Bart Willoughby

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Bart Willoughby

Bart Willoughby was looking for “a big sound” while rehearsing a song with singer Deline Briscoe. “I’d have to be playing the Melbourne Town Hall!” his missus overheard him say. “So, she jumped on it,” Willoughby says. Before he knew it, he was standing in front of the venue’s giant organ pipes. “I’m staring at this, what I call ‘spaceship’, and going ‘Shit! Can I do this?’” he recalls. The innovative 2014 show that followed was acclaimed as a captivating musical and cultural experience. The composer/musician became the first Indigenous artist to play the historic instrument.
From the project, Willoughby’s album, We Still Live On, interweaves story and song with an all-star cast. Willoughby will re-create the concert in Bendigo and Launceston. Bendigo’s Catholic Cathedral promises to be an inspiring setting for the performance. “It’s a sacred ground sort of thing to the whitefellas,” he says, “and so I’m sort of presenting my songs at the pearly gates,” he laughs. “It might be their instrument, but it’s my wood!”
It’s a mighty production, blending original songs, spoken word, archival material, dance and choir. The ensemble cast includes vocalists Deline Briscoe, Rose Bygrave and Marcia Howard (Goanna), dancer Albert David, Robert Thorpe, words of the late poet Kevin Gilbert, guitars, horns and choir led by Jane Thompson and James Rigby. “My beautiful fellow musicians, soul mates.”
Since the ’70s, the Pitjantjatjara man has featured in bands including No Fixed Address, Coloured Stone, Mixed Relations, Yothu Yindi and the Black Arm Band. He also fronts current ensemble The Bart Willoughby Band. The No Fixed Address reggae rock hit, ‘We Have Survived’, remains an Australian Indigenous anthem.
Melbourne Town Hall’s grand organ was new ground for the multi-instrumentalist. “I call it a spaceship, because you take people somewhere. The organ is powerful at capturing characters of particular song, but you still have to let it breathe when you play it. So I’m learning a lot, relating to it as a living entity … My fans love it when I surprise them,” he adds with delight.
Willoughby was taken away from his family as a child, going on to spend his formative years in boys’ homes and institutions. Beside the common daily challenges of every Aboriginal citizen, he endured years bedridden in hospital as a kid and survived a heart attack three years ago. “I’ve been given a second chance. That gave me something else to think about.” He credits music as his driving force – his love – to carry on and follow a fulfilling path.
“Locked up at a young age, all I had was my music. It was a love. I’d never felt love before. How can an instrument give you love? That’s what my magic is.”
He has gone on to play New York’s Madison Square Garden, London’s Albert Hall and almost every stage in this land. He toured with Ian Dury (“a great musician and beautiful human being”), Jackson Browne and Peter Tosh. His first full solo album, Proud, was released in 2013. Awards include the Australia Council Fellowship, enabling the development of the organ project.
There are stirring messages and moments of soaring reverence across We Still Live On. But in-between comes the trademark rhythms of Willoughby’s songwriting where laid-back grooves and feisty beats dance beside the voices of honour and pride.
Written by Chris Lambie
When & Where: Catholic Cathedral, Bendigo – February 28