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Rock theatre honours legend of Australia's Warumpi Band

Liz Hobday -

Rehearsing Big Name, No Blankets in Melbourne, musician Jason Butcher is thousands of kilometres from his community of Papunya in the Northern Territory, the birthplace of the legendary Warumpi Band.

"It's too long, I'm not used to this city, away from family," he told AAP.

He's not loving Melbourne's weather but on the plus side, he's really into the burgers at Grill'd.

The Luritja musician is here to tell the story of his father, Sammy Butcher, who founded the Warumpi Band in Papunya in 1980 with the late Gordon Butcher, Neil Murray and the late George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga.

Rehearsals for the show have been described as joyous and upbeat ahead of its Sydney premiere. (HANDOUT/SYDNEY FESTIVAL)

Warumpi made history as the first rock outfit to sing in Aboriginal languages, writing hits that became part of the Australian songbook such as My Island Home and Blackfella/Whitefella.

It's been an emotional experience for Jason ahead of the show's premiere at the Sydney Festival, and he has found himself getting teary rehearsing his father's songs.

"This is what he wanted, to tell the stories ... he just wanted to let it out so everyone can feel better," he said.

"This is what was going on with all the songs, so people can see and understand, this is what happened."

Jason is part of the show's onstage backing band, having learnt guitar and drums by ear while hearing the Warumpi Band growing up - although it took him years to realise just how famous they really were.

Just as he's feeling the pull of family and country, so too did his father and uncle.

"All them Butcher brothers had to make a choice, the fame and the glory and the touring and the high life, or choosing family," said Ilbijerri Theatre Company's Rachael Maza.

It's been crucial that the Butcher family is heavily involved so the story can be told through their eyes, she said.

These days Sammy Butcher is an elder in the Papunya community, where he helps young people make and record music, not to mention being the NT's 2024 nominee for Australian of the Year.

He consulted on the show's development, while Maza is co-directing with yet another member of the family, Anyupa Butcher, who initially suggested the tale of the Warumpi Band while working at Ilbijerri.

Warumpi Band's rise to fame is an iconic Australian tale, the show's co-director said. (HANDOUT/SYDNEY FESTIVAL)

Named for the band's 1985 album, Big Name, No Blankets is definitely not a jukebox musical, but nor is it straight-down-the-line theatre - the idea is for audiences to experience a rock concert with story woven through.

It's an iconic Australian tale, and most people are familiar with the Warumpi Band's songs without even realising it, said Maza.

Before casting actor Googoorewon Knox to play lead singer George, she suggested he might like to study videos of the band's performances.

That wouldn't be necessary, replied Knox - the music of the Warumpi band was already deep in his bones.

"It was definitely that profound moment of realising the massive importance and the place in every blackfella's heart where this music lives," said Maza.

The rehearsal room in Collingwood is one of the most joyous and upbeat she's ever seen, because everyone involved feels honoured to be part of the story.

"Maybe the ancestors are smiling on us, because all the right people are in the room," she said.

In one scene featuring the song From The Bush, tensions are building - frontman George is heading to a party, but the others aren't interested.

And who's driving Warumpi's rhythm, the drummer or the guitarist?

The band, for all its tensions, is an example of how things might be different, said Maza.

"For a moment in time, we see blackfellas and whitefellas coming together and celebrating who we are as Australians, celebrating the black foundation that we that we live on."

Maza believes Big Name, No Blankets is the show Australia needs after the failed referendum vote, a result the nation got "completely wrong".

There are hopes the show will be taken to communities in the Northern Territory. (HANDOUT/SYDNEY FESTIVAL)

There are big plans for the show after the Sydney Festival, although actor Baykali Ganambarr, who plays the role of Sammy Butcher, doesn't seem too interested in more big city audiences.

He hopes to take the show full circle - back to Papunya where it all began, and to Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land.

That's where he's from, just like George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga.

"For me to be able to do this on stage representing Warumpi and Elcho Island is just such an amazing feeling, I just can't wait for everyone to see the show," he said.

Big Name, No Blankets is on at the Roslyn Packer Theatre January 10-14 as part of the Sydney Festival.

Liz Hobday - AAP

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