George Rrurrambu

Warumpi Band singer

Saturday 17 September 2011 12:40

George Rrurrambu Barrawanga, musician and activist: born Galiwinku, Northern Territory 1957; married Suzina McDonald (two sons, four daughters); died Galiwinku 10 June 2007.

One of the pioneers of Aboriginal rock music, George Rrurrambu was sometimes called "the black Mick Jagger" and "the Aboriginal Bon Scott" for his charismatic and energetic stage manner.

He was a founding member and the grittier of two lead singers in Warumpi Band, the first Australian rock group to have an indigenous-language hit. He co-wrote their songs "Blackfella Whitefella" and "My Island Home", which became an Aboriginal anthem and was performed at the Sydney Olympics by the singer Christine Anu. Rrurrambu was also a strong advocate for indigenous peoples' rights, and reconciliation and understanding between black and white Australians.

Warumpi Band came together in the late 1970s, initially calling themselves Warumpinya Band after a honey-ant dreaming site near their desert town of Papunya, 260km west of Alice Springs. They toured remote parts of the Northern Territory and neighbouring Western Australia, at first relying on covers of songs by Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, before recording "Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out From Jail)" in 1983. The song featured Rrurrambu singing in his first language, Luritja, and using boomerangs for percussion.

The group released its début album Big Name No Blanket in 1984, touring it round Australia and in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu the following year. In 1988 they recorded the album Go Bush! after a month-long outback tour with the band Midnight Oil. Dubbed the "Blackfella Whitefella tour", the event was documented by a film of the same name and Andrew McMillan's rock'n'roll road trip book Strict Rules (1988). The song "Blackfella Whitefella" itself was recorded twice by Warumpi Band, as well as by the Brisbane rockers Powderfinger in 1996 and the Aboriginal crooner Jimmy Little in 1999.

After the success of their second album, Warumpi Band struggled with line-up changes and problems with alcohol (including Rrurrambu's) which were often addressed in their lyrics, along with issues of Aboriginal disenfranchisement but also cultural renaissance. Weathering several break-ups and reformations, they toured Europe and the UK in 1995 and released a third album, Too Much Humbug, in 1996. They made their final live appearances in 2000, the same year Rrurrambu released his only solo album, the reggae-based Nerbu Message.

In 2001, Rrurrambu appeared in an ABC documentary about Warumpi Band called The End of the Corrugated Road. In 2005, he toured his autobiographical one-man show Nerrpu Dhawu Rrurrambuwuy around Australia, and in 2006 made one more album, called Baru, with the Adelaide-based group Birdwave.

When he received news of his incurable cancer, he went back to his birthplace on Elcho Island in the Northern Territory, surrounding himself with friends and relatives who filled his final days with traditional songs of farewell.

Jon Lusk

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