Blackfella/Whitefella: the Warumpi Band

Until about five years ago, I was totally ignorant of Australian rock ‘n’ roll. Then I watched the closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics, and everything changed. I guess I’d heard of Midnight Oil, but didn’t know anything about them, including the fact that they were Australian. But when they took the stage in black T-shirts and warmups emblazoned with the white word “SORRY,” they caught my attention quickly. When they launched into “Beds are Burning,” they knocked me over.

The time has come to say fair’s fair
To pay the rent now, to pay our share
The time has come, a fact’s a fact
It belongs to them, let’s give it back.

I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. Was this band for real? Where were they coming from?

A quick search of the Internet confirmed the obvious: the Oils were a politically active band with a long history of engagement with Aboriginal issues. The songs on their albumDiesel and Dust, including with the land rights anthem “Beds are Burning,” repeatedly addressed themes of Aborginal land. There were songs with titles like “Warakurna” and “Bullroarer.” And there was “The Dead Heart,” commissioned by the Mutitjulu community for the celebration at the handover of Uluru to its traditional owners in 1985. To my surprise, Peter Garrett, the long bald singer of the band, had been invited to give the Australia Day Address in 1998, and he spoke passionately about the place of indigenous people in the Australian nation. And I also discovered that Diesel and Dust had emerged from a tour the band had taken through communities in the Western Desert and Arnhem Land with an Aboriginal rock ‘n’ roll group called the Warumpi Band.

Tracking down the Warumpi Band proved a little harder, and in fact it wasn’t until we returned to Australia in 2001 that I found their CDs in a small shop in Brisbane. (They’re also available now online from Skinnyfish Music, in the “Indigenous Roots “section.) But the search was definitely worth the wait, and the effort.

The Warumpi Band started life in Papunya and indeed were known for a long time simply as “that Papunya Band,” or “Warumpinya band” in the local Kriol. Like most fledgling rock ‘n’ roll outfits, they were a cover band, performing songs by acts like Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, and indeed, those roots are as evident in their later recordings as the Aboriginal influences. The original line-up included Sammy Butcher Tjapanangka on guitar and bass, Neil Murray, a whitefella from western Victoria who’d gone to Papunya as a schoolteacher, on guitar and vocals, and George Rrurrambu in the lead singer/frontman slot. (Rrurrambu is the son of Gumatj artist Charlie Matjuwi from Elcho Island, and the brother of Peter Datjin.) The band’s rhythm section changed personnel many times over the years, but originally included Sammy’s brother Gordon Butcher on drums.

In 1983 the Warumpi Band made history of sorts by releasing the first rock record in an Aboriginal language. The A side was “Jailanguru Pakarnu” (Out from Jail), and it many ways it’s a rock ‘n’ roll classic: a twelve-bar blues structure and the simple story of a young man who sings “Today I just got out from jail/I’m going to Papunya now/I’m going in a hurry for my girl is waiting/I’m gonna sit down good–no more fighting/Today I’ll be together with my family.” Except for the reference to Papunya and the fact that the lyrics are sung in Luritja, this could be the lament of any sorry Southerner in the USA: the jailhouse has been an icon of the blues as long as there’s been blues to be had.

The flip side of the single stands, in my mind, as the best song the Warumpis ever recorded, “Kintorelakutu.” If the homelands or outstation movement needed an anthem, the Warumpi Band gave it one with this song. A crisp chopping guitar riff opens the song, before the bass and drums rumble in underneath and propel the verse along like trucks racing westwards through the desert. The verses lament the lot of the Western Desert people at Papunya. “After drinking grog we always start fighting/At that place in the east we are becoming nothing/We are yearning for our own country.” The chorus proposes the solution: we must go west to Kintore. After what’s known in the trade as a “blistering guitar solo,” the four-beats-to-the-measure pounding of guitar and bass snaps into a single staccato chop on the first downbeat, the drums roll on, and Rrurrambu’s vocal goes into overdrive:

Anangu tjuta! Anangu tjuta!
Irritja nyinapayi ngurra panya Walangurru
Kuwarrilatju nyinanyilpi Kuwarrilatju nyinanyilpi
Tjamaku ngurrangka ngurra panya Kintorela
Arralaka! Wilurarra! Kintorelakutu!

(Mobs of people! Mobs of people!
Those olden times ones always lived at that same place–Kintore
Finally now we are sitting. Finally now we are sitting at our
Grandfather’s camp in the same home at Kintore.
We must go! West! To Kintore!)

After four years of listening to this track, that coda still starts a chill in my scalp that runs right on down past my knees.

Their first album, Big Name, No Blankets, was released in 1985 without either of these songs. It did include four more songs in language, including “Nyuntu Nyaaltjirrku,” a plea to beat the grog. Where the music video for “Jailanguru Pakarnu” featured the members of the band running joyously, instruments in hand, from the gates of the jail, “Nyuntu Nyaaltjirrku” offered documentary footage of Aboriginal men and women being herded into the back of police wagons. Neil Murray and Sammy Butcher contributed the jazzy complaints “Breadline” and “Sitdown Money” that addressed issues of welfare dependence and its demoralizing side effects in Papunya. But the mainstay of the album was ‘Blackfella/Whitefella,” the anthem of racial harmony and cooperation that lent its title to the tour of the Outback communities undertaken jointly by Midnight Oil and the Warumpi Band.

The Blackfella/Whitefella tour was documented in a film of the same name, and by journalist Andrew McMillan in his book Strict Rules (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988). In both cases the Oils are treated, understandably, as the star attraction. But the Warumpi Band shines. They are both at home in the environment and uncomfortable at the center of attention, while the Oils sometimes struggle against the unaccustomed venues and are sometimes liberated by the energy of the audience of kids dancing ten feet in front of them. One thing is certain, both bands emerged from the tour with the best albums of their careers in hand, Diesel and Dust and the Warumpi’s Go Bush!

Go Bush! includes both “Jailanguru Pakarnu” and “Kintorelakutu” as well as the song that’s probably done more to secure the band’s reputation than any other (albeit via Christine Anu’s cover version, which incidentally, she performed at the 2000 Olympics). “My Island Home” is emblematic of the Warumpi blackfella/whitefella collaboration: it is Rrurrambu’s sung autobiography, written by Murray. The final and “title” track of the album, “From the Bush,” is a passionate rebuke to opponents of land rights:

You can keep your Opera House and your MCG*
You can keep your company home it don’t mean nothing to me
We’re not trying to take away your suburban backyard
We won’t be spearing any sheep down on your farm
My life is different to yours
What are you worried for
You got the money, you got the lot
You got it all but you still don’t stop

(*Melbourne Cricket Ground to us Yanks in the audience)

True to the rock ‘n’ roll form, after the achievement of Go Bush! the band nearly fell apart. Neil Murray had major ambitions for the band, and pushed for national exposure and recognition. The Tjapanangka brothers had little interest in performing or traveling outside of Papunya, and indeed in the sections of Blackfella/Whitefella filmed in the Top End, Sammy Butcher has been replaced by Hilary Wirri. They and Rrurrambu also had family business that conflicted with the demands of touring and rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Rrurrambu developed problems with the grog that led to tensions between him and Murray, who by his own account demanded a kind of discipline that the other band members had little shared investment in. 

For the next nine years the band re-united, toured, and broke up repeatedly, and it wasn’t until 1996 that Murray, Rrurrambu, and Sammy Butcher rebuilt the core of the band and returned to the recording studio. Too Much Humbug (Murray claimed the title reflected his general opinion of the band’s worth at the time) reflected the members’ divergent musical interests and the decade-long gap. The songs were less elemental rock ‘n’ roll. Murray’s contributions were more crafted, slicker, and to my ears, not as convincing. Rrurrambu had embraced his Yolngu heritage on the one hand in songs like “Wayathul” and his status as a cosmopolitan, urban rock hero on the other with “Koori Man.” Even the closing reprise of “Blackfella/Whitefella” fell flat. By this time though the fans were, as they say, legion, and the band had a hard time giving it up once and for all. They played their last dates in 2000, including the opening of the Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In 2001 ABC’s Message Stick produced a half hour documentary tribute to the band, The End of the Corrugated Road, which featured excerpts from their videos, interviews, and concert footage. In 2002 Sammy Butcher released a solo album of guitar instrumentals called Desert Surf Guitar, which is one of the loveliest electric guitar records I know. It’s a work of a truly individual guitar genius, unlike the music of the Warumpi Band, or indeed any other contemporary Aboriginal music that I’m familiar with. George Rrurrambu’s solo, Nerbu Message, came out in 2004, a mix of reggae styles, Yolngu tones, and his familiar exhortative brand of rock, along with new treatments of two old Warumpi songs, “Mayalil” and “Ronu Wanga (My Island Home).” Neil Murray released his sixth solo album this year, a two-disc compilation of his work from the last 15 years.

Murray has also written an autobiographical novel, Sing For Me, Countryman (Hodder and Stoughton, 1993), long out of print, but now available again by direct purchase from Murray. (See his website for details.) To call the book “thinly disguised” would be something of an overstatement; the names have been changed but that’s about it. I found the book to be a fascinating chronicle of the band’s history, remarkable especially in its frankness. Murray himself isn’t always a sympathetic character; he is driven by his own desire for fame as much as he is by his love of Aboriginal culture. He is warm-hearted and impatient, sentimental and self-absorbed, and I figure that if he can present himself in this manner, he can probably be trusted reasonably well in his depictions of his bandmates and their associates. 

As the song says, I love rock ‘n’ roll, so I was a sucker for the Warumpi Band from the start. But the more I listened to their music, sought out the videos, and read about them, the more convinced I became that there was something extra-ordinary about them. In Sing For Me, Countryman, Murray recounts with some bitterness a time when he was trying to organize a second tour with Midnight Oil and was frustrated at every turn by the impossibility of getting the other members of the band committed to the effort it would take to make the dates and do the touring. Eventually, the project collapses on him; the Oils want the Warumpis aboard, but the logistics can’t be conquered, and another Aboriginal band is recruited to take their place. Murray has nothing but scorn for this replacement bunch of “stage Aborigines” with their tribal costumes and paint. This sounds a lot like a caustic assessment of Yothu Yindi to me, and while it’s generally agreed in the press that the Warumpi Band opened doors for many other Aboriginal rock ‘n’ rollers, including Yothu Yindi, it also sounds like sour grapes. But the pieces of the story are all familiar. There’s the whitefella trying to organize his Aboriginal cohorts, who for their part don’t really want the same thing that he does. There’s’ impatience on all sides. There’s the implicit criticism that people “down South” don’t really understand Aboriginal culture but are ready to snap up something that looks authentic, but only because it looks “primitive” or “tribal.” But perhaps the importance of the Warumpi Band lies in the fact that they didn’t try to sell traditional Aboriginal culture. Their authenticity lies rather in their melding of bush and city, black and white, electric guitars and clapsticks, Gumatj, Luritja, and Kriol. Big name, no blankets.

Murray caught a lot of flack for being the whitefella in an Aboriginal band. When the Warumpis came to Sydney, black activists tried to force him out, threatening to cancel dates if he played with the band. Other critics have claimed that he used the banner of Aboriginal rock to advance his own career, and that without his Pintupi friends, he’d still be busking on the Todd Mall. I don’t think there’s any denying that Murray brought a white Australian sensibility to the band in many ways. But I also think it’s unfair to say that the man who could write “My Island Home” for Rrurrambu was a freeloader on the country’s interest in Aboriginal culture. A pair of songs like “Breadline” and “Sitdown Money” work precisely because they tell the story of people down on their luck, out of work, with no prospects. Whether they’re luckless pastoralists or dislocated Pintupi doesn’t really matter to the spirit of the song. In The End of the Corrugated Road, Archie Roach calls them “the first reconciliators.”

Murray’s song “Fitzroy Crossing,” a lament for a love left behind, sounds like a traditional lover’s lament, but the story told in Sing For Me, Countryman reveals that the love he left behind is a son fathered on an Aboriginal woman, and the family places a distant second to Murray’s aspirations to be a star. Here again, there’s a story of modern Australia, of Aboriginal experience with the Anglo interloper. And yet, in “Mulga and Spinifex Plain,” Murray’s yearning for a return to the bush is made of equal parts of a romantic yearning for the country and his desire to sit down with a tjilpi, or old man, to whom he says

I’m a stranger to your life for a start
And I’m not sure if I can really play a part
Still I came to your country
Don’t know what you’re thinking of me
All I know is I can’t forget these times here with you.

On another song from Big Name, No Blankets, “Falling Down,” there’s a small detail that rings true of bush courtship. Murray describes a lover’s tryst at sunset. The man sets out to meet his woman; she slips out to meet him and as she walks along the road “she lets her footprints fall in his.” The full import of this escaped me until one day in Broome, I listened to Roy Wiggan tell stories about the many ways in which boys and girls got in trouble out in the bush, especially boys. He talked about how jealous boyfriends would follow their girlfriend’s footprints, and then watch for places where another man’s footprints crossed or seemed to follow hers. If they went in the same direction too far, the jealous boyfriend would often come out with his boomerang. 

In the film Blackfella/Whitefella, much of the screen time is given over to Rrurrambu, whose flamboyant stage presence led to his characterization as a “Aborginal Bon Scott” (Scott was the lead singer of the Australian hard rock band AC/DC). Murray, as the other frontman, gets his share of camera time as well, and this is all within the conventions of the rock documentary. But in the long shots that capture the whole band, Gordon and Sammy Butcher strike me as more than unusually retiring. Their faces are almost always averted from the crowd and they give the first impression of being distinctly uncomfortable on the stage. Gordon Butcher looks up at the camera only as if to check whether it has turned its focus away from him. I was reminded of the Pintupi concept of kunta, which is variously translated as “shame” or “embarrassment,” and is an appropriate behavior to exhibit when one is the center of attention in a group of people. I wonder if the feeling of being, literally, in the spotlight, could account for the Tjapanangkas’ stage affect.

So it isn’t just the obvious homeland anthem or the songs in language that make the Warumpi Band so important to me and to their other diehard fans. Yes, language was immensely important, and I can only imagine what people felt when they turned on the radio and heard rock ‘n’ roll in their native tongue. My command of Pintupi is limited to about two dozen words at best, most of them picked up on trips to Uluru. AnanguKata tjuta. Stuff like that. But when Rrrurrambu shouted “Anangu tjuta” in the middle of “Kintorelakutu” and I understood what he was saying, if only for an instant, it was a pretty amazing thrill for me.

But it’s the intimacy of detail, the way that living with the Warumpis’ music in my head continually enriches my readings and my experiences in Australia. How stories I hear suddenly make sense out of something in a song lyric, and vice-versa, and how that process continues after years, is what makes them important to me. At the end of Painting Culture, after Fred Myers has traced the development of Papunya Tula painting through three decades, he describes a homecoming of sorts in Sydney at the opening of theGenesis and Genius show. Fred is re-united after many years with his friends from the days at Yayayi, especially with Bobby West Tjupurrula. It’s a very emotional section of the book; there’s a sense of triumph for all parties involved, and it climaxes at the opening gala in the Art Gallery with the Warumpi Band playing one of their last gigs. When I read this, all I could think of was the conclusion of many a Shakespearian comedy, say, As You Like It, where all parties are reconciled, dissension put aside, and the music plays and the ensemble joins in a dance of celebration. Reflecting on the performance and its significance in light of the success of Papunya Tula, Fred has this to say, in part:

In … its music, culture, and personnel, Warumpi was an expression of the emergent mixing of indigenous and white counterculture, a rejection of the Anglophilic or even the middle class–and in this lay the band’s appeal for a new Australia rather similar to the appeal of the dot paintings. Both represent forms of collaboration between white and black, mixings of sensibility, a shifting of Aboriginal specificity into terms more easily assimilated within the sensibilities of the broader population. (Myers, Painting Culture, 350)

Or, to let the Warumpis have the final word:

Blackfella, whitefella
Yellafella, any fella
It doesn’t matter what your colour
As long as you are true fella

Are you the one who’s gonna stand up and be counted?

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