccessible, and every time the band of six leaves its community, it costs tens of thousands of dollars in flights alone, which is almost impossible to finance.
“I’ll be honest, it’s really hard for bush people like us trying to get funding,” Mr Rostron said.
Even though Maningrida has money for arts and community development, the band struggled to find funding to record its music, eventually getting support through East Coast connections.
Recording its EP in the NSW North Coast town of Mullumbimby in 2021 was the first time most of the band had left the Northern Territory.
“It feel different down there, we were a little bit homesick for the NT. It was a big change for us mob,” Sires Rostron said.
Natalie Carey, who has co-managed the band for 10 years with Mr Rostron, says Wildfire Manwurrk’s rise has been slow and deliberate, prioritising integrity and self-determination.
“Victor is much more than just the face and voice of the band, he’s controlling where it goes,” she said.
As Mr Rostron learns management skills, Ms Carey says he is starting to build up the next generation.
“Victor is excited to be a role model for bands coming out of community, mentoring them around how the music industry works,” Ms Carey said.
Mr Rostron’s vision is bigger than his own family. He dreams of a network of independent “bush musicians”, who can create a future by celebrating and sharing knowledge and culture through music.
“We’ve been talking about working in double tools, Balanda and Bininj, Whiteman and Blackfella, and we did it,” Mr Rostron said.
Wildfire Manwurrk plans to record a second EP and make its first east coast tour in 2024.