ASHLEIGH WILSON meets ALLEN MURPHY who knows it takes a village person
ALLEN Murphy has just returned from a trip out bush, where he and a group of Aboriginal men cut down tree branches to be made into didgeridoos. Several of the finished products are propped up against the wall of his house in Barunga, a small indigenous community about 80km southeast of the Northern Territory town of Katherine. Some of the instruments are painted, others plain. Allen blows into one of them, which emits a deep drone, before explaining that expertise on the didgeridoo escapes him.
‘‘ You get the best didges from branches that are almost dead,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s not like cutting down a young tree. That’s useless. They have to be pretty old, or at least on their way out.’’
The didgeridoos have been cut to a particular length so their sound represents one of the 12 notes on the scale. Murphy explains that some dissonant combinations, such as two semitones played together, somehow tend to sound right on didgeridoos.
While he talks, it’s hard to see Murphy in any other setting. It takes some effort to picture him on stage with the Village People, crossing paths with 1970s funk pioneers Parliament Funkadelic, or working as a young session drummer in New York. He’s comfortable in Barunga, where he lived from February to mid- July and which he has visited on and off for the past two decades. He has lived in Australia since 1984, so his American accent has softened, too.
‘‘ I go back to the US pretty regularly, and it’s kind of hard to describe the situation out here,’’ he says, trying to explain the lure of the remote Top End. ‘‘ It’s unique. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, the way the whole thing integrates. Not just musically, but how the clan system is so intertwined and how that expresses itself through music.’’
Earlier this year, Murphy, 50, moved to Barunga from Darwin after taking on the challenge of co- ordinating the community’s annual festival.
It is a long way from his homeland, but he’s a familiar face around these parts.
‘‘ This place is close to my heart,’’ he says. ‘‘ I know a lot of the people here, and I’d like to see the festival develop over the next few years.’’
For more than a decade, Murphy has been immersed in the culture of northern Australia, spending months in remote communities producing, recording and performing music.
With the Barunga festival in its 23rd year, Murphy tells how residents of nearby Aboriginal communities turn up to support their local bands in the same way they back their favourite Aussie rules team. ‘‘ It’s the whole footy team approach to music, that’s how I think of it,’’ he says. ‘‘ One community comes out and says, ‘ We’re from Lajamanu, we support the Lajamanu band.’ And they all clap for their own groups, it’s pretty cool.’’
Murphy’s circuitous route to the north gathered pace two decades ago when he met George Burarrawanga, lead singer for the famed Warumpi Band, in Sydney. But what brought him to Australia in the first place was the Village People, the flamboyant disco group with six men in costumes singing tunes such as Macho Man, YMCA and In the Navy .
Murphy was the band’s drummer during the early ’ 80s, driving the disco beat when it was one of the hottest acts around. ‘‘ Out of nowhere the Village People were all of a sudden the biggest thing in America,’’ he says.
Drums were not Murphy’s first choice. Growing up in upstate New York, he studied classical trumpet but always found himself looking over his shoulder at the percussionists.
So he made the switch, leaving behind a psychology degree to work as a session drummer in New York, touring the US and rubbing shoulders with jazz and funk legends along the way. Murphy knew one of the musicians in the Village People and joined the group when it needed a drummer at short notice. It was meant to be a temporary gig but he stayed for four years, recording and touring with the band across the world.
In 1983, Murphy and the Village People came to Australia. For Murphy, there was something about the place that touched a nerve, and he hung around in Sydney for a few weeks after the band left.
‘‘ I felt very at home,’’ he says. ‘‘ There’s a lot of similarity between New York and Australia, a certain sense of humour, a candidness that’s very similar.’’
When he returned to New York, his time with the Village People was drawing to a end. Then, by chance, the group decided to tour Australia again the following year.
‘‘ This was the only place they were doing the tour, just Australia,’’ he says. ‘‘ I thought it must have been meant to be. So we did the tour and I stayed. But I would have come back anyway.’’
He spent several years in Sydney as a session musician, songwriter and producer. In 1987 a friend invited him to Darwin, and Murphy, having toured the region with the Warumpi Band, jumped at the chance.
Once in the Top End, his career took another turn. He became involved in music development, teaching and producing in remote communities across the NT. He was still performing, joining Yothu Yindi on the group’s successful Treaty recording and playing with other leading Aboriginal bands.
But over the next decade Murphy spent extended periods in remote communities such as Wadeye, Oenpelli and Groote Eylandt, sharing his knowledge of music.
‘‘ One of my most vivid memories was the first time I went to Oenpelli,’’ he says.
‘‘ It was a real height of ceremony at the time. It was a pretty full- on thing to witness, because there was just all this stuff going on and nobody was telling me anything. I was just sitting there. I’d never seen anything like that before, I was amazed by it.’’
Murphy has just moved back to Darwin after overseeing the Barunga festival. He seems frustrated by the lack of government support for such events, considering the challenges that face remote Aboriginal communities.
After years spent teaching and producing music in the bush, Murphy believes it has transformative power in remote communities.
The Barunga festival, held last month, no longer attracts the huge crowds it once did, partly because of competition from similar events across the region. But Murphy resists catering to the tourist market, preferring to generate local enthusiasm instead.
‘‘ I’ve always felt the event will only ever be as big as the countrymen make it,’’ he says. ‘‘ Why would tourists come here if the countrymen don’t put a value on it?
‘‘ If people want to come to cultural events, the culture has to be the driving force. I sometimes think the whole approach of bringing tourism into the festival is a little bit premature. It’s got to come from the inside out.
‘‘ I’m not a tourist promoter. At the end of the day, this is a countrymen’s event. That’s always been my focus. That’s the reason I’m here.’’