The avant-garde legacy of the Warumpi Band: “We just wanted to give our music to everyone” | australian music

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Neil Murray had been working in the indigenous community of Papunya – a heart-wrenching four-hour drive northwest of Alice Springs – for about a week when he met Sammy Butcher in 1980.

“He must have heard I had a guitar, and he came over to take a look,” Murray says. “I showed him the guitar and I could tell right away that he knew how to play – there was an energy there, he was good. Do you know those guitarists who never play the same solo twice and who tune as they go? That kind of guy.

Murray pulled out his amplifier, Sammy’s brother showed up with an upturned keg of flour and a few sticks, and the trio began to release covers of rock and roll standards in the front yard. It is the birth of the Warumpi Band, which will be completed by the arrival of the charismatic singer George Rrurrambu Burarrawanga.

Warumpi Band singer George Rrurrambu Burarrawanga in flight during a Rock Against Racism concert in 1984 in Fitzroy, Melbourne. Photography: Tony Mott

It was those rough beginnings that are captured in Warumpi Rock, a landmark release of the band’s earliest known recordings in 1982, by which time Murray had become a bilingual teacher in the community. The recording, which contains covers of songs by Chuck Berry, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, was captured in the front room of his house, which was provided to him by the Northern Territory Department of Education.

Times have been tough for the pioneering group, who helped pave the way for Yothu Yindi and other native Australian musicians. Man YolÅ‹u George Rrurrambu returned to his home on Elcho Island (subject of the band’s best-known song, My Island Home) and died in 2007. Butcher’s brother, G, whose full name is not due yet to be spoken, died last year.

Murray isn’t just mourning the loss of his bandmates: their longtime manager David Cooke died on October 28. “He kept us going – so many times I thought we were done, then Cookie would call and say ‘Look, I think we can do this, I talked to George’, and amazingly, we’ll be back there. -low.”

Sammy Butcher, now 59 and the oldest of Pitjantjatjara-Warlpiri, has had a series of strokes in recent years and can no longer play guitar. He still lives in Papunya and is immensely proud of the Warumpi heritage. He said they were “the group of the people”. “We just wanted to give our music to everyone,” he says. “I am happy that we have been a role model for so many people. “

King Stingray singer Yirrnga Yunupingu (nephew of Yothu Yindi chief Dr. M Yunupingu, while Rrurrambu is another uncle on his side Gumatj) was one of those who took inspiration from it. “I grew up listening to George, we loved old school rock and roll in school clubs,” he told Guardian Australia in a statement. “We sometimes drop Waru in our set.”

Dan Sultan is another. “In this country we are spoiled for the front people,” he said, dropping the names of Bon Scott, Chrissy Amphlett and Michael Hutchence: “GR is at the top of the pile for me. He was the best leader this country has ever produced, regardless of the number of people, or more to the point that a lot of people didn’t know it. GR was the absolute best.

Sultan also wonders why Sammy Butcher is not more recognized: “To be Blak in this country, you have to be twice as good, for half as much,” he says. Butcher learned to play by listening to Shadows. He released a solo album in 2002, Desert Surf Guitar. “The rolling sand dunes here are like a wave, so I call it desert surfing,” he explains.

Sammy Butcher at Warumpi Hill near Papunya, Northern Territory.
Sammy Butcher at Warumpi Hill near Papunya, Northern Territory. Photography: Neil Murray

Butcher hopes he can set one more example for his people: he is fully vaccinated against Covid, and encourages everyone in his community to do the same: “If I can do it, we all can,” he said. But in Papunya, as in other indigenous communities, rates are lagging behind: less than a quarter of the population of 515 is protected.

In the neighboring town of Yuendumu, it is even worse: only 30% of the 679 people received their first vaccine. “They are very reluctant, especially in certain desert regions in the west, [and] in the Kimberleys, ”Murray says. “People are very sensitive to the things they read on social media. “

Warumpi Rock features a number of Rolling Stones covers, and Rrurrambu has often been compared to Mick Jagger. But Murray says he was influenced by the Stones a lot more than Rrurrambu was. “If anything, GR looked more like a Bon Scott character. He certainly had that larrikin vibe and couldn’t resist a party.

It was during a break from Warumpi Rock sessions that Murray and Sammy Butcher wrote their first original song together, Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out from Jail). It was sung in Luritja – the first rock song written in an Aboriginal language and the band’s first single, released in 1983. “This is about a prisoner, coming out of prison, trying to integrate into his family” , Butcher said.

The group had been prompted to start writing their own material by the Alice Springs-based Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, formed in 1980. Co-founder Philip Batty, who had traveled to Papunya to record the group for the session , suggested that they write the song in Luritja – better for radio station listeners.

The crossing with the white audience was unexpected. The Warumpi Band released three albums, including the classic Big Name, No Blankets in 1985, which co-headlined the Blackfella / Whitefella Indigenous Communities Tour with Midnight Oil the following year. The hopelessly nostalgic Butcher brothers left the group soon after.

Neil Murray, now 65, still wonders what could have been. “The group is better known now than we ever were when we were operational. Over 100,000 people stream Warumpi Band every month on Spotify; we are known the world over now, really. But it was not. You only have a small window of opportunity.

Left to right) George Burarrwanga, Sammy Butcher and Neil Murray in Papunya in 1995.
(Left to right) George Rrurrambu Burarrawanga, Sammy Butcher and Neil Murray in Papunya in 1995. Photograph: Paul Sweeney / Warner Music

He describes Warumpi Rock’s recordings as “the sound of our band training,” and that makes him smile. “It was a unique combination of people. And there’s something endearing about it, when I listen to it – I hear the energy and the camaraderie between us. I feel that spirit, that enthusiasm, and it was a beautiful thing. It was awesome for a while there.

He remembers one of the first concerts, before Rrurrambu arrived. “I was working in the back of a truck for one of the remote stations, shoveling gravel, and Sammy and the guys arrived around 2 p.m. – guitars were coming out of the HD Holden’s window. – they said: ‘We are going to Hermannsburg for a concert, you want to come?’

“I looked at the boss and said, can I go? And he said ‘Oh yeah, you can go.’ And I dropped that shovel and hopped in the car with them, and off we went.


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