• Bart Willoughby in 2018 (Ali MC)Source: Ali MC
In 1989, music legend Bart Willoughby joined Midnight Oil and the late Native American poet and musician, John Trudell on tour to celebrate Indigenous peoples.
Ali MC

17 May 2018 - 2:29 PM  UPDATED 17 May 2018 - 2:50 PM

Disclaimer: This article contains names and images of people who have died. 

"I notice the American people are spitting at him! You know, because he's Indian."

Pitjantjatjara musician Bart Willoughby speaks animatedly about the way US audiences treated Native American musician, activist and poet John Trudell during a tour in the late 1980s.

The tour was in support of Midnight Oil's international breakthrough album Diesel and Dust, which found Bart Willoughby drumming for both Yothu Yindi and John Trudell.

Bart describes John Trudell as "one of the fellas who, if you meet him, you just go 'wow'!"

It was a poignant meeting of two pioneering Indigenous musicians, both of whom would stand up in the face of extreme racism, and take both their music and their message to the world stage.

Bart Willoughby is best known as the drummer of the seminal Aboriginal rock-reggae band No Fixed Address, and writer of the classic protest song 'We Have Survived'.

His life as a musician has seen him tour the world and meet luminary rock heroes such as Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills and Nash, and members of the E-Street Band, as well as perform with some of the most influential Australian bands in music history.

We are sitting in the lounge room of his modest Spotswood house, chatting about touring, musical influences, and growing up in an institution.

No stranger to racism himself, Bart winds the clock back and tells me how he was taken from his family in Ceduna as a three-year-old and placed in a children's home in Adelaide.

"I didn't get out until I was seventeen," he says. "I was numb. It starts off when you're about three, and something bad happens to you. And bad things did happen to me."

Now 57-years-old, Bart still strongly feels the impact of his removal and separation.

"It's weird," he says about his childhood. "You're not feeling anything. Everybody's white and you're black. But you don't know that. Yet you look in the mirror, and the rules are different. And everybody's looking at you different."

As a young adult, Bart found an escape from his experiences through music, and found himself drawn to the drumkit.

"Music was always there. I would drive my science teacher crazy. 'Why do you tap all the time?'" he mimics his teacher's frustration at his constant tapping, a habit he is still in as he taps his leg all the way through the interview.

"I couldn't stop tapping. I didn't know why I was tapping. And then I started hitting things," he says, describing his first forays into drumming when he was 16- years-old.

The late 1970s were a time of Black Sabbath and ACDC, both of whom influenced Bart's musical tastes, and he would go onto study at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) in Adelaide

It was at CASM where he would meet the musicians who would go on to form No Fixed Address: Ricky Harrison, Leslie Lovegrove Freeman and John Miller.

"We used to love heavy metal. We loved The Police when they first popped up," he says, referring to the reggae inspired super-group. "We were like ‘wowww’!"

No Fixed Address was formed at the same time The Police broke through in 1978, except as Bart says, "They [The Police] are all educated; they’ve been taught. We don't know what we're doing. We are all just numb. I'm coming out of numbness, the guys don't have a clue who they are."

When I ask him whether his experiences growing up as a black kid in a white world prompted him to write 'We Have Survived', he describes the song as the first attempt to "un-numb myself, and then really look at what I'm looking at - because I don't know what I am. I’m not black and I’m not white"

No Fixed Address would go on to tour Australia, and would even feature in a 1980 feature film titled Wrong Side of the Road alongside another Aboriginal band, Us Mob.

The movie follows the band around on a tour of country South Australia, and shows the racism and prejudice the band faced, including being told they couldn’t play in a local pub and being harassed by the police.

"[The film] depicts the structure. For blackfellas, [we were] very limited. It's not like you're looking at the 'class of '74'", he laughs, referring to the classic white privilege.

"It is a great documentary about what was the character of that time and also the limitations [we faced]."

The film would also explore the theme of child removal and the Stolen Generations, long before Kevin Rudd's apology made this aspect of Australia's history widely known, with Les (the lead guitarist) searching for his family throughout the journey of the film.

In 1982, No Fixed Address would also tour Australia in support of the legendary Jamaican reggae singer Peter Tosh, and also became one of the first Aboriginal bands to tour internationally, heading to Britain that same year.

Bart says that Peter Tosh reminded him of one of the boys in the boys' home. "He had that toughness about him."

After four years "out in the bush" drumming for another seminal Aboriginal band Coloured Stone, Bart would find himself on the Midnight Oil tour in 1989, where he drummed for both Yothu Yindi and John Trudell.

John Trudell, who passed away in 2015, was an outspoken activist for Native Americans, growing up on the Santee Sioux Reservation in Northern Nebraska.

After a suspicious house fire which killed his wife, children and mother-in-law in 1979, Trudell turned to poetry and music to further communicate his outspoken ideas.

His music has been described as incorporating traditional Native American instruments as well as contemporary rock, blues and political protest songs.

Yet when talking about his experiences with Trudell onstage, Bart exclaims again, "everywhere we go they are spitting at him!"

The irony of audiences spitting on a Native American singer while on a tour designed to promote both American and Australian Indigenous musicians was not lost on Bart.

Yet he also describes an intimate moment, when in Montreal, along with Yothu Yindi, he met with a group of Canadian First Nations people.

Bart explains how they asked if they had any political songs, and Mr Yunupingu (lead singer of Yothu Yindi) turned to Bart and asked him to play 'We Have Survived’.

He recalls the stunned reaction to the song, and the obvious connection made between the different Indigenous groups who, despite living on opposite sides of the world, shared the same sense of survival and resilience.

"Afterwards there was silence. Cos I got it right. And they went 'yeah'", he says simply.


Ali MC (Alister McKeich) is a writer, photographer and legal professional who holds a Masters in Human Rights Law. His work documents global human rights issues, and he has had the privilege of working with a number of Aboriginal communities here and internationally. He currently works at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. Follow @alimcphotos

Bart Willoughby will be performing at the Fitzroy Town Hall with special guests on Saturday June 2. For information click here

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World will have its Australian television premiere on Sunday, 20 May 8.30pm on NITV (Ch. 34), and will be available On Demand. Join the conversation #RumbleTheIndiansWhoRockedTheWorld.