Music by VICE

Deadly Tracks: A Conversation With Warren H. Williams on Aboriginal Desert Country

Between the early 80s and the early 90s, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association recorded around 75 country albums. Noisey spoke to the it's longest-running broadcaster about that incredible time.

by Pete Baxter
19 April 2017, 6:05am

"Hermannsberg Mountain" courtesy of CAAMA's website.

This article may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased.

Last year at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre in the Melbourne Museum, there was a First Peoples exhibition. In it there was a jukebox, and on it, a song by Harry Williams & The Country Outcasts called "The Streets Of Old Fitzroy." It really took me. I rushed home to see what I could find online. I found the song but not a lot else. And then life got in the way. I forgot all about this interest in Aboriginal country music until earlier this year when a friend gave me a Best Of by Coloured Stone, a band active since 1977 from the Koonibba Mission South Australia. A particular song, "Waiting For The Tide" jumped out and I found myself going back to it over and over again. That same week I watched Andrew Kidman's 1996 film Litmus: A Surfing Odyssey. The second track in it was "Gapu," an absolute banger from Yothu Yindi. It was one of those moments when life or the universe or algorithms come out swinging, trying to get you to open your eyes to the torch in front of you. I realised there was a whole world of music and aboriginal history I knew nothing about.

This took me down a rabbit hole. The deeper I got, the more I became aware of the richness of the well, and the small percentage I was actually able to hear or read about on the internet or buy through the usual sources. The audio visual room in State Library Of Victoria proved to be the best bet—there are a few original cassettes and LP's in its archives available for listening. I particularly fell in love with Hermannsburg Mountain, a cassette by Irwin Inkamala and The Country Lads, which was released by The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) in the late 80s. Researching CAAMA, it became clear the this decade—from it's birth in the early 1980s through to the early 90s—held some of the best secrets. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in its finding aid lists 75 albums recorded at CAAMA through this time, most only available to those with access to the dusty boxes in the back room of CAAMA studios.

I got in touch with CAAMA to see if I could learn more. Station manager Miko put me in touch with Warren H. Williams, an Arrernte man born in Hermannsburg in Australia's Northern Territory in 1963, and a living legend of Aboriginal country music. Warren has released 10 albums to date, has won countless awards, and is an inductee in the Tamworth Country Music Hall Of Fame. Moreover, he is CAAMA Radio's longest serving broadcaster. He has also managed to find time to twice stand as the lead Australian Greens candidate for the the Northern Territory. His father Gus Williams (1937 – 2010) was one of the first Aboriginal country singers to tour central Australia, and in 1983 was given a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to country music and Aboriginal people.

I spoke to Warren about what life was like through the birth of Aboriginal country music, the birth of CAAMA, and about how all this fantastic music was made and where it's gone.


Could you tell us a little about what the music scene was like in Hermannsburg as a child?
Well one of the main people was my father, Gus Williams. He started it all off for me.

I read you played on a lot of his records?
Yeah I played guitar, that got my courage up to start writing my own stuff. I went from there

I love that song by you from the CAAMA music Snapshot 3 compilation "The Hardest Part"
Oh thanks, thank you.

So what was it like being a child there at that time learning with your dad?
For dad it was very, very hard. He grew up in the mission and the mission didn't like black people singing any music other than hymns. So they would have to go out bush and sit down and sing to the tourists. Then in the 70s everything sort of relaxed and dad could put on gigs in Hermannsburg. He was one of the first aboriginals to actually tour around the communities in central Australia.

So at the start aboriginal musicians had to almost sneak out of town to sing the songs they wanted to?
Yeah exactly.

That's wild…
I was brought up in that, in the mission, and looked at dad, he was everything that music was to me. I learnt to play everything that was in front of me. Drums, guitar, whatever that was there.

Hermannsbery Mission Church, courtesy of Frontier Media.

I had a Christian minister for a father and also learnt to play music in church.
Well you can never take music away from the church. I love all that music. Even though I'm not into all the other stuff.

It's a great place to hone your skills playing in front of a congregation every week.
That's exactly right. You know I try not to make any mistakes, haha. And I think I've got pretty good at what I do.

Well all the live videos I've seen of you have been beautiful! The music is hard to find though, I mean you're one of the biggest names in aboriginal country music and even finding some of your earlier 90s albums online or elsewhere is so difficult.
Yeah well CAAMA, has it all you know, it has the biggest collection of aboriginal music ever.

Yeah I've been looking through the list of the Sound recordings collected by CAAMA from 1981-1994, it's unbelievable how much is there that hasn't been digitised.
Yeah there is some stuff there. Some unbelievable recordings. For instance there in one gig where Warumpi Band and Yothu Yindi did a concert together where the lead singers swapped so Mandawuy Yunupingu is singing with Warumpi band and George Burarrwanga is singing with Yothu Yindi. It's a live recording hiding somewhere in the archives of CAAMA. There is so much stuff that hasn't even been written down. It was just recorded and put in boxes.

That's amazing! And yet still there is such a huge written list of bands that recorded at CAAMA through this period. How did all work? Was it a constant rotation of bands recording everyday?
Yeah it was! I've been with CAAMA for 20 years now, in radio. In the earlier years people would come in and we would record it, give it a quick mix and put it straight on the air that same afternoon.

So all the cassettes are basically live to air performances?
Exactly.

Were a lot of the bands playing regularly? Or was it mostly bands forming, making a tape and then disappearing?
Yeah that was mostly the pattern. Bands would get together just to record an album and that was it. You never heard from them again. Unbelievable bands that got together and people would say "what happened to them?" Well you know they passed on. But they made good, fantastic music. Back in the day country music was more of a pattern than a music genre they were playing in.

Was there influence drifting over from what was happening in NSW from artists like Col Hardy and Harry Williams and The Country Outcasts? I watched a short documentary of The Country Outcasts touring Central Australia for the first time in the late 70s.
My dad played on that tour.

Was that well received?
Yeah well country music was huge. Bands that we would get come out were people like Slim Dusty and Buddy Williams, all country. Country music was really big. Anything country was generally liked.

I imagine the landscape and the wide open spaces would influence that?
Yeah exactly. Also the stockmen. The stockmen and their life were a big influence in country music.

Was it easy to play live shows or did the space between communities make it difficult for people like your dad?
Well my dad was a self made man, he worked hard and bought himself a car and musical equipment, and I grew up travelling to communities with him. Every month we would go to a different community in central Australia which was great. Music itself was travelling around with mum and dad.

It sounds like such a fun way to grow up.
Yeah it was awesome.

So in regards to CAAMA and how much music is buried in there, and how great it is, do you feel passionate about more people hearing it?
Oh I would love people to listen to the stuff. CAAMA is in the process of organising the library to make it more available.

It's such a cool part of our history. As fun as it is trying to hunt it all out it would be amazing for it to become more widely accessible. It's such great music and more people should hear it. Do you have any favourites in the vast library of recordings you could let us in on?
Probably because I'm there, I'm in it, I think I take it all for granted hearing so much all the time. I seem to like everything that's there because it's part of our, part of my black fella music you know.

I really like The Wild Brumbys, they're great.
Oh they were really good live! They were from Todd River. There were a lot of great bands like that. A lot of them have passed on now which is sad.

It is. It's wonderful though imagining all these bands spontaneously forming, recording a tape and then disappearing. The industry these days is so calculated, formulated and stale. There is a magic in these CAAMA recordings from the spontaneity. I mean sometimes it sounds like the band is learning the song as they record it!
Haha!

But the energy and rawness that comes from that is what makes it so special, so interesting.
Exactly.

So back in the 80s when bands did perform live, what kind of venues were around?
Well there were places like Buff Hall, which was a small hall 100's of people would try to fit into. Also a lot in people's yards, backyards as Alice is still a redneck town and was even worse back then. People would turn up and if a band was in the gig vicinity at the time people would say "Get up! Go have a jam!"

So this also shared the same spontaneous spirit?
Yeah, oh yeah.

That's great. Lastly I was wondering if you could share any current bands you've been enjoying playing on CAAMA radio?
I like the divas. I'm one of those people who have always wanted more female singers, in the 80's and 90's it was such a man's world you know

Yeah we're definitely still dealing with that...
Yeah it still is I know. I'm one of those people that encourage females voices as I'm lucky enough to have a say in what CAAMA gets to play. So I'm always asking to have more female music and input. Cassandra Williams my niece is great and has been getting some play on Triple J.

Well thanks so much again for taking the time to chat it's being wonderful speaking with you.
No worries brother!

Listen to a selection of (digitally available) highlights from CAAMA radio and Aboriginal country musicians on this mix from Smooch Records.

For further exploration check out Buried Country by Clinton Walker, this documentary on The Country Outcasts 1977 tour of Central Australia, this mini documentary on Mop & The Dropouts "Brisbane Blacks", and of course, CAAMA Records.