A chance trip to Australia led Allen Murphy on a three-decade journey of Indigenous discovery. By Jack Kerr.

Musician Allen Murphy’s mentoring role in remote Australia

American-born drummer Allen Murphy.

In this story

One of the great untold stories of Australian pop is the Village People’s visit to Arnhem Land. It was 1988 and the group travelled all the way from New York City to join forces with Yothu Yindi – a project that was filmed, though never aired, for Channel Nine. “I have some footage of that show we did,” says Allen Murphy, who ended up drumming in both groups at the height of their success. “The community thought they were a VP tribute band.” 

Murphy was a session player in New York City during the late 1970s when the Village People’s drummer quit unexpectedly and he got the call-up to join the band. Murphy knew Jacques Morali, the outfit’s musical director and mastermind. He was also friendly with a few members of the group, such as the GI character and former gospel singer Alex Briley, whom Murphy had worked with making music for TV commercials. “It was all very serendipitous,” he says.

The disco backlash was in full swing by the time Murphy joined the group. A year earlier, a crate of disco records had been blown up at a baseball game in Chicago. In a desperate attempt to stay in the charts, the Village People’s frontmen at one point even traded in their iconic gay caricatures for new-wave fringes. Yet the touring remained relentless.

In 1983, Murphy made his first visit to Australia. He felt an immediate affinity with place. When the group returned a year later, he decided to stay on in Sydney, a city where a drummer of his ability was in high demand. It was one of those decisions that would end up having a far bigger impact on his life than he could have imagined at the time. 

One thing – a tour with the Warumpi Band – led to another – falling in love with Indigenous music and culture – and the now 56-year-old has spent his life since working with musicians across the Top End and central Australia.

“I basically quite by chance connected with the Warumpi Band, to fill in for a couple of band members that didn’t make it down from the Northern Territory.

“The Warumpi Band was the first gig that took me out of New South Wales and Victoria. We did a tour through the centre, all the way up to Darwin, and it was really at that point that I had my introduction to Indigenous community life. I had never experienced that before. 

“Aboriginal communities at that time was Redfern for me – basically Sydney was all of Australia. The Sydney mindset was the Australian mindset.”

Murphy arrived on the Aboriginal music scene at an exciting and fiery time. The national Bicentenary was looming, digging into old wounds of colonisation and dispossession. Bands such as Coloured Stone, No Fixed Address and Warumpi were, Murphy says, “the voice of a growing concern of what was happening in the country”. 

“I just was feeling like a witness to that more than anything else – fortunate to actually be part of it, because I believed in what was happening at the time, too. I thought it was important that people come out and get an understanding of the realities of it. 

“Indigenous music has always been about that. It’s been about cultural reality and cultural oneness and sharing and all that.”

Murphy spent his next three-and-a-half years in the territory, living in Bagot, the large Aboriginal community under the flight path in the middle of suburban Darwin. He helped to run a music school there, though he himself was also finding there was plenty to be learnt.

“It wasn’t about bands anymore. It was about clans. The band is just representing this whole other thing, everybody is part of this collective, and I thought, ‘What an amazing way to look at music and to look at life.’ ”

On subsequent tours of the outback, he would see that quality come out in other ways: touring bands not allowed to play until the traditional owners’ band had played first; crowds getting bored 20 minutes into an Archie Roach gig and wanting to know when the local groups were starting.

One of the first bands he joined in the territory was Blekbala Mujik, with which he still plays, and raves about more than any other. The band’s members come from Bulman, in central Arnhem Land, and Barunga, the town outside of Katherine where, in 1988, Indigenous leaders handed Bob Hawke their demands for a treaty. It is also the town where Australia’s sole Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, spent part of his childhood.

Murphy was soon involved with Yothu Yindi as well, the band that made a worldwide hit from Hawke’s failure to deliver on the promises made that day. 

“I was Gurrumul’s replacement,” Murphy says of his time with the Australian group. “They really wanted to get Gurrumul off the drums. They could see that he had something very special, so they said, ‘Hey, Murphy, come here and just fill in.’ That’s really how I ended up playing with Yothu Yindi, replacing Gurrumul on the drums. And now he’s the voice of Australia.”

1 . Mixed legacy

As well as a band member, Blekbala Mujik and Yothu Yindi shared an attitude. They were both fiercely proud of their cultures, and used their music and live shows as vehicles for both its protection and its promotion.

“The whole notion of having traditional dancers on stage and bringing and sharing culture as part of the musical experience, that was really at the fore at the time. We were all songwriting together; I was going to ceremony and was going through a lot of processes culturally as a musician, and as a person.”

Yothu Yindi and their leader, the late Dr Yunupingu, had a drive that Murphy has rarely seen in his years in the territory. They had a manager “who was very down the line about what was needed,” he remembers. “They dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s”. 

But Murphy worries about the legacy their success has left. It moved the goalposts for everyone in the scene, he says, and labels and organisations that were once dedicated to helping the territory’s musicians express themselves have since poured their resources into trying to develop another international breakthrough.

“I hope over the next few years Indigenous music focuses back on the core principles of the community itself, rather than saying, ‘How can I get a deal?’ Because at the end of the day, that [localism] is what leads to success.”

The list of projects Murphy has been involved in since moving to the territory is almost impossible to tally. If you thought the Village People wore a lot of hats, take a look at Murphy’s CV. 

As well as contributing drums on Yothu Yindi’s biggest albums, he played on “My Island Home”, one of the Warumpi Band’s most enduring hits. He has just wrapped up a tour of the outback with Blekbala Mujik and was recently in Melbourne to do some shows with Coloured Stone.

But his own recording and touring is just the tip of the iceberg. Murphy also produces albums, sets up tours and more generally works with musicians to help them develop. He spent that recent outback tour mentoring the Running Water Band, from the Western Desert community of Kintore, on the ins and outs of life on the road.

Another artist he’s been working closely with is Jimmy Djamunba, a singer who mixes traditional and contemporary sounds and whose “very operatic style” Murphy rates as highly as Gurrumul’s. “Once you spend time in Arnhem Land, there are many singers who are riveting, captivating, unique, and sing from a very cultural and spiritual place. Australians should be honoured that they can call this man one of their true voices.”

Murphy works with communities on projects that use music and video to promote better health, and is pushing for culture to be more seriously recognised as a source of work. “Music is not supported as more than something to pass the time really,” Murphy says, whereas in his mind, “it’s the way through”. 

Murphy is a teacher, too, an experience that hasn’t always been easy. At Mutitjulu, the troubled community hidden away from tourists at the base of Uluru, he remembers the young petrol sniffers he used to teach. He’d see them walking down the street, faces buried in petrol cans, inhaling the poisonous, intoxicating fumes. When they arrived at the studio, they’d neatly line their cans in a row beside the door and, for the next few hours, be model students. When the session was over, they’d walk out the door and reach straight for their cans.

“I often was at a loss about what to do, because I can’t kick the cans. You can’t do that because then you are alienating people and they won’t feel like they can talk to you. But at the same time, you want to show some kind of positive example. So it’s a dilemma.”

He likes to drill into his students the importance of a strong work ethic. As a student in upstate New York, he was “very work oriented”, and would practise for three to four hours a day before going to his lessons. Before
a tour with the Village People, the band would rehearse for a month solid to get their show perfect before hitting the road. 

“By the time you are at the end of that month, you’ve played the show about 200 times. Your first concert has to be as valuable as your last. You can’t get better during the tour. You have to hit the tour running.

“A lot of my students, they are just incredibly talented, but the work ethic is just not there. For whatever reason. I don’t think you excel in anything without incredible hard work and dedication, and that’s one of the things that I hope that I can communicate to the guys I work with; they always have the opportunity.” 

Murphy uses the umbrella term “facilitator” to describe the roles he undertakes in the territory these days. “My role became to make these things happen. What started off as being a drummer ended up being as a music facilitator and actually using music and the production of music to deal with other things that are happening in communities. Facilitating is a social and community-orientated thing.”

Whatever you call it, it’s a long way from playing two shows a night in Las Vegas with Joan Rivers as warm-up MC. Does he miss those days? “No,” he says with a long belly laugh. “Not in the way I think you mean.”

As much as they had fun – and he admits they might have had too much at times – the band was tightly drilled, highly professional and they undertook a gruelling touring schedule. He describes those gigs in Vegas, of which there were plenty, as “absolute torture” and the hardest work he has ever done.

“You do your first show, and that’s an hour and three-quarters … Then we’d do the late show, and that second show was like running up steps, because you’ve done the first show and you’re just like…” he play-acts being exhausted. “It was really work heavy. We had fun, but it wasn’t as over the top as people might think. Those guys were real pros.”

Murphy is still close friends with his old touring buddies. He did, after all, once persuade them to fly across the world to play in a part of the country so remote that not even many Australians can say they have visited. 

He caught up with them when they toured the Australian east coast recently, but there was no cameo appearance. “There’s no band anymore,” he says. “It’s all [backing] tapes now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2015 as "Allen’s key".

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Jack Kerr
is a journalist and documentary maker.

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