Riding through India’s Rajasthani Desert for a couple of days on the back of a camel, I thought often about the Australian desert and its endless red horizons. It’s a few years since I’ve been there, something I look forward to changing this year. But contemplating the landscape and how we relate to it, I also thought of three amazing songs that all encapsulate that desert in different ways.
John Williamson and Warren H Williams – Raining On The Rock
Warren H Williams is an Arrernte man from Hermannsburg in Central Australia. His father Gus was also a well-known country singer. In Raining On The Rock (co-written with country music legend John Williamson), he takes us to the desert; to “come out of the Mulga where the plains forever roll, and Albert Namatjira has painted all the scenes”.
Like the famous watercolour painter, Warren finds a sense of belonging in the desert landscape – “It’s raining on the Rock, in the beautiful country. And I’m proud to travel this big land as an Aborigine.”
The significance of Uluru extends far beyond its Anangu traditional owners, for whom it is a sacred place. It is the red heart of Australia; a majestic monument to this land, its unique flora and fauna, and all its inhabitants. So for Warren H Williams, it evokes pride in his culture and history; and inspires him further – “It cannot be described with a picture, the mesmerising colours of the Olgas. Or the grandeur of the Rock – Uluru is power!
Warumpi Band – My Island Home
While Raining On The Rock uses the desert to sing a song of belonging, the Warumpi Band’s classic My Island Home is almost the opposite. “Six years I’ve been in the desert,” goes the opening line, “and every night I dream of the sea”.
My Island Home was actually written by Warumpi Band’s white guiarist/singer Neil Murray, but he wrote it for singer George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga; a Gumatj man from Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land who, as the lyrics say, had moved down south to Papunya near Alice Springs. George’s beautiful, plaintive voice certainly makes you believe that he could have written it, and Neil Murray deserves credit for writing a song that speaks not just to his bandmate, but has become possibly the most iconic song about the aboriginal experience in Australia.
My Island Home speaks not just for the literal circumstances of George Rrurrambu – it has come to represent the experience of aboriginal people all over the country; forcibly displaced from their homelands to live in cities and mission camps, often with the sacred sites of their ancestors lost forever. But even more than that, it evokes the yearning for a culture lost; an idyllic way of life that in the face of the poverty, incarceration and social problems that unfortunately make up so much of the modern aboriginal experience; probably sometimes seems as far away as the ocean from Alice Springs.
Sings George, “I close my eyes and I’m standing in a boat on the sea again. And I’m holding that long turtle spear, and I feel I’m close now to where it must be. My island home is waiting for me.”
Coloured Stone – Wild Desert Rose
Bunna Lawrie is a Mirning man, from the Nullabor plain on the coast of the Great Australian Bight. He is from the desert, and in the years of touring around Australia in Coloured Stone, possibly the first ever aboriginal rock band, he would have seen plenty of red sand.
Wild Desert Rose is Bunna’s tribute to the desert flowers, one of the stunning sights that make the Australian desert such a special place. The beautiful lead guitar and backing vocals conjure a side to the desert that we rarely consider.
“Don’t grow where no rain or snow, don’t grow where no river flows. Don’t grow where no waterhole, only where the north wind blows”…. “Dancing in the desert sand, swaying from side while you stand. The desert is your paradise, under the sun and blue skies.”
It is a joyous song, a tribute to the extraordinary resilience of these plants that thrive in the most inhospitable conditions. It’s a tribute to indigenous people too, who have lived in that same desert since time immemorial. And a tribute to the strength of aboriginal culture, which holds on 200 years after European colonisation despite every kind of injustice and hardship. It is a song of hope for everyone who ever finds themselves close to giving up – that life and beauty not only survive, but even in the smallest scattered fragments can still light up an entire landscape.