Sad News from Elcho Island

When I was in Alice Springs I had the chance to catch up with Daphne Williams for an hour or so one afternoon. It was wonderful to see her, but she had the sad news for me that the lead singer of the Warumpi Band, the son of artist Charlie Matjuwi and brother of Peter Datjin, was terminally ill with bone cancer. “I was always fond of him,” Daphne said, “even if he was a real hellraiser when he was young.” News reached me this week from Chips Mackinolty that the hellraiser had passed away at home on Elcho Island. He was 50 years old. A full Gumatj ceremony is to be held to mark his passing, and the family have requested that the music of the Warumpi Band and from his later solo career not be played on local radio.

John Donne wrote “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This line of poetry from the 17th century makes a fitting epitaph for the Top-End islander who became identified with the greatest Aboriginal Australian rock ‘n’ roll band from the Centre, and with Warumpi’s most famous song, “My Island Home.” And after the band split up, Burrarrawanga (as he’s identified in the press today out of respect for his family) translated the great hit into Gumatj and made it uniquely his own, recording it on his 2004 solo album Nerbu Message. After years on the road, struggles with the grog, and (I guess) all the hell-raising that went along with those things, Burrarrawanga settled down to engage with life on Elcho Island. And while I don’t want to diminish the uniqueness of his life and his contributions to culture overall, I hope that there is a message here for all people who predict that the wildness of today’s youth is a sign that traditional culture is being lost: Burrarrawanga showed us that roots of all sorts run deep.

I guess I’ll now have to give up forever the hope that I would catch one of the seemingly inevitable Warumpi Band reunions, that one day I would get the chance to bounce in front of the stage to the blasts of “Kintorelakutu” or “Koori Man.” But my heart will still skip a beat every time the clapsticks kick in at the beginning of “Waru,” and I can rejoice at home to watch clips of the band performing in the ABC-TV documentary End of the Corrugated Road. Warumpi Band changed the face and the sound of Aboriginal rock ‘n’ roll; their inspiration will live on as long as kids have guitars, which is to say forever.

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