THE FACE

ASHLEIGH WIL­SON meets ALLEN MUR­PHY who knows it takes a vil­lage per­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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.’’

Pic­ture: Peter Eve

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