The people’s band

Neil Murray had been labouring in the Indigenous community of Papunya – a bone-jarring four-hour ride north-west of Alice Springs – for about a week when he met Sammy Butcher in 1980. “He must have heard that I had a guitar, and he came around to have a look,” Murray says. “I showed him the guitar, and right away I could tell he could play – there was an energy there, he was gifted. You know those guitar players that never play the same solo twice, and they’ll tune up as they’re going? That kind of guy.”

Murray dragged out his amplifier, Sammy’s brother showed up with an upturned flour drum and a couple of sticks, and the trio began bashing out covers of rock & roll standards in the front yard. This was the birth of the Warumpi Band, who would be completed by the arrival of charismatic singer George Rrurrambu Burarrawanga.

It’s these rough beginnings that are captured in Warumpi Rock, a historic release of the earliest known recordings of the band 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, supplied to him by the Northern Territory education department.

Times have been hard for the pioneering group, who helped blaze a trail for Yothu Yindi and other Indigenous Australian musicians. Yolŋu man George Rrurrambu returned to his home of Elcho Island (subject of the band’s best-known song, My Island Home) and died in 2007. Butcher’s brother, G, whose full name should not yet be spoken, passed last year.

Murray is not only grieving the loss of his bandmates: their long-serving manager, David Cooke, died on 28 October. “He kept us going – so many times I thought we were finished, and then Cookie would ring up and say ‘Look, I think we can do this, I’ve been talking to George’, and unbelievably, we’d get back out there.”

Sammy Butcher, now 59 and a Pitjantjatjara–Warlpiri elder, 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 legacy. He says they were “the people’s band”. “We just wanted to give our music to everybody,” he says. “I’m happy that we were a role model for so many.”

King Stingray singer Yirrnga Yunupingu (nephew of Yothu Yindi leader Dr M Yunupingu, while Rrurrambu is another uncle on his Gumatj side) was one to draw inspiration. “I grew up listening to George, we used to love the old-school rock & roll at school discos,” he tells Guardian Australia in a statement. “We sometimes drop Waru in our set.”

Dan Sultan is another. “In this country, we’re spoilt for frontpeople,” he says, dropping the names Bon Scott, Chrissy Amphlett and Michael Hutchence: “GR is at the top of the pile for me. He was the best frontman that this country has ever produced, regardless of how many people, or more to the point how many people don’t know it. GR was the absolute best.”

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

Sultan also queries why Sammy Butcher isn’t given more recognition: “To be Black in this country means you have to be twice as good, for half as much,” he says. Butcher taught himself to play by listening to the Shadows. He released a solo album in 2002, Desert Surf Guitar. “Out here, the rolling sand dunes are like a wave, so I call it desert surf,” he explains.

Butcher hopes he can set one more example to 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 says. But in Papunya, as in other Indigenous communities, rates are lagging: less than a quarter of the population of 515 are protected.

In nearby Yuendumu, it’s even worse: just 30 percent of 679 people have had their first shot of the vaccine. “They’re very reticent, especially in some western desert regions, [and] in the Kimberleys,” Murray says. “People are very susceptible to stuff they read on social media.”

It was during a break in the 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. “It’s about a jailbird, coming out of jail, trying to fit in with the family,” Butcher says.

The band had been pushed 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 travelled to Papunya to record the band for the session, suggested they write the song in Luritja – better for the radio station’s listeners.

The crossover to white audiences was unexpected. The Warumpi Band released three albums, including the classic Big Name, No Blankets in 1985, co-headlining the Blackfella/Whitefella tour of Indigenous communities with Midnight Oil the following year. The Butcher brothers, desperately homesick, left the group shortly afterwards.

Neil Murray, now 65, still wonders what might have been. “The band is more well-known now than we ever were when we were up and running around. Over 100,000 people stream Warumpi Band every month on Spotify; we’re known all over the world now, really. But that wasn’t to be. You only get a small window of opportunity.”

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

He remembers one of the earliest gigs, before Rrurrambu joined. “I was working on the back of a truck for one of the outstations, shovelling gravel, and Sammy and the guys came around about 2pm in the afternoon – guitars sticking out the window of the HD Holden – they said, ‘We’re going to Hermannsburg for a gig, wanna come?’

“I looked at the boss and said, can I go? And he said ‘Oh yeah, you can go.’ And I let that shovel fall and jumped in the car with them, and away we went.”

First published in the Guardian, 20 November 2021

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