31 July 2023

Boomboxes in the paddock: tale of Canberra's bush doofs

| James Day
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A black and white image of a DJ set in the bush with gumtrees in the background and a group of people dancing in front with fake smoke swirling up in the middle.

A group of youths dance to the beats at a Sunburn bush doof on a wintry morning. Photo: Annika Ledet.

While the nationwide phenomenon of the bush doof has been passed on from generation to generation, little is known about Canberra’s own scene.

For those unaware, a doof or bush doof is an outdoor dance party that takes its name from the sound created by the electronic music played at these events.

Doofs, raves, and electronic music events are nothing new. These events were built by marginalised Black and Queer cultures in the 1990s in an effort to foster safe and inclusive social environments.

It’s a common practice for young people to get their first taste of a Canberra doof with their friends in a secluded paddock or bushland skirting the city.

According to the founders of Sunburn – a local group promoting the rich music and arts culture found within the nation’s capital – what draws people to electronic music events is a desire for creative freedom in a safe space, away from conventional bars and clubs.

“We’re really lucky in Canberra to have so much of the bush at our fingertips. This allows people to host events in new beautiful locations every time. Although great parties are hosted in other cities, such as Melbourne (Naarm) and Sydney (Eora), they don’t have as much freedom in this regard.”

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Dennis, Daniel, and Don (names withheld on request) all began Sunburn after experiencing a similar event under a bridge and falling in love with the idea of trying it themselves. But Daniel admits, “it’s also because no one would book us as DJs”.

They started their first event on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River around Tuggeranong. It was a low-key afternoon barbecue that went into the night, bringing together 80 people on their friend’s family farm. But after lugging a few big speakers back up the hill at the frosty hour of midnight, they decided their future events should be a little better organised.

Their latest doofs have all the amenities. Plenty of water, food and portable toilets, along with stages and large audio-visual art installations. Don said they’ve also made a big effort to minimise the harm that can sometimes be caused at these events.

“These events often get a bad reputation, and sometimes they can be haphazardly thrown together, which lead to safety concerns. However, there has been a clear trend of events like this getting safer and better organised and we hope we’ve contributed to this.

“We have paramedics and chillout areas at our events, as well as a team of 20 sober safety officers who go around to make sure everyone is okay.”

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While the team now has a better handle on their events, there was a time when things were not so in control. Daniel tells the tale of their second attempt at an event in 2020.

“We had released tickets a couple weeks before and were quite worried as the day approached that no one would come along. But on the day of the event, sales went wild and we were in a frenzy to get everything organised.

“As we began to enter the location, we were sprung by a bloke walking past with his dog who yelled out “you betta leave or I’m calling the rangers!’

“We all s–t the bed a bit. We drove around aimlessly, not talking, listening to ambient music as we tried to work out a plan B. Fortunately, we found a spot in one of Canberra’s vast pine forests – which is great for absorbing sound and reducing the noise for neighbours.

“After a great night – we packed down and began the worst, but most important job, picking up all the rubbish left behind. Thankfully our attendees are fantastic, and always give us a hand.

“I remember getting a big shock when a couple people came riding through on horseback – but were happy after a slice of watermelon and a quick look around.”

Sunburn acknowledges that their events are held on stolen Ngunnawal land. Sovereignty was never ceded.

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