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Desert Songs

Thirty years of Australia's hidden hit parade

George Rrurrambu from Warumpi Band (R) and Marcus McDonald (L), Papunya, 2003. © Steven Siewert/Fairfax Syndication
George Rrurrambu from Warumpi Band (R) and Marcus McDonald (L), Papunya, 2003. © Steven Siewert/Fairfax Syndication  
Cover: October 2012October 2012Medium length read
 

I first heard Bob Randall’s ‘Brown Skin Baby’ by a camp fire in the late ’80s when I was touring with my band in the Northern Territory. The guitars and songs were being passed around along with kangaroo tails singed in the coals. I felt the hairs stand up on my arms from the very first keening notes – “Yowie, yowie, my brown skinned baby, they take ’im away.” Almost everyone there knew the words and sang along. “Yowie, yowie.” The soft howl of those wordless words said it all, returning after each verse of the inexorable story.

Bob Randall wrote the song in 1964, the year after Jimmy Little released ‘The Royal Telephone’, and recorded it in 1971, 20 years before Archie Roach’s song on the same subject, ‘Took the Children Away’. You won’t hear it on a golden oldies radio station, but it’s been a hit nevertheless for more than 40 years. A song that people still play and pass on. Archie Roach’s family knew it no doubt long before he picked up a guitar.

The tour I was on was one of several trips the band and I made in the ’80s and ’90s to the Territory. We played Darwin and Alice Springs pretty regularly with occasional extra shows in Tennant Creek, Katherine, Jabiru and further afield in Groote Eylandt, Yirrkala, Maningrida and Barunga. Most times we lobbed in Alice Springs we would drop in to CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) radio station to do an interview and play. One of our early B sides was recorded in their small studio late at night after a gig. No room for a drum kit so our drummer tapped a tape box.

CAAMA began with the radio station in 1980, broadcasting into communities all over the Territory, with the aim of fostering and showcasing Aboriginal music and culture. By 1988 it had a television arm, Imparja, and, with a bigger studio now, was recording bands and releasing their music on cassettes.

A record label operating a long way from the mainstream can have a powerful effect. Playing music in your local community is one thing. Putting it down on tape, hearing it back, working out what you’re doing and then hearing it played on the radio is another, and it creates a strong feedback loop. Bands gain confidence and get better quickly. The folks at CAAMA always loaded us with cassettes when we visited: compilation records – From the Bush, Look at Us! Walpiri Mix – and individual albums by Areyonga Desert Tigers, North Tanami Band, Lajamanu Teenage Band and the like. I loved the band names, loved their dusty country rock sound and the idiosyncratic phrasing of the singing in local languages – Luritja, Warlpiri, Arrernte. It seemed a thousand flowers were blooming in the desert, and though they seemed to spring out of nothing their roots touched deeper waters.

Some years before, in 1982, No Fixed Address, a band formed in Adelaide at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music, had released the groundbreaking reggae protest song ‘We Have Survived’. The following year, Papunya’s Warumpi Band debuted with the first rock song sung in an Aboriginal language, an upbeat, infectious shuffle entitled ‘Jailanguru Pakarnu’, which means ‘out of jail’ in Luritja.

Things were building, cross-pollinating. ‘Solid Rock’, a land rights anthem written by Shane Howard and recorded by his band Goanna, reached No. 2 on the Australian charts and spent 26 weeks in the top 50 through 1982–83. Billy Inda from No Fixed Address played didgeridoo on the track, the first pop song to feature that instrument.

In 1984, also out of South Australia – from Koonibba Mission, west of Ceduna – came Coloured Stone, with their anthem ‘Black Boy’, a giddy-up reggae song: “Black boy, black boy, the colour of your skin is your pride and joy.” They followed up soon afterwards with the mutant ska heavy metal  song ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’. In 1986 the mighty juggernaut of Midnight Oil toured the Territory with lights blazing, PA stacks booming and an entourage of journalists and film crew. Warumpi Band were on board under the banner of the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour, named after Warumpi’s latest hit. Midnight Oil’s experiences during this time heavily influenced their next album, Diesel and Dust. But it was Warumpi who had the kids darting to the front of the stage, busting their shake-a-leg moves and kicking up the dust before running back to their shrieking mates.

Solidarity and hope were in the air. In the cities to the east, the Rock against Racism and Building Bridges concerts, featuring a mix of indigenous and non-indigenous artists, drew big crowds. In the bush, the rolling out of land rights and the homelands movement saw people heading back onto their traditional country. Encouraged by CAAMA and inspired by the big three trailblazers – No Fixed Address, Warumpi and Coloured Stone – bands in towns and communities got hold of guitars, basses and drum kits and started making up their own songs.

They were all kinds of songs: songs of love and pride, songs of lament, songs of instruction, songs of land found and land lost. My cassette collection grew. Back in Melbourne I listened to Amunda singing to their home town: “Alice, don’t grow so fast […] they’re dressing you up in concrete and iron.” Another of their songs, ‘Tourists All Over Me’, needs no exegesis. The Areyonga Desert Tigers in ‘Seasons Coming’ sang of rain and bushfires and secret love. Frank Yamma in ‘Make More Spear’, written by his father Isaac, implored young people to honour tradition. ‘Tjana Anu Wilurara’, a Pitjantjatjara language song by The Chrysophrase Band, evoked wide space and urgent longing, with the English translation saying:

 

What’s happened to all the people? A child told me they have all gone west. It’s wonderful out west, it’s the land of our grandfathers […] I’ve kept it in my mind and now whenever there’s a wind blowing I get this stabbing pain through my eyes. 

 

One Pitjantjatjara song rewound over and over again on my tape deck was ‘Petrola’, also known as ‘Pitulu Song’, by Pantju Thompson. Singing with unearthly, sad harmonies all the way through, Pantju (in translation) asks,

 

Father, Mother […] who will teach these stories? Sitting, thinking, older brother drinking wine, younger brother sniffing petrol. 

 

‘Petrola’ anticipates the fado-like sweet sadness of Gurrumul’s music some 20 years later. The lilting massed choruses sound Hawaiian, which might seem curious coming from Central Australia but not as curious as the fact that every community band we saw around that time would play without fail the surf instrumental classic ‘Wipeout’. A guaranteed leg-shaker.

Up north the bands seemed to have a heavier, more brooding sound. Southern Arnhem Land band Broken English made sunrise seem menacing. Wairuk Band from Humpty Doo got funky in their tale of bad love ‘To Leave This Young Black Girl’.

Also from Arnhem Land, Mandawuy Yunupingu (younger brother of Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who’d recorded the land rights protest song ‘Gurindji Blues’ with Ted Egan in 1971) had come back from his studies down south and was dreaming of ‘two ways’ – traditional and modern, balanda (whitefella) and yolngu (blackfella), freshwater and saltwater. He was putting the pieces together for a band he wanted to call ‘Mother and Child’ or, in his language, Yothu Yindi, a name expressing the duality of all things. They would soon break worldwide with their dancefloor smash ‘Treaty’.

Over in Broome in the West Kimberley, Jimmy Chi wrote a musical, Bran Nue Dae, which starred a young Ernie Dingo as Uncle Tadpole. Twenty years later, Dingo would reprise his role in Rachel Perkins’ film adaptation. The musical was a huge success, with songs such as ‘Feel Like Going Back Home’, ‘Nyul Nyul Girl’ and ‘Listen to the News’. Chi’s stage band, The Kuckles, contained members of Scrap Metal, who had a big song, ‘Broken Down Man’, at the time. Scrap Metal opened for us the first time I played with my band in Broome, at the racetrack. I went home with lungs full of red dust stirred up by the dancers as well as the seeds of lifelong friendships. And more cassettes.

When Scrap Metal broke up, three members, Alan, Steve and Philip Pigram, enlisted four younger brothers to form – what else? – The Pigram Brothers. They still make sweet mongrel music reflecting the mestizo culture of their home town. Their song ‘Johnny Walker’s Shoes’, full of local references and things their father used to say, is a Broome classic.

Back east, No Fixed Address broke up in 1988, the year one-time member Joe Geia made his first solo record, Yil Lull. ‘Yil Lull’ means ‘sing’ in Joe’s ancestral language, Guugu Yimithirr. The record is out of print but I’ve heard and sung ‘Yil Lull’ many times at concerts. When there’s a big line-up of artists involved, it’s an anthem to end proceedings, perfect for multiple harmonies.

Meanwhile Bart Willoughby, No Fixed Address’ drummer/singer, moved to Sydney and formed Mixed Relations. To my mind they were the best band in Australia in 1990, with songs like the epic ‘Take It or Leave It’ and ‘Aboriginal Woman’, a song as catchy as anything by KC and the Sunshine Band but with a heavier punch. Saxophone, backing singers, keyboards, guitar, drums, bass, didgeridoo. They were urban, ancient, angry, wide-screen and dubby: a band that brewed and stretched out. Willoughby ruled them with an iron fist and one of my pleasures was watching the way he – a drummer who’d laid down his sticks to sing out front – rode his drummer with sharp looks all night long.

Also in Sydney in the late ’80s was Kev Carmody, spitting out songs from his debut album Pillars of Society.  Two songs from it, ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ and ‘Cannot Buy My Soul’, made my jaw drop the first time I heard them. As our friendship developed, Kev and I went camping and canoeing on Wivenhoe Dam in Queensland. One night around the fire we wrote ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, an update of ‘Gurindji Blues’.

At around the same time, Archie Roach was playing the songs that would become Charcoal Lane, his debut album, in Melbourne’s folk clubs. You can still buy Roach’s and Carmody’s records but the music of their inland peers is harder to find. Like flowers they bloomed, like flowers they vanished – a lost Golden Age. In 2000, Clinton Walker published Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, a book accompanied by a DVD and double album CD set. It’s a monumental labour of love and research, celebrating even earlier pioneers from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, such as Jimmy Little, Roger Knox, Vic Simms, Col Hardy, The Mills Sisters and Bobby McLeod, who undeniably influenced the ’80s generation. But for now it’s out of print, too.

The great promise of the homelands movement has not been realised in the way that many imagined at the time. The road is not as straightforward now as once it seemed, and many indigenous communities are struggling. Nationally, though, indigenous music is thriving. In the ’90s more women began to come through – Tiddas, Ruby Hunter, Christine Anu – and in the present day Leah Flanagan, Shellie Morris, Jessica Mauboy, Emma and Casey Donovan, The Last Kinection and others have picked up the reins. Dan Sultan, Gurrumul, The Medics, Busby Marou, Radical Son and Sky’high are just some of the stars in the current firmament, while in the communities hip-hop has picked up from country rock, reggae and country and western.

The Black Arm Band, a shifting collective of Aboriginal artists and musicians with occasional gubba (whitefella) guests, has been staging themed concerts since 2006, developing new work and helping to define a national indigenous canon (or cannon) of song.

Bob Randall, the Yankunytjatjara elder who wrote ‘Brown Skin Baby’, now lives at Mutitjulu near Uluru, his mother’s country. He found his way home after being stolen as a child. The song is his story, though he employs a travelling priest to tell it:

 

As a young preacher I used to ride
My pied pony round the countryside
In a native camp I’ll never forget
A young black mother her cheeks all wet
Between her sobs I heard her say
“Police bin taken my baby away
From white man boss that baby I had
Why let ’im take my baby away?”
 

 

Despite his best efforts, Randall never did see his mother again. This weekend (6–7 October), he will host an event celebrating the 30th anniversary of the release of ‘Solid Rock’, the song Shane Howard wrote after his first visit to Uluru. Also singing it with him will be Archie Roach, Dan Sultan, Bart Willoughby and others, in English and Pitjantjatjara.

You still hear ‘Solid Rock’ on classic radio. It’s been a hit for 30 years. Some years back I spent an afternoon making a mix tape on my dual-cassette tape deck. On the cover I wrote “Beyond the Pale”. It’s almost worn out now, so I’ve made myself a backup copy. It’s my own classic radio, a hidden hit parade from a lost age.

BEYOND THE PALE: A TOP 30

Yil Lull – Joe Geia

Dancing in the Moonlight – Coloured Stone
CAAMA 25th Anniversary Compilation Vol. 2

Jailanguru Pakarnu – Warumpi Band
Go Bush! - Warumpi Band

We Have Survived – No Fixed Address

Mount Doreen – Western Desert Band
From the Bush, CAAMA Records

Mardak Nyanu – North Tanami Band
Look at Us! Walpiri Mix, CAAMA Records

To Leave This Young Black Girl – Wairuk Band

Seasons Coming – Areyonga Desert Tigers

Tjana Anu Wilurara – The Chrysophrase Band
CAAMA 25th Anniversary Compilation Vol. 2

Petrola – Pantju Thompson
CAAMA 25th Anniversary Compilation Vol. 1

Yolngu Woman – Yothu Yindi (from their first album Homeland Movement)

Alice Don’t Grow So Fast – Amunda
From the Bush, CAAMA Records

Black Boy – Coloured Stone

Uncle Willie – Joe Geia

Broken Down Man – Scrap Metal

Take it or Leave itMixed Relations

Listen to the News – The Kuckles (from the original Bran Nue Dae)

Feel Like Going back Home – The Pigram Brothers
On The Pigram Brothers' album Saltwater Country

Sunrise – Broken English

Aboriginal Woman – Mixed Relations
CAAMA 25th Anniversary Compilation Vol. 2

Fitzroy Crossing – Warumpi Band

Stranger In My Country – Vic Simms

Brown Skin Baby – Bob Randall
CAAMA 25th Anniversary Compilation Vol. 1

Wayward Dreams – Bobby Mcleod
Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Larrikin Records

Yorta Yorta Man – Jimmy Little
Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Larrikin Records

Arafura Pearl – The Mills Sisters
Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Larrikin Records

Gurindji Blues – Galurrwuy Yunupingu and Ted Egan
Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Larrikin Records

Goulburn Jail – Roger Knox
Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Larrikin Records

Charcoal Lane – Archie Roach
Charcoal Lane, Mushroom Records

Cannot Buy My Soul – Kev Carmody
Cannot Buy My Soul: A Kev Carmody Tribute, EMI Records

Some extras:

Blackfellas – Local Knowledge

Old Fitzroy – Dan Sultan

Are We There Yet? - Last Kinection, featuring Simone Stacey

Down River – Wilcannia Mob

September Song – Leah Flanagan

Swept Away – Shellie Morris

Griffin – The Medics

Live version:

Look At Me Now – Sky’high

Biding My Time – Busby Marou

Changes – Emma Donovan

About the author Paul Kelly
Paul Kelly is an Australian musician. He has led various groups including The Dots, The Coloured Girls and The Messengers, and performed as a solo artist. His memoir, How to Make Gravy, was released in 2010.
@paul__kelly