‘I’m not a performer,’ Coral Vorbach says. ‘I learned piano for years, and violin, but I’d never perform. I’m a listener. And an organiser – I work behind the scenes.’
And organise is what she did. She and her partner Graeme Fryer joined the Yuin Folk Club in 1998. They had arrived here from Melbourne in 1997, looking for a rural life, and had fallen in love with a house on Lyrebird Ridge Road in Coolagolite. Coral had been a long-time friend of local legend Margaret Opie, who lived in Wandella at the time, and she’d been involved with folk music since the 60s. She also had a background in publicity and organising events. ‘Join the Folk Club, Margaret told us.’
The Yuin Folk Club had held the first Cobargo Folk Festival in 1996. A selection panel decided which acts they wanted to invite. From 2002, Coral’s job was to chase them down and book them. Graeme was a Festival Director from 2003 to 2012.
A highlight for her? ‘Definitely Archie Roach. But so many great performers over the years.’ She smiles at the memory.
‘In 2002 it rained and rained. I remember standing on the Cobargo Bermagui Road, ankle-deep in water, trying to hold up a marquee while the canopy filled up – it was about to collapse. It was hard on the volunteers. There was mud everywhere. And the only usable toilets were at the pub.’
At the time the Festival was held in multiple venues in and around Cobargo – cafés, the two halls, marquees – and the footpaths were crowded with buskers and folkies. ‘But it was getting too big,’ says Coral, ‘and there was the risk of someone being injured crossing the highway. Eventually the police refused to give us approval to hold it in town and we decided to move the 2004 Festival to the Showground – there were toilets, there was shelter. It was disappointing because people loved the village atmosphere.’
But it only took one Festival for people to see it was a good decision. ‘At that stage Reg Dew got involved. He had this wealth of experience setting up stages for major acts around the world – the Rolling Stones, ACDC, Madonna, Michael Jackson, the Three Tenors … so he had some wonderful connections too.’
But for Coral, Triangle life hasn’t all been about the Festival, or music. She’s always been a stalwart of local Labor, most recently President of the Bermagui Cobargo Branch. ‘It’s a family thing. I used to go campaigning with my father. There were times, early on, when I got disillusioned and moved away, but I always seemed to come back.’
Two events stand out for Coral personally. ‘In 1972 I had a really good friend, Geoff Mullen, who was in gaol for being a conscientious objector. Whitlam won the election and we thought that Geoff would be out in a few weeks. But he was out two days later! I re-joined the Party that day and I’ve been a member ever since.’
The other event was the election of Bob Hawke in 1983. It was that night that Coral and Graeme consolidated their relationship – they had been friends for years.
But back to the music. In 2010 Coral and Graeme were recognised with Bega Valley Medallion Awards for Community Service – for their Folk Festival work. ‘I stood down as the Organiser in 2014. They needed someone younger. But I stayed on the committee.’
Coral was also the editor of Cornstalk, the monthly newsletter of the Folk Federation of NSW, from 2002 to 2020. She is a Life Member of the Folk Federation of NSW for her services to folk music, and a Life Member of Yuin Folk Club. She has also been heavily involved with Rural Australians for Refugees, and with saving King’s Theatre, the lovely art deco cinema in Bega.
‘I sometimes feel a bit boring,’ she says. ‘I mean, people write, or paint, or play music … but I organise. I suppose I make things happen. And that’s my passion.
‘We had to cancel the 2020 Festival because the Showground was being used for the bushfire relief effort and many of our volunteers were directly affected by the fires or were helping in the relief and recovery work. Graeme and I had evacuated from Coolagolite on New Year’s Eve and they wouldn’t let us go back. And Graeme had become very ill. He was in hospital in Bega and I stayed with friends in Quaama. Eventually he was airlifted to Canberra. He died that February.’
Then there was 2021, and COVID-19 put paid to any events. But this year the committee was determined that the show would go on.
‘It was in May,’ says Coral. ‘It was so cold. I was watching Warren Foster’s Koori dancers and I wanted to rush out and put blankets around their shoulders! From now on it will be in March again. But it’s back!’
Yes, it’s back, but its return was bittersweet – many past and present committee members had lost their homes in the fires. And it was Coral’s first Festival without Graeme.
‘But it’s back,’ says Coral, ‘and it’s joyous. Yes, that’s the word – joyous.’