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Indigenous music – desert rock

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Desert rock reflects the experience of Indigenous cultural ‘survival in a white man’s world’. It is characterised by singing in language and connecting the music to country, especially the desert country, hence its name. Desert rock music has helped define Aboriginal rock as a genre recognised since the 1980s.

George Burrarrawanga

George Burrarrawanga (1957–2007), a charismatic front man for Aboriginal rock

This music was heard by a wide audience due to the establishment of Indigenous recording studios. This transformed the experience of rock music in Australia and beyond, as well as the understanding of the wider public about the experience of Aboriginal life.

Like other contemporary music genres, desert rock is a fusion of styles, in this case: rock ‘n’ roll, reggae and country influenced by gospel and soul. This fusion of music types with local Indigenous music traditions has created other new fresh sounds and styles.

Different local styles of Indigenous music have emerged from particular places and histories. If you were to travel across Australia listening to Indigenous music you would be able to recognise the change in style and sound from one area to another. Each place has its own distinct music tradition. Song often marks the connection between people and country.

Indigenous saltwater music is located mostly across northern Australia from Cairns via the Torres Strait Islands to Broome. An Indigenous survival swing style of music in southern Australia is based on traditional songs fused with Negro rhythms and the ballad form and swing dance bands. Indigenous country music has its own intonations and rhythms with unique sounds and songs about the loss of country, grief and being outcast in their own country. Indigenous jazz and blues crossed with island soul has witnessed Australian Indigenous singers perform internationally for over half a century, giving their own unique voices, style and Indigenous song structures to this form.

Koonibba Rock album cover

Cover of Coloured Stone’s album Koonibba Rock, 1984

Singing about country and sites affirms identity, and the places become the song. Some clear examples in the desert rock genre are the Warumpi (Honey Ant dreaming) band and album titles such as Koonibba Rock, by Coloured Stone from Koonibba on the Nullarbor Plain. Song ‘is a key to understanding the people, their culture and their rights to land’. (Toyne and Vachon in Peter Dunbar-Hall andChris Gibson, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places, p.71)

Desert rock created anthems of cultural survival. The titles of the Warumpi Band album, Big Name No Blanket (the lyrics penned by Bart Willoughby) and We have Survived as well as other desert rock titles such as, Bunna Lawrie’s Black Boy and Aboriginal Woman celebrate cultural survival in a white man’s world.

CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) and Hip Hop Projects

The experience of Indigenous country music singers in the 1970s showed how difficult it was to record Indigenous music. By the 1980s, only a handful of Indigenous country musicians had secured recording contracts, for example: The Country Outcasts; Col Hardy through Hadley Records and Opal Studios in Tamworth; and Dougie Young with Wattle Records, Sydney. Josie Wowolla Boyle was the only musician from Central Australia who had recorded – at Planet Studios in Perth. Recording, public performance, broadcast and distribution was difficult for Indigenous musicians out of the mainstream.

In 1982, Imparja Records (later CAAMA) begun recording and producing Indigenous music in its studios, and then broadcast it on radio with their first licence from 1985. This enabled the desert rock bands: Warumpi, No Fixed Address and Coloured Stone to record and distribute their music on cassette tapes. At Yuendumu, Warlpiri Media broadcast television and radio from 1985.

Rebel Voices album cover

Album cover for Rebel Voices, 1982

One of the first cassette tapes released by Imparja Records, established in 1982, was Rebel Voices from Black Australia, featuring Gary Foley and the Clash, ‘Buna’ Lawrie (Coloured Stone) singing I Miss My Way of Living, The Ernabella Choir, Joe Geia singing They and Uncle Willie, Les Collins and Kath Walker performing No More Boomerang and the Warumpi Band singing in Luritja, In Defence of Papunya.

The first organised interstate distribution of Imparja cassette tapes was through 78 Records, Perth in 1983-84 and later to other capitals. (In conversation with Freda Glynn and Phillip Batty, Imparja, 1984)

A return supply of cassette tapes by Afro-American rhythm and blues and other artists were circulated through desert and Arnhem communities, including: Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Amino Claudine Myers saluting Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, The Supremes, the Pointer Sisters, Hugh Masekela, Dudu Pakawana and Abdullah Ibrahim. This was to the joyful surprise of Aboriginal communities to realise that there were black people recording their own songs.

Air play on mainstream radio and television was not guaranteed due to competition and racism which made it difficult to secure financial returns. For Buna Lawrie of Coloured Stone, it was not until he won the Don Banks Music Fund Award that he received any financial reward despite selling 250,000 albums as all money from sales was returned to touring country Australia. This was partly due to the difficulty of getting air-play as well as booking city gigs.

Poster promoting CAAMA cassettes

Promotion to buy CAAMA cassettes, poster, courtesy of PowerHouse Museum

Today CAAMA conducts workshops in communities, records sessions for local artists and provides training in media work to give locals employment and career opportunities. By 2013, CAAMA had recorded over 800 Albums from 15 language groups. This has brought greater recognition, even locally, for example, singer Stewart Gaykamangu was nominated for NT Song of the year award 2013 for his song Lorrpu.

Indigenous Hip Hop Projects has been promoting traditional Indigenous culture fusion with Hip Hop and the promotion of positive self-expression, since 2004. Their aim is to facilitate workshops in remote communities to help foster healthy life styles and positive social skills through movement, dance and music.

New audiences

The new recording arrangements have seen Indigenous stories, songs and music become available to a wide audience. Songs like Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out from Jail) by Warumpi Band confronted white Australia as well as became Top Hits. Black Boy (Coloured Stone) became a hit outside of Australia in places like the Fiji Islands. The lyrics of Black Boy include the line

Black boy, black boy, the colour of your skin is your pride and joy.

From the Indigenous run Yuendumu Sports Carnival, started in 1962, with the Battle of the Bands through to the Barunga festival and the Woodford Dreaming Festival, other Indigenous festivals and the festival circuits are part of a connected geography. Festivals expose Indigenous musicians to different audiences, commercial interests and contribute to their earnings.

No Fixed Address – Aboriginal reggae rock touring overseas

Photo of No Fixed Address

No Fixed Address, 1982, publicity photograph, courtesy of NFSA

No Fixed Address is an Aboriginal reggae rock band that has been performing since 1979–88 and reformed in 2008. Connecting their songs to a reggae rhythm linked their audiences with other oppressed peoples. They were noted for singing about fighting the injustices of Australia’s colonial history, and their sound was aligned with the land rights movement in the 1980s.

They have a flair for gritty rock that pulses with energy and life. No Fixed Address was the first Aboriginal band to make it into the mainstream venues in Sydney and Melbourne. Their Indigenous fan base, particularly from Redfern, gave them loud support and encouragement at their city gigs.This was a unique experience for a young non-Indigenous audience.

The band originally included Ricky Harrison (rhythm guitarist/songwriter); Leslie Lovegrove Freeman (lead guitarist); John Miller (bass) and Bart Willoughby (lead vocals and drums). They studied at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music in Adelaide.

They were the first contemporary Aboriginal rock band to tour overseas after supporting the Reggae Artist Peter Tosh on his 1982 tour of Australia. They were featured along with the band Us Mob in a film Wrong Side of the Road in 1980.

Bart Willoughby – breaking the barriers and creating a distinct sound

No Fixed Address is best known for their 1982 single We Have Survived … in a white man’s world. Bart Willoughby’s lyrics encompassed many topics that would become themes of Aboriginal contemporary music, especially cultural survival as well as loss and Indigenous rights. Willoughby wrote

You can’t change the rhythm of my soul
You can’t tell me what to do

After No Fixed Address, Bart Willoughby formed a Sydney based group Mixed Relations and reggae continued to be a major influence, although he also added saxophone and backing singers. He continued to break the barriers between traditional and contemporary music forms and created a distinct sound that contributed to defining Aboriginal rock.

Joe Geia

Joe Geia

Joe Geia, promotional image

In the early 1980s Joe Geia was a member of No Fixed Address and went onto release three albums of his own over three decades. Joe Geia is a Murri Aboriginal artist from Northern Queensland. He is the singer of one of Aboriginal Australia’s best loved songs, Yil Lull, as well as the much loved anthem Uncle Willie. Yil Lull is a song for all to recognise that there is hope, strength and beauty in cultural survival.

I sing for the black and the people of this land,
I sing for the red and the blood that’s been shed,
Now I’m singing for the gold,
And a new year for young and old
Yil Lull, Yil Lull, Yil Lull

Mixed Relations – urban, ancient and wide-screen

Mixed Relations formed in 1989 in Sydney with Bart Willoughby on lead vocals, didgeridoo and drums, Murray Cook on bass, keyboards and saxophone, Brenda Gifford on saxophone, Alvin Duffin on drums and percussion, Leroy Cummins playing lead guitar, Suzanne Irvin on piano and additional vocals by Sharon Carpenter, Alice Haines and Vanessa Lucas. Haines also played clapsticks and Lucas played bass and violin.

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 ... They were urban, ancient, angry, wide-screen and dubby: a band that brewed and stretched out.
Paul Kelly, Desert Songs: Thirty Years of Australia's Hidden Hit Parade, The Monthly, October 2012

The song Aboriginal Woman made it into Triple J Hottest 100 songs in 1993, against the world’s best songs. Songs by Christine Anu (with Paul Kelly), Yothu Yindi and Kev Carmody made the list also out of about only eight songs by Australian musicians. Murray Cook joined Mental As Anything.

They toured extensively around Australia as well as overseas to New Zealand, USA, Europe and Hong Kong.

Warumpi Band – vibrant desert rock ‘song poetry’

Photo of Warumpi Band

Gordon Butcher, Neil Murray, Sammy Butcher, Dennis Minor, George Rrurrambui at Papunya, 1981, courtesy of Alice Desert Festival

The Warumpi Band (Warumpi meaning honey ant dreaming) was a seminal Aboriginal rock and country music band that formed out of Papunya in Central Australia in 1980 and played for over a period of 20 years, often touring with Midnight Oil. They sought to synthesise Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal music traditions into one musical form; they sang in both English and a Pintupi-Luritja dialect.

Their influences included Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and ‘every country musician’ they had seen. Country and western music was the preferred music of white pastoralists so this was the major form of music that Aboriginal people in the desert were exposed to before rock ‘n’ roll. (Peter Dunbar-Hall, Deadly Places – Deadly Sounds, p. 100)

Warumpi Band was originally formed by a non-Aboriginal teacher and musician Neil Murray on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, with Aboriginal musicians Gordon Butcher Tjapanangka on drums, and Sammy Butcher Tjapanangka, on guitar and bass (both from Pupunya Central Australia) and George Burarrwanga from Elcho Island on lead vocals and didgeridoo.

Their music was vibrant desert rock ‘song poetry’, spiced with boomerang claps. They had quick rock rhythms and showed a fresh approach to three chord form, playing them in three different keys successively, creating energetic polyrhythms, very similar to traditional singing.

Warumpi Band

Warumpi Band, 1985, promotional image for Big Name No Blankets

Their songs pointed to the circumstances of growing up Aboriginal in Central and Northern Australia. Their first album Big Name No Blanket (1985) had a profound effect on mainstream music and audiences when they toured to capital cities. One of their big hits, Blackfella Whitefella, written by George Burrarrawanga seemed to open up possibilities for social progress between Aborigines and non-Aborigines.

Initially it was about fun and just making music and the joy of playing together but then once we started to write our songs especially the ones in their native language and we changed audience attitudes on how they viewed the communities it was something more than entertainment - we actually had a 'voice'
Beat, Neil Murray: Warumpi Band

In 1983 they released the first rock song sung in an Aboriginal language called Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out from Jail) with a driving beat which became a top hit amongst Aboriginal youth and making the Top Forty song charts in Sydney and Melbourne. It was featured in the National Registry of Recorded Sound collection.

Their song My Island Home (1988) was awarded the APRA Song of the Year in when it was re-released by Christine Anu. It was also also recorded by Tiddas for the soundtrack to the feature film Radiance. The song became something of an unofficial anthem for Australia and featured in the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Jailanguru Pakarnu album cover

Warumpi Band album cover for Jailanguru Pakarnu, 1984

The Warumpi Band toured Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu in 1985. In 1986 they were the first original Aboriginal rock band to tour many communities, their preferred audience, and they inspired many local bands to do the same thing. Neil Murrary describes the band’s approach to touring,

We might just ring up on the radio telephone before-hand, ‘oh, we’re coming in a couple of days’ time’. We’d turn up, we’d have a few photocopied posters we’d made at the school in Papunya – little sheets, give them to a kid on a pushbike who’d take ‘em and scatter them around the community, around the town.
Interview in Dunbar-Hall and Gibson, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places, 2004, p. 48>

Sammy Butcher was the subject of the documentary Sammy Butcher, Out of the Shadows, part of the Nganampa Anwernekenhe series. The documentary looks at his life with and after the Warumpi Band. Butcher now invests his time with young musicians in Papunya.

George Burrarrawanga – charismatic front man

The lead singer, George Burarrwanga (1957–2007) was an icon of Aboriginal rock music, and was a charismatic front man, compared to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and Michael Hutchence of INXS.

After the breakup of the Warumpi Band, Burarrwanga launched a lower-key solo career, performing to sellout crowds during 2000. He then launched a solo reggae album, touring throughout the Northern Territory and then to Europe in 2002. In later years, Burarrwanga largely returned to traditional life with a focus on maintaining ceremony although continued singing Blackfella Whitefella, with Birdwave in 2007.

Coloured Stone – fusing reggae, country-western rock with language

Coloured Stone

Coloured Stone at the Saltwater Festival, 2012

Another prominent Aboriginal rock band from the red dirt country is Coloured Stone, a band from Koonibba, South Australia, on the Nullarbor Plain, who fuse reggae, country-western and rock genres while making use of didgeridoo and Indigenous language.

They formed in 1977 and have a raw powerful hard-hitting rock sound that is instantly attention grabbing. The name of their first album described the country, their music and their sound – Koonibba Rock. In addition to Buna Lawrie on drums and vocals, Bruce Lawrie played lead guitar, Neil Coaby was rhythm guitar and Mackie Coaby played bass.

Their hits included Kapi Pulka (Big Rain) and Black Boy (1984) and Dancing in the Moonlight (1986). The song Black Boy became an anthem, which invoked pride in Indigenous culture. Dancing in the Moonlight was danced to with great joy by throngs of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal fans at concerts under the stars, from Darwin through Arnhem to Yarrabah and Cairns on their 1988 tour. Dancing in the Moonlight was covered by Smashing Pumpkins and made it into the Triple J Hottest 100 songs in 1994, along with a Christine Anu song and part of a small proportion of Australian songs against the world’s best songs.

Bunna Lowrie and Coloured Stone recorded 32 songs, many of them memorable for putting the cultural subjects out there as part of mainstream Australia, including Sacred Ground, Island of Greed, No More Boomerang, Take Me Back to the Dreamtime and a reference to the Herbie Laughton classic, My Desert Rose with Wild Desert Rose.

The present members are Bunna Lawrie (vocals, rhythm guitar, didgeridu, gong stone), Selwyn Burns (lead guitar, vocals), Nicky Moffat (bass guitar, vocals, didgeridu) and Peter Hood (drums).

Today Bunna Lawrie is a respected elder of the Mirning Aboriginal people from the coastal Nullarbor region of South Australia. He is a Mirning whale dreamer and songman, medicine man and story teller. Bunna Lawrie won the prestigious Australia Council Don Banks Music Award in 2000.

Ilkari Maru – upbeat desert country rhythm and soul

Ilkaru Maru album cover

Ilkaru Maru self-titled album cover, c. 1982

Ilkari Maru, based at Amata were an original rock country band which sang in English and Pitjantjatjara, producing two albums, one self-titled and the other Wangangarangku Rungkanu: Lightning Strikes, both through Imparja Records.

Band members were Warren Tunkin, Larry Brady, Andrew Ken, Adam Tunkin and Leonard Jacob. The front man Kunmanara ‘Tjamu Tjamu’ Tunkin was highly regarded as a song writer and singer. The site of the UPK5 recording studio was chosen to be located at Amata in recognition of Kunmanara and Ilkari Maru. A locally produced album is UPK5 – Katji Kuta La.

Their music was characterised by flexible bar lengths giving it a distinctive Aboriginal desert country rhythm. One of their signature dance songs, the upbeat Tjamu Tjamu was played on the Women of the Sun series and the movie Samson and Delilah.

Other hit songs which received wide airplay across Aboriginal Australia included, Dynamite and Fight for your Right. The hauntingly beautiful Black Girl with its soulful sound was matched by the fast dance tune of Rhonda Rhonda.

UPK albums – sharp clear catchy rhythms and male harmonies

Since the late 1980s, UPK, Uwankara Palyanku Kanyitjaku (everybody creating and holding the future) is a strategy to achieve well-being through a shared vision. This uses music featuring local artists to address and fix the social, emotional, environmental and health problems in Alice Springs and surrounding areas.

The first UPK album was recorded at Mutitjulu in 1989 establishing a benchmark in popularity and quality. It was not until 2002 that UPK2 was recorded at Tilun Tilun to be followed by UPK#3 at Black Hill – Kunma Piti and UPK#4 at Ulkiya.

UPK5 features Palya Nyinama (Ngurrawirura Kanyinma), a song by Jacob Tiger, from Amata community in South Australia, telling people to look after place (home -- Ngurra), family and people so we will be healthy.

NoKTuRNL – Rip Rock, a new form of music

NoKTuRNL

NoKTuRNL, 2007, courtesy of Deadly Vibe

NoKTuRNL are a rap rock nu metal band that started out in 1996 by supporting Spider Bait in their home town of Alice Springs and then being asked to tour nationally. Members are Craig T, lead singer and guitar, Damien the lead guitarist and drums, although this alternates between recording and live performances; Cameron McGlinchey on drums and Matt Cornell on bass.

They describe their music as ‘rip rock’ – mixing melody with menace and a message. While some lyrics express a pathos or anger they celebrate the triumph of the human spirit in this potentially bleak world.

No matter their instruments or the song, NoKTuRNL have a unique sound. This band’s energy is powerful and vibrant enough to make all stand up and take notice. Craig comments

Audience acceptance is the most important and hardest thing to achieve. You have to work hard to win them over and get them on your side. In the end, it is only the audience that matters.
Deadly Vibe, 30 November 2007

They have toured nationally, headlining at the Big Day Out, Melbourne, the Woodford Festival in Queensland and the Stompen Ground Festival, Broome and named as one of the best 100 bands ever in Australia. In 1998 they headed to London to record and have toured since to Europe and Brazil. Their album is called Time Flies.

Dan Sultan - country soul rock ‘n’ roll

Dan Sultan, whose mother is Arrernte and Gurindji, grew up in Yuendumu, in the Tanami Desert, before moving to Melbourne and Cairns. His mother, Roslyn Sultan, got her name from the Afghan camel drivers. He is also a descendant of Vincent Lingiari, the Wave Hill stockman who led the Gurindji walk-off, making land rights the next phase of the civil rights movement. He learnt to play guitar at four years of age and was writing songs at age ten.

Dan Sultan

Dan Sultan, 2012, Indigenous Rights Concert Tour, promotional image

Sultan plays what he calls country soul rock ‘n’ roll. Desert rock combines with big band soul and rock along with haunting acoustic ballads that reflect the Indigenous survival style swing ballads of Kooris in Victoria, such as in Old Fitzroy. This song also references Harry Williams’ song Streets of Fitzroy. Combining song with dance, as he learnt as a young boy, Sultan ‘scissors his legs back-and-forth on stage, shimmies his hips and shortens and extends his arms’. Clare Bowditch has called him ‘the black Elvis’. (Georgina Bible, Meet the Sultan of blues, Northern Star, 5 May 2010)

Sultan’s early career was given a leg up when he won support from John Butler to produce his first album, and was invited by Paul Kelly to perform at a series of tribute concerts for Kev Carmody. Kelly described him as ‘a strong songwriter with a soulful, expressive voice’. (Joel Gibson, Dan Sultan - the black Elvis? Sydney Morning Herald, 7 March 2008). Sultan comments

It’s always very humbling to get these opportunities but it’s not a sign you’ve arrived.
Kathy McCabe, Sultan of Zing, Perth Now, 22 May 2010

His second album, Get Out While You Can, (2009) reached Number 1 on the independent Australian charts, was a Triple J feature album and won an ARIA for Best Independent Blues and Roots Album. Sultan won the ARIA Best Male Artist in 2010.

Desert Rock – mapping the country afresh

Island of Greed album cover

Cover of Coloured Stone’s album Island of Greed, 1985

Just as Song Lines map the country and connect language groups with the telling of the Ancestral Dreaming stories through song; desert rock music has connected language groups and mapped the stories of cultural survival for a wide audience.

The Song Lines from the desert connect to the Kimberley, Western Australia as well as further south, down to South Australia and through to Queensland and New South Wales. It is not surprising now that desert rock and other genres are well established that this should be reflected in meetings of those music types.

Since the 1990s, Alice Springs, as the recording centre for Desert Rock, has attracted other Indigenous rock musicians. An example is Dark Seed from Armidale, NSW who recorded and filmed their first single and accompanying video there in 1998.

Bart Willoughby

Bart Willoughby performing with Black Arm Band

Travelling in the other direction, desert rock has found the Black Arm Band, a collaboration of Australia’s top Indigenous performing artists and jazz musicians, and has included amongst others, George Burarrwanga, Jimmy Little, Shellie Morris, Steve Pigrim, Archie Roach, Dan Sultan, Bart Willoughby and Gurrumul Yunupingu.

Today, the Black Arm Band is a nationally based music organisation dedicated to Aboriginal contemporary music in all its forms that has toured internationally to the UK and USA. It promotes this through large-scale music theatre productions and collaborations and ongoing workshop programs in communities to use music to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

This approach to harnessing the power of music continues across the communities that formed desert rock – whether it is Bunna Lawrie at Koonibba, Sammy Butcher in Papunya or the UPK5 recording studio at Amata in recognition of Ilkari Maru. Their commitment can be seen at the 2010 Alice Desert Festival – the Bush Bands Bash. Desert rock continues as a vehicle to identify and connect to country, promote cultural survival and transform the experiences of audiences.

Useful Links

Look, Listen and Play

Singers and musicians

Listings of Indigenous performers

Education Kits

  • Buried Country: The story of Aboriginal country music – film, book and soundtrack. Buried Country tells the story of Australian country music in the Aboriginal community, based on the book written by Clinton Walker, and narrated by KevCarmody. Teachers Notes

Awards, foundations and distribution

Indigenous and other select festivals

Print References for further readings

  • Marcus Breen, Our Place Our Music, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989
  • Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia, UNSW Press, 2004
  • C J Ellis, M Brunton and L M Barwick, 'From Dreaming Rock to Reggae Rock', in McCredie, A.D (ed), From Colonel Light into the Footlights, 1988
  • S. Kleinert and M. Neale, Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Oxford University Press, 2000
  • Clinton Walker, Country Man. Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Pluto Press, 2000

Last updated: March 2014
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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