Mates, Mabo and Warumpi
By Sally Mitchell
DARWIN — In April, the Warumpi Band played one Friday night at the Driveway Hotel. A big crowd of black and white fans were singing and shouting all of the lyrics to songs like "Fitzroy Crossing", "Black Fella White Fella" and "Waru", and praising George Djilaynga as he threw his black, yellow and red shirt to the ground and moved like Mick Jagger (used to). The atmosphere was friendly as everyone danced, full of energy and green cans. Warumpi played long sets with repeated returns for encores. Along with songs from the two earlier albums, Big Name No Blankets and Go Bush, the Warumpis played tracks from the new one, Too Much Humbug.
Too Much Humbug retains that same great live rock feel of the previous records that makes you get up and dance in your lounge room, but it also has songs of a new style with reggae influences and experimental sound and microphone techniques like that of Tom Waits. The album also features a choir from Alice Springs and Gumatj clan singers in Elcho Island on different songs.
Neil Murray, on vocals and guitar in Warumpi Band, solo performer and now author of Sing For Me Countryman, was interviewed for Green Left Weekly in Darwin.
Question: Is there a specific theme running through Too Much Humbug?
There was not really a conscious theme. It was a collection of songs that we felt were the best written over the last four or five years.
We basically had a break between '87 and '92, apart from a short tour in 1990. After the Broome Stompin' Ground Festival, which we got back together for, we thought we'd do it a bit more. Our manager, David Cook, has been keeping us going, finding work for us every year like the tour down south.
The themes in the songs are consistent with stuff that we'd done before, providing indigenous perspectives. This is the first time we've ever recorded with a producer. With Big Name No Blankets and Go Bush, we did it ourselves. But we had Mark Ovenden producing, so he brought his particular production techniques and particular style to the tunes.
Question: What are the songs "Koori Man" and "Wayathul" about?
The first song came out after we did the jail tour. Proportionally there are more Aboriginal men in jail than anyone else, and we were thrilled with the strength of a lot of the fellas there. It's a testament to the autonomy of Aboriginal men, to be whoever they want to be and not what white people or the media expect them to be.
"Wayathul" is a song that came out of a story that George told me about what happened to him when he went to his grandfather's country, an area that he hadn't been to before. As in the song, the first day he was there he couldn't get anything to eat. He was unsuccessful in hunting and he couldn't work out why. He was saying, this is my ancestors' country and I belong here.
That night, when they slept on the beach hungry, he had a dream of old men and old women coming out of the sea and surrounding him and rubbing their sweat on him. The next day he knew straightaway where to go and get dugong, and they got one. It's a song about the spiritual reclamation of country through ancestral links.
Question: Who have been Warumpi Band's past musical influences?
I arrived out at Papunya in 1980 to work on out stations and met up with Sammy Butcher and them. There is a strong country and western influence out there, as there is with all Aboriginal people in remote areas. They all like the narrative and the sentiment that it conveys.
But as far as rock and roll, the influences were more Chuck Berry and Little Richard, especially with the singer George, when he arrived. It was fairly dated. Reggae wasn't heard of out there, but gradually those things did become an influence. We made our first tour down south and played with No Fixed Address, and they were pretty much inspired by Bob Marley.
The thing that probably influenced us a fair bit was hearing the Police at the time. Our drummer Gordon got into Stuart Copeland's playing. He's a very inventive drummer. That influenced some of the kick patterns. AC/DC was always a big influence and the Angels — all that Australian rock stuff.
Question: Has it been difficult for Warumpi Band to get recognition in the Australian music scene? Do you think it's easier now for young Aboriginal bands?
It's hard for any band coming from a remote area. Coming from the bush, it was a bit hard for us to give a serious commitment to being down south in the cities because we'd only be down there for so long and everyone would become really homesick.
It's hard to reconcile those values with the commitment required to be a successful band. If you're booking a tour, you book it three months ahead, and then suddenly something happens: somebody dies and then someone can't go because they've got sorry business. You're blowing out gigs and everyone down south loses faith in you. They think you're unreliable.
Things change. I think we've blazed a bit of a trail for those that come after. Getting radio airplay is a problem for everyone, whether you're Aboriginal or not. It's a problem for me and my own solo stuff. It's a bit of a lottery but it's not just having good songs and good records. You've got to have good management, good promotion, and they've really got to be on your case, because record companies don't care who it is that they are successful with as long as they have something to sell. They are only interested in making money.
There is a network for Aboriginal bands if they can get themselves organised. They can play their communities. That's how the Warumpi Band used to do it. We just played in communities. We couldn't get a gig in Alice Springs for years in the pubs. No way; they reckoned we were too much trouble. So we had to play in people's backyards, play in a bloody hall or out at somebody's basketball court in the community, but we got by.
Question: What do you think about this idea of reconciliation and the Mabo ruling?
I think Mabo was a triumph and a landmark decision; it really did, for the first time, give people a lot of hope. I'm not sure about reconciliation and what all that means. On one level I think there is a need for acceptance of what's gone down in history in terms of the brutal dispossession, but also if native title was working well, then it would be meaningful.
The other side of it is that it has to be something real. I've been to festivals where they have workshops, and I remember seeing one on reconciliation. I happened to poke my head in the tent, and there was not one Aboriginal person in there. It was all very eminent white people, historians, just holding a discourse on this thing and I was thinking: what does that say?
My own view is that its comes down to specific relationships and the mates you make. If you can make friendships with people, that is where it is forged. The Warumpi Band is example of that. We all come from different backgrounds but we work together, we make music together and there is a thing there of mutual benefit.
The main thing is to ensure that people can have some sort of real structure to be able to get title to their lands and some sort of compensation in those regards and to get every assistance available in terms of cultural retrieval if they want it. For some people redress for past wrongs is a very significant issue, for other people it isn't. They're more concerned about getting employment. You just have to listen to what people say and not dictate and decide for them.