Mick Daley ©
A heavily edited version of this story was published in the Sun Herald, Sydney on July 9, 2017.
Moonrise on spinifex grass in the West Australian desert, at the northern extremity of the Nullarbor Plain.
Aboriginal musician J. Minning is describing traditional life as he prepares a freshly shot kangaroo for a Pitjantjatjara barbeque – roasted whole in a freshly dug open earth oven.
“It’s about doing things right way,” he says carefully. “For people growing up in the bush, country comes first. The land, that’s your home y’know?
J. is singer and songwriter for the Desert Stars, the most remote rock and roll band in the world. They’ve just released an album, Mungangka Ngaranyi? and are planning a nationwide tour.
Their music is unashamedly influenced by their favourite band, globe-straddling giants AC/DC, to the extent that they’ve been nicknamed ‘Blackadacca’. They’ve played sellout shows from Kalgoorlie to Alice Springs. But their roots are firmly in their ancient homeland.
We’ve been hunting with Desert Stars bassist Justin Currie and driver Ethan Hansen, head of land management group the Spinifex Rangers. They live at the community of Tjuntjuntjara in the Great Victorian desert, 700 kilometres from the remote town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia.
This is the homeland of the Pitjantjatjarra people known as the Pila Nguru (Spinifex People), whose southernmost community is immortalized in the Desert Stars’ song of the same name, Tjuntjuntjara;
I’m watching that moon rising,
Waiting for the shooting star
To make a wish that I was home
with the desert plain and the kataya trees
Tjutjuntjara, that’s where I wanna be
J.’s infusing a mess of intestines with dung squeezed from the entrails.
“It’s nothing but grass,” he assures me, as he lays them on a platter of kataya leaves, before roasting them as an entree.
Life at Tjuntjuntjara is interwoven with such connections to country. It operates on finely nuanced laws developed over millennia for the survival of small groups in harsh terrain.
The community is designed around clusters of close family, but everyone is indirectly related, in the dualistic Aboriginal way where your cousins are sisters, your biological parents operate as distant aunts and your uncle is called Dad. Despite this there are certain people you walk past without acknowledgement – mother-in-laws for instance.
It’s a sturdy domestic architecture that encourages traditional practices such as hunting kangaroo to provide food for elders. As Ethan and Justin expertly dismember the cooked kangaroo they describe how it will be distributed.
“We gotta share it out,” Justin says, his arms smeared with blood. “Some for the uncles and aunties, some for the tjamu (grandfathers). Next time when they go out we’ll get some too.”
“Justin does this nearly every day,” adds J. “Five tjamu, he got to feed them all.”
“Yuwah! (that’s right),” says Justin.
The hunt was a spectacle. Ethan was driving, expertly whipping around trees and rocks at great speed to keep us inexorably on the trail of the sprinting kangaroos. Justin’s the shooter, leaning into the swerving vehicle, lining up a roo for the final deadly shot.
Racing through spinifex grassland, the Desert Stars’ CD was clanging through the truck. Listening to the record in that context is like being suddenly able to understand Pitjantjatjara. The music has all the menace and compressed power of AC/DC, leavened with the lyrical tenderness of J.’s reverence for his country.
In ‘Tjukurpa Wiru’ (Good Story), he sings in language of a romantic dilemma;
This is a story about a young man and a girl.
Even though they are of the right way marriage group, he is not in love with her but has fallen in love with her stories.
Such references to traditional life manifest throughout J’s songs, as in the art of his parent’s generation, the last to emerge from a nomadic desert lifestyle.
The sacred dot paintings of these world famous artists illustrate the interface between Dreamtime (Tjukurpa) and desert terrain. The painters, many in their eighties, boast of having met the Queen and Gough Whitlam. Their works fetch enormous prices, establishing their reputation as elite painters in their field.
One of these virtuosos, the aloof Mrs Simms is often to be seen towering majestically on walks around the community, surrounded by a retinue of fierce dogs. Other elders, playing cards in the dust or sitting silently at strategic locations, give no indication that their transcendent canvases are feted around the world’s fine art enclaves.
The paintings document evidence of 600 generations of continuous habitation of their land. They were instrumental in establishing the connection to country that earned their successful Native Title claim in 2000. It marked their return from an exile sparked by British atomic bomb testing in the 1950’s at Maralinga, in the heart of Pitjantjatjara country.
I thought I heard a thunder near Maralinga
I thought I seen a serpent man
Feel my spirit running
A day earlier I’d sat in the shade of a tin shelter talking to
three elders – Mr Grant and Mr Hogan, with Betty Kennedy interpreting their stories. Betty, who’d been six at the time of the nuclear blasts, told how some of the fleeing desert people had been picked up in trucks.
But for many it meant a brutally long walk through the desert without water.
Mr Grant and Mr Hogan are senior lawmen and painters. They greeted me politely, their camp dogs growling with frank suspicion.
Mr Grant began passionately orating in a mélange of language, English and sign, using sweeping gestures to indicate routes taken to avoid the atomic apocalypse. That exodus has become embedded in cultural memory, an event perhaps as momentous as creation stories.
Betty told with great sorrow of the people left behind. Entire families perished, poisoned by the nuclear fallout or blinded by the explosion. Some like the Rictor family disappeared into the desert till 1986, the last nomads to emerge into white-influenced civilization.
The Pila Nguru had become among the world’s first nuclear refugees. The survivors established a makeshift community at J.’s birthplace, Cundeelee Mission, till water shortages forced another move south. But Cundeelee remained in J’s memory as a lost paradise.
You’re hidden away in my memory, only stories can be told
Cundeelee you’re always on my mind
In the early 80s the elders grew restless and many walked back into country, ending up at Yakatunya, not far from where our kangaroo is roasting. J. grew up there in the traditional way. But he was constantly on the two-way radio to Justin at Cundeelee, raving about their shared passion for music.
As a result his songs are steeped in two profoundly disparate elements. The first is connection to country. The second is rock and roll.
“When I learned music it was from cousins drinking at their fires, cassette tapes playing AC/DC or Warumpi Band,” says J.
“We was out at the edge of the community with air guitars and cardboard drums, dancing and singing along. Kids gotta stay away from drunk people. They’re bush people and it’s rough.”
Drinking was one of the biggest problems for Aboriginal people fresh out of the desert. The ravages of alcohol fragmented social ties evolved over millennia.
Along with the horrors of the Stolen Generation there was a less documented ‘lost generation’ of men and women who succumbed to drink driving, a diabetes epidemic and other afflictions of white provenance, leaving a massive hole in their genealogical DNA. Orphaned or neglected kids lost to petty crime and substance abuse are as plentiful in the towns as men in their fifties are few.
Desperate to escape the ravages of civilization, the old people pressed on to Tjuntjuntjura, which was declared a dry area. They had been awarded compensation for the Maralinga bombings and have been settled there now for 30 years. It’s an oasis for lives scarred by drugs and alcohol in the city.
These scourges still plague those who travel to Kalgoorlie, where incarceration rates are high – one in 27 Aboriginal men are jailed in Western Australia, usually for minor civil infractions.
Everyone in the band’s been arrested – their drummer recently did some time. J’s last stretch was for stealing a policeman’s hat.
In Gravel Road he invokes a rock and roll outlaw in a high speed police chase.
Blazing red, flashing blue lights, here they come,
I’m on my way to the gravel road
Catch me if you can
The fire is dying down and a strident full moon has clambered up over the desert. The stars are colossal, intense. As the butchered kangaroo is wrapped in kataya leaves we chew on choice morsels of kidney and stomach.
Justin plays country licks on J.’s guitar. He’s good, but Derek Coleman, who’s away on traditional law business, is lead guitarist.
Ethan listens silently, a stoic figure in the star-lit dusk. As head of the Spinifex Rangers, Ethan, with four other men constantly patrols 5.5 million hectares of country.
They set firebreaks and hunt feral camels and cats, which threaten the delicate ecology of the bush. Songs used to tell of nomads feasting on brush-tailed possums at the right time of year. Now they are no more.
The Rangers eradicate vegetative plagues like African buffel grass. They also map and maintain sacred sites, including traditional water rock-holes.
Ethan explains; “People ask ‘how long you been doing this job for?’ But my people been doing it for thousands of years, and I’ve been doing it all my life.”
I ask J. if his songs serve the same purpose as the dot paintings, reminding younger generations of this ancient matrix of land and spirit. He nods emphatically.
“That’s why we gotta keep on playing this music,” he says. “Young people, they like raging and all that. I see ‘em watching, playing air guitar just like I did. We keep on reminding them that this is the real story and we’re doing it by rock and roll. They learn something from the Desert Stars, every time they see us.”
Next morning I’m out looking for the band members. We’re booked for a drive up north to Illkurka station. But time is a fluid concept, here in the desert where Dreamtime remains a potent influence. J. eventually appears, chewing on a chunk of kangaroo neck.
“Let’s have a sit down,” he says.
We’re soon joined by Justin, guitarist Derek who returned in the early hours, and a squadron of camp dogs angling for a piece of kangaroo. They’re ready for a full band interview. J. nods and I produce the ‘conversation’, as he calls my recording device. I ask Derek how he gets his scorching Pink Floyd guitar sound.
“Just press that silver button. Distortion. Yuwah!”
His eyes mist up as he describes the ecstasy of being on stage.
“Too much energy. Like another spirit jumps into me, then when I get off stage I’m back to myself.”
J. likes to sing in Pitjantjatjara but explains how that medium is limited when it comes to certain concepts.
“Don’t have words in language for some things. No word for ‘guitar’, no word for ‘drum’, no word for ‘shake it up’,” he laughs.
Justin talks of Warumpi Band and Ilkari Maru, two other Pitjantjatjara-based desert-rock bands that made it onto the national stage.
“They mix up country and rock and roll, singing in language,” he says. “We was always listening, thinking, ‘we wanna be the same as them’.”
But J. is signaling to turn off the ‘conversation’. It’s time to head for Illkurka.
On that drive we visit an ancient rockhole, out of which the Spinifex Rangers recently pulled a dead camel. Zebra finches and budgerigars are now drinking in vast, swirling green and blue flocks. We pass the scarlet flowers of Sturt’s Desert Pea as we careen over great sand dunes, glimpsing snakes and a lumbering goanna.
On the return journey the 4WD’s pull over when camels are spotted. Justin handily shoots four of the enormous animals. Ethan’s happy, describing the havoc these creatures wreak on the desert with their vast appetites and blundering feet.
The Desert Stars album rings out across the desert, boasting of the restorative powers of living on country. In Wati Youngapalla J. sings of a young man who’s learned to avoid the temptations of drugs and alcohol.
He just likes being around his grandfather’s place because he feels stronger and stronger with each visit.
It’s exhilarating stuff, hunting with the wardens of our ancient country. They inhabit a richly textured tapestry of music and art that invokes scientific principles of ecology, astronomy and quantum physics.
They are the direct descendants of people that thought nothing of walking naked through stony desert without water, carrying all their possessions, babies and immense libraries of oral knowledge, with ancestral songs providing navigational maps.
They abide strictly by ancient laws more stern than any Biblical proscription. Yet their music and art is as vital as you’ll find anywhere in the world.
They survived the bloodthirsty British Empire, nuclear blasts, smallpox and generational kidnapping in some of the harshest terrain on earth.
They are the Pila Nguru, latest in a long line of desert stars.
The Desert Stars album Mungangka Ngaranyi? is available now through Sugarrush Music.