Music legend Bunna Lawrie remembers the time his band Coloured Stone knocked Michael Jackson off the top of some radio playlists.
It was 1984 and the King of Pop was still riding high on the back of the chart-topping Thriller album. Coloured Stone was an Australian Indigenous band whose members had cut its teeth the hard way, knocking on doors and travelling the back roads of Australia selling recycled drink bottles.
Then came ‘Black Boy’, arguably the band’s most defining song. Charting at number one in Alice Springs for nine months, Black Boy’s popularity spread across to the Pacific Islands. In New Caledonia it resonated so much with radio listeners that the local station listed Coloured Stone at number one and Michael Jackson at number two.
Next month, Bunna Lawrie and Coloured Stone will celebrate their 40th anniversary at the Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory.
Lawrie, one of Australia’s most enduring musicians and songwriters, says he penned Black Boy as a response to the racial tensions he witnessed growing up.
“It actually started as a country and western song, so we took it to a country and western music festival and talent quest,” Lawrie recalls. “We came third with it and we won $25. We were a bit disappointed because we thought it was a good song’.
“I said to my brother ‘We’ve got to change it now to a bit of jazz, a bit of funk. Yeah, let’s funk it up.’ So we did and the first night we played it in one of the pubs, people came up and said ‘Wow, that song just made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and gave me goose bumps’.
“From then on we recorded it and put a single out and it got played on Triple J and then Radio Australia picked it up and played it in 1984. We did a film clip in Alice Springs and people loved it. It was number one in Alice Springs for nine months.”
Lawrie, who founded Coloured Stone in 1977, says he’s heartened that young children today still know the words, among them “Black boy, black boy, the colour of your skin is your pride and joy”.
There have been no shortcuts along Lawrie’s music journey. Having grown up in Koonibba in South Australia, he and the original Coloured Stone band members — three of his brothers and a nephew — set out as teenagers and carved out a place for the band in Australian music one gig at a time.
“I’m proud of our determination,” Lawrie says. “We did it the hard way. Unlike other bands that were getting grants to assist them to go on tour, we never had a company behind us to finance us. We were going out and financing it ourselves by getting the gigs to go from gig to gig.
“One time when we were really desperate we were exchanging cool drink bottles. We’d collect 20 and get a loaf of bread and a bit of cold meat to have a meal when there was nothing around for us to catch or eat.
“But we went through it. We were knocking on doors to get gigs and I can sit down now and tell the story.”
Performing over four decades has taken Lawrie to most parts of Australia.
“Forty years of music, it’s been my university, my learning,” he says. “I’ve learnt a lot by travelling around meeting people.
“We’ve travelled more of Aboriginal communities than even Slim Dusty. We’re the longest surviving Aboriginal band in this country. We’ve toured everywhere and played every community. We know every dirt road everywhere. We know where all the kangaroos are, the emus are, where we can get a feed.
“If we’d run over a goanna it would be lunchtime and if we hit a kangaroo it’s dinner time. It would be on the fire straight away and we’d sit down and have a feed because we didn’t want to waste it.”
Writing songs has come naturally to Lawrie and the passing of time is reflected in Coloured Stones’ music. ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’, for example, which got the thumbs up from Rolling Stone magazine in the ’80s, was inspired by stories from his grandmother and grandfather.
“All of the other songs are about my life,” he says. “There are heaps of songs. ‘Chasin’ Rainbow’ is about the Nullarbor, my country, where I come from and the way you live and love the land. I used to love chasing rainbows and I still do. Every time I see a rainbow, I feel like I get a healing from it.”
Lawrie says music can heal and empower. He says he finds it in everything from the wind to the rain and the sound of birds and animals.
He says when people dance and enjoy music, it’s changing their lives and healing them.
There have been many awards over the years as well as performances, collaborations and tours with other big music names such as Midnight Oil, Leo Sayer, Julian Lennon, Angry Anderson, Iva Davies, KD Lang and Yothu Yindi.
At Barunga in June, Coloured Stone will be one of the headline acts. Others include Missy Higgins and Skinnyfish Sound System.
Lawrie says he can remember the early days of the 30-year-old festival, when the band performed on a basketball court.
He’ll be joined on stage by current Coloured Stone band members Selwyn Burns, guitarist and a Yorta Yorta man; Denis Persson, who plays bass; and Doughie Pipe, an Arrernte man and the band’s drummer.
For Lawrie, music is about trying to make the world a better place. One of his songs features in a film by conservation group Sea Shepherd aimed at stopping oil giants drilling in the Great Australian Bight. Nearly 10 years ago his fight to protect the Southern White Whale was the subject of Julian Lennon’s award-winning documentary Whaledreamers.
An elder of the Mirning people whose traditional lands lie in the coastal region of the Great Australian Bight, Lawrie says drilling for oil in the waters will damage the oceans and an area that is a nursery for whales. The Mirning people are the children of the whale in the Dreamtime.
“My mother said never let your culture go,” Lawrie says. “She said you might not become a millionaire but you will be rich in your culture. Now I know what it means. It’s more important than anything else. It’s your connection to the land. How you become a keeper of the land to look after it and protect it. It’s worth more than gold, the land and seas, and treat it in the way you treat your family.
“We treat whales just like family.”
Lawrie says it would be disastrous for Australia to follow Trump’s America in its pursuit for oil and gas, destroying the oceans, land and planet as it goes.
“People need to wake up now and start writing letters to Malcolm Turnbull,” he says.
By Wendy Cacetta
- The annual Barunga Festival will be held from June 9-11 at the Barunga community, about 80km south-east of Katherine. Tickets are from Moshtix or at the gate. Admission prices range from $50 for an adult to $5 for children aged 5-11.