Big Name No Blanket – Warumpi Band – A Passing Connection

I lived and worked briefly (10 weeks) in Papunya in 1978 and then later on at Galiwinku (Elcho Island) for approx 4 years 1978-1981 doing community recreation work with the YMCA (starting as an 18-19 year old). So the Warumpi Band has (and still does) always held a special place for me linking my formative experiences in those two place. It was in this context that I’d known George – the lead singer of the Warumpi Band i.e. at Elcho Island – though we weren’t close friends as such. I also had met – prior to meeting George – his (at that time not yet designated) wife-to-be Suzina from my brief time at Papunya.

Sometime in the late 1990’s just after an Australia Day/Survival Day I was passing through Sydney airport, returning from an overseas work trip. Whilst walking from my arrival to gate to where I would catch my connecting flight I happen to cross paths with George. Neil Murray and the other current members of the Warumpi Band at the time were sitting further back in the waiting area. I hadn’t seen George to talk with since I’d departed Elcho Island i.e. possibly some 15 years earlier (although I had been to a Warumpi Band concert at ANU sometime in 1993-1994 and may have spoken with him briefly then).

Anyway, George looks up and recognises me, “Gidday William” he says nonchalantly (as though we saw each other every day). I said “Hi George, How is it going?” “You missed our big concert” replied George “We just played at a big Survival Day concert. It was great.” “Did you George, that’s good. Sorry I missed it.”

And then for some perverse reason (perhaps so I could tell this story for the years to come) I decided that the essence of our communication had occurred and that anything further would risk tainting or diluting the moment so I finished off the conversation with ” Good to see you George” or words to that effect and kept heading towards where I had to catch my connecting flight!

That was the last time I saw George in person.

The lyrics of this Warumpi Band song are very evocative for me as they link my Papaya and Elcho Island experiences. Particularly the phrases “west of Alice Springs” / “dry winds”/ “in a boat on the sea again … holding that long turtle spear”
In November 1996 a group of us travelled up from Canberra for the final Crowded House concert held on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. This, their last concert, was the first and only time for me to see Crowded House. One of the highlights was when the last of the supporting bands – Powderfinger – performed Black Fella White Fella as the final song of their set. Two months earlier Pauline Hanson had made her infamous maiden speech in the Australian Parliament and her racist views were very much colouring the political discourse of the time. So with no introduction or fanfare Powderfinger launched into Black Fella White Fella – a rendition  all the more potent for the unstated but heightened context in which It was being played.
“Well I’m a stranger to your life for a start, and I’m not sure if I can really play a part, still I came to your country I don’t know what you’re thinking of me, all I know is that I can’t forget these times with you. see I don’t want to lose you not your warmth nor your humour, you see how sad it makes me to have to go…believe what I say….for I know many have spoken before and gone again with nothing more”
I have always kept these lyrics in mind when departing from a place where I have stayed (lived/worked) long enough to have formed substantive relationships with people for whom such places are home i.e. not promising to return until such time as I am reasonably certain I will do so.

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