Well, once again, the earth’s spun, I’ve jumped up and landed in a different spot. The landing site I’m talking about is an amazing place in the heart of Australia, First Nations Australia, Warlpiri Country stretching across the vast Tanami desert of central Australia. Yuendumu is the biggest Warlpiri town and this is a place that has never been far from my mind ever since the time I had a chance to visit back in my earliest days of musical wanderings. I’d hitch hiked highways right off the boat from Tasmania and all the way to Alice Springs, carrying just guitar, backpack and and old Nikon F3 camera…somehow I made it to Yuendumu where I really got a first-hand experience of life in a remote indigenous community (and confronted by the shocking treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia) but more so, got a taste of the amazing music scene out here in Aboriginal Australia.
I’m back in Yuendumu, rediscovering this amazing remote community – a place that still feels like a dream and only just returns me to my early memories and first impressions… a place that has been much maligned in the media and has been deeply and tragically affected by hardship, violence, government intervention, COVD shutdown, and most recently the horrendous shooting where a young Aboriginal teen was killed by police – a deeply affecting tragedy bringing back painful living memories for the community, of the Coniston Massacre – a government sanctioned massacre of up to 200 indigenous people which took place 1928.
While Yuendumu has had indescribable hardships it’s also a wonderfully friendly and welcoming place and has many success stories and proud moments to share. It’s also famous for its local football team The Yuendumu Magpies and for hugely successful TV series “Bush Mechanics” and its locally produced media, visual arts and culture. Painters and artists here are always busy at the Warlukurlangu Art Centre – one of the longest running and most successful Aboriginal-owned art centres in Central Australia. While this relatively small town is full of musicians and bands who frequent PAW studios – first started as an initiative of Warlpiri Media in the early eighties and today must be one of the busiest and remotest recording studios in the world. So yeah… I’m calling it “The Motown of the Desert” and while this may be a bit of a stretch! there are striking parallels – young ‘bush reggae’ bands flock to the studio and hang out in and around PAW just waiting for a chance to get in, jamming on the instruments and laying down track after track of great sounding music. In the same building, just next door is PAW Radio and as fast as tracks are recorded and mixed, they’re straight out on the airwaves… locals are listening in right away, cruising around this little town in 4WDs and Holden Commodores (and across the entire central desert region) in a place that’s littered with wrecked and burnt out car bodies. Eager listeners are tuning into the latest grooves and songs sung in Warlpiri or a dozen other indigenous languages – music that’s keeping culture alive and creating a living soundtrack to life out here in the little Motor City of the desert. It’s been a while, since by first visit and while many things have changed, the one thing that remains a constant is the unique music scene.
Fast forward many years later… here I am again. Somehow, Yuendumu called me back… perhaps it started a short while back, in Phnom Penh in 2019, when old mate Joe Baarda (who grew up in Yuendumu) joined us in Cambodia and onstage the CSP Mothership playing sax… Joe’s been someone who I’ve known since that first trip and shared many stories with over the years, not least the stories and cassette tapes of the ‘bush bands’, so I have to thank Joe for keeping me updated on the music here… music on cassette tapes, BlueTooth file shares, from one of the remotest places on the planet … Not many outsider musicians get to visit out here but those who do, will already know and love The Warumpi Band… who started out in the outback settlement of Papunya, Northern Territory, in 1980.
The Warumpi’s quick succession of releases quickly put the townships of Papunya and Yuendumu on the map… and pioneered positive Australian recognition of Aboriginal Australia and and brought to attention life in the Warlpiri townships of the desert. The Warumpi Band released its first single in 1983, and this groundbreaking debut “Jailanguru Pakarnu” (Out of Jail) became known as the first rock song recorded and released in an Aboriginal language (Luritja).
For me the Warumpi Band is an incredible Australian music story and just at the start of COVID, I started reaching out to folks who have inspired me to record podcast interviews for my Asian Garage Underground radio series, one of these was Neil Murray who, alongside vocalist George Burarrwanga , founded The Warumpi Band in the outback settlement of Papunya, Northern Territory, in 1980. We chatted back in March 2020 for a good hour on his incredible music journey and not least the early days ‘out bush’ with the Warumpis.
I could see many parallels to my own journey with Kak Channthy and The Cambodian Space Project and remembered the time we’d traveled out this way (and had hoped to visit Yuendumu) stopping to perform in places like our own Johnny Cash Folsom Prison moment…with gigs inside the now defunct Berimah Prison. Just before setting off from Darwin to inside both the Women’s and Men’s jails, someone had given us some sage advice, learn these songs…do “My Island Home” inside the Women’s prison and “Black Fella, White Fella” inside the men’s prison. Channthy got the challenge and figured out bits of both songs (in Khmer and broken English) and the shows went down just fine. Neil Murray is the songwriter behind both the songs and these tracks have been hits enduring hits on Aussie radio as well as real cultural marker points in long and sad journey of bridging the gulf between Black and White Australia.
I was about 5-years ago that Cambodian Space Project toured this way, through the middle of central Australia and all the way to Tasmania. Channthy wrote about her own view and experience of life out this way in her incredible version of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger … So, flash forward and I’m back out here in the desert, at a little recording studio called PAW Music, thinking back to this time, as well as, and pioneering tours such as The Warumpi Band “Big Name No Blankets” and of all the so called indigenous ‘bush bands’ who have braved these dusty backroads and released great music recorded on the fly and in little outback studios such as PAW music recording studio.
PAW (Pintupi Anmatjere Warlpiri) is a NGO first known as Warlpiri Media is famous for its hit productions including “Bush Mechanics”, and has operated out of the central Australian town of Yuendumu for 30 years. The not-for-profit organisation makes TV, radio and music content working with local people in language.
PAW MUSIC and The PAW HOUSE BAND
So, here I am… working in (and around) the recording studio at PAW Media…and yessiree! It’s a whole new world but not entirely unplanned or unexpected. I’ve committed to a short term contract with PAW to fill a position as ‘Music Coordinator’ and start with the idea of putting in some time here, getting to meet everyone and getting a feel for what’s possible. This is a project where ‘sky’s the limit’ in terms of creative music and artistic potential but at the same time, balanced a good dose of reality check when it comes to what is practicable in such a remote and often under resourced environment – but hey! I’m used to the latter and my experience in Cambodia and with the CSP counts here.
Needless to say, I was able to jump in quickly and over the last 3 months, produce and sit-in with a whole gamut of fantastic singers and musicians – from recording “Lajamanu Funky Band” with the kids of Warlpiri township Lajamanu, through to working with some of the most senior musicians out here – not least the “Warlpiri Cowboys” such as Aboriginal stockman “Harry Jones” (Red Sands Band) and lay preacher/rock’n’roller Jimmy Langdon (The Poor Boys), alongside my own colleagues at PAW recording studio, Donovan Rice and Scotty Brown who are also producers, recording artists and veterans of the desert music scene. I’ve been very welcomed here and it’s great to make new ideas happen while also learning about the deep and mind-blowing local culture, some how it’s also a wonderful chance to bring a bit of Cambodian Space Project into the picture too… the sky really is the limit!
Next up, it’s time to get the show on the road and the PAW team is getting busy with plans to create new opportunities through travel and professional development opportunities such as putting our music team on stage at Darwin Festival then traveling on to Melbourne to collaborate and work with peer musicians in studios there. We’ve even got great musicians traveling out here to our little studio to join us, not least Warumpi Band founder Neil Murray calling in and workshopping songwriting ideas and techniques and that’s pretty darn exciting for all of us here and for the story of indigenous music and its continuing journey as the songs from Warlpiri Country, beaming out from this studio and into the spectacular night skies above!
In coming! Flying Rats!
It’s 2222. A group of futuristic overlords use robotic rats to keep citizens of Earth in line. With a dying planet to keep alive, the only hope for our hapless heroes is a savior who looks decidedly feline… This is The Ratcatcher of Angkor Wat, a ground-breaking outdoor musical theatre and puppetry experience from A Blanck Canvas and world-famous psych-rockers The Cambodian Space Project. Using unique creature designs and the funkiest soundtrack you’ve heard in 200 years, this rock opera is a collaboration like no other. With several sessions across two spectacular outdoor venues, The Ratcatcher of Angkor Wat is the perfect addition to your evening at (TBA) Festival.
Meanwhile, back in Outer Space, Cambodia…
Amazing things are happening! and because of this, it’s also time to get the band back together… This is something that is hugely exciting… not entirely unexpected but quite emotional at the same time. It’s because it is a decision to move forward and create a whole new body of work as The Cambodian Space Project and this idea has arrived thanks to much support and encouragement from CSP family and friends plus the opportunity to stage a return in a very spectacular way! The Cambodian Space Project is getting set to tour Australia and perform a music theatre work that’s been several years in coming. The Ratcatcher of Angkor Wat is the name of this brand show and it’s a collaboration with creature design team A Blanck Canvas that is now set to make it’s world premiere in Adelaide, Australia this November(Full festival details and program announced August).
The Ratcatcher gives the CSP team a chance to get back together in Cambodia and to tour and work in Australia and while we’ve had the band together as “The CSP Mothership” on several occasions over the last few years, this is the first time we’re back as The Cambodian Space Project and have made the creative decision to go forward and create new work. It’s exciting to think that this new work picks up where we left off with ideas that we’re created with Kak Channthy and created as music theatre, and return to the stage with a crazy cosmic Cambodian rock opera! Best of all, Khmer vocalist Rachana Tanner joins the CSP for the first time and takes on the lead role of ‘Space Cat’ in The Ratcatcher.
The Ratcatcher derives from much of our creative work at FICAC (Fish Island Community Arts Centre) and Rachana is pictured here getting set to fly with the CSP and step aboard the Space Project with all the style and sassiness that the role requires. Rachana not only looks the part but has a great singing voice to match and will be joining us on stage as well as the recording studio making this a great leap forward and a new chapter in the Cambodian Space Project story. We can’t wait to show you more as it happens but meanwhile, stay tuned for special events in Cambodia and gig dates in Australia coming up this October.