ILYOS is celebrating NAIDOC Week this week with a look at some of our favourite indigenous Australian artists. Following our celebration of Archie Roach's pending induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame, we now look at the band who broke out of Australia's red centre in the '80s and hitched a ride on the burgeoning pub rock scene for the next decade. The Warumpi Band, from the outback settlement of Papunya, about 250 km west of Alice Springs, were responsible for a couple of Australia's most iconic anthems including "My Island Home." They forged close ties with Midnight Oil, hosting them on their renowned Black Fella/White Fella tour of the outback; and in turn, inspiring the creation of the Oils' classic Diesel and Dust. The Warumpi Band were also the first Indigenous rock band that many of us heard and a damn great rock band at that. Let's look at their career through five pivotal Warumpi recordings.
A fantastic Chuck Berry cover, recorded live to tape in a tin shed, from the early days, not long after Victorian school teacher Neil Murray arrived in Papunya and teamed with locals George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga and the Butcher brothers Sammy and Gordon to form the band. Originally appearing alongside other likeminded cover material on the band's first release, an album-length cassette released by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) in 1981, it captures a pure rock'n'roll band in top form as well as the raw spirit of outback life. All bands start somewhere, and in the '60s, '70s and into the '80s it was often with Chuck Berry tunes. If it was good enough for the Beatles, Rolling Stones and AC/DC, it was good enough for the Warumpi Band.
Their first single, from 1983. The Chuck Berry roots are still showing, but they are singing in language, and, upfront, George has the clapsticks going, so it sounds like nothing anybody's heard before. More importantly, they are telling their own stories. "Jailangaru Pakarnu" is about getting out of jail and heading home and is an all-time great party starter. The video, which was often screened on shows like Rock Arena, was a window to an unfamiliar world for so many of us, and gave the band a national audience to which it went out and played.
“Blackfella / Whitefella”
One of many classics on the first Warumpi Band album, 1985's Big Name, No Blankets, "Blackfella /Whitefella" is their first great enduring anthem – some say it should be the national anthem - and the birth of the distinctive Warumpi sound, equal parts outback roots and urban rock. It was a sound perfectly suited to the pubs all over the country in which they now played.
"My Island Home"
The second iconic Warumpi anthem, although a lot of people still only know Christine Anu's cover. A country-soul classic that deserves to be heard by music fans the world over, the Warumpi's unaffected original beautifully captures the sound of bright sunshine and lapping water and the idyllic spirit of the islands off Arnhem Land that singer George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga originally called home. Who wouldn't long for such a beautiful-sounding place?
Not as well-known as the last two numbers, but another anthemic number recorded in post-grunge days – 1996 – when the band came back harder and heavier than ever before with their third and last album Too Much Humbug.
A few more things before we close:
Firstly, it's worth watching the half-hour long documentary from 1986 that documents the Warumpi Band and Midnight Oil's Blackfella / Whitefella tour of WA and NT, produced for the ABC's Big Country Program. The entire thing is here, but if you haven't got the time, jump to about the 24 minutes mark. The Warumpi's are on stage playing "Blackfella / Whitefella", and they're gradually joined by the Oils, who plug in and keep the song going before segueing into their own "Dead Heart." Magical stuff.
Secondly – it's a raw video, but check out this rare and lovely version of "My Island Home", performed by the man who inspired Neil Murray to write it, George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga and the band he performed and recorded with late in his life, Birdwave. This is wonderful.
And, finally; as you may have heard, ABC-TV's The Sound marked NAIDOC week with a special episode on Sunday. As part of the program, they played a new, specially recorded version of "My Island Home", featuring sensational young indigenous artists Zaachariaha Fielding (Electric Fields Music), Ngaiire and Emma Donovan, along with Christine Anu. It might have been nice to hear a bit more of the original Warumpi vibe in it, but it's still special. Check it out, and if you can hear more from the Warumpi Band, here.
Stream the complete Warumpi Band anthology Warumpi Band 4Ever, which was released on Festival Records in 2015, on Spotify:
Listen to Warumpi Band on Apple Music: