Down River was a turning point for the Barkindji boys from Wilcannia. (Supplied: Melinda Collie-Holmes)
When five Indigenous boys — thrown together during a school holiday youth workshop — wrote a song in the remote New South Wales town of Wilcannia, no-one expected it to be a hit.
But Australia, and eventually the world, paid attention when the Wilcannia Mob’s track, Down River (listen here), was heard on radios around the country in 2002.
The group’s passion for the Darling River in Wilcannia led them to the main stage of Homebake, a triple j Hottest 100 spot and a collaboration with superstar British rapper MIA.
Down River was a unique window into Barkindji culture and life growing up in Wilcannia. Fifteen years after its release, the positive effects of the song are still felt by band members and the town.
Getting the mob together
In 2001, Sydney’s Shopfront Theatre organised creative workshops in regional towns. One of them was in Wilcannia.
Hip-hop artist Morganics helped the Wilcannia boys produce their now-famous track. (Supplied: Melinda Collie-Holmes)
They asked several artists to travel to the town for two weeks, including hip hop artist Morgan Lewis, also known as Morganics.
“The young people were dead keen. Sometimes you’d want to go to sleep and they’d be knocking on your windows saying, ‘I wanna do a song!'” he says.
The five boys who formed the Wilcannia Mob came together during these workshops.
“We were just cruising around town, walked past the house and thought, ‘what’s going on here?'” says band member Buddy Blair.
“They were talking about these hip-hop workshops and they were looking for someone to jump on.
“Wally and Keith were already there. Lendal and Colroy were at the back doing another workshop. We just all happened to run into each other, it was whoever was there are the time.”
For Lendal King and Colroy Johnson, the Wilcannia Mob has changed their lives. (ABC RN: Timothy Nicastri)
Writing Down River
Morganics and rapper Wire MC facilitated the writing sessions along with other artists. Morganics recognised the boys had an effortless ability to express themselves.
“When they would rap, they would never bung on an American accent. They would just talk in their own voice and be strong in their identity and clear. And you can hear it,” he says.
After the lyrics, they worked on creating a beat.
“Watu [musician Daniel Wright] was just sitting there doing different didgeridoo tunes. When that one came out we sung to it, ‘That’s it there!’ It was catchy and the lyrics went perfect to it,” says Blair.
While writing the song was easy, recording Down River was not straightforward. Limited gear meant they had to record each part of the song separately instead of layering elements.
“We had no way to play the beat back to them,” says Morganics.
“We listened to the beat and we’d just stomp our feet, hold the mic to their mouth and they’d do their raps. It sounds absolutely crazy, but it worked.”
He then took all the parts home to try and reassemble the song.
“It took ages to cut it up on my mum’s computer,” he says.
‘That’s our song’
When Down River was included on a compilation CD, it landed on the desk of triple j’s Hip Hop Show.
Among the 38 tracks, Down River caught the attention of the show’s anchor, Nicole Foote. She played it that week and the response was immediate.
“There’s something about it that I felt would really work on triple j. It just told a beautiful Australian story in a really funky way,” she says.
The triple j program Super Request also started playing the song, and before long it was on high rotation.
As Down River won over listeners around Australia, media outlets tried to track down the kids. Who exactly was Keith Dutton, who “walked on stilts to beat the beat”? Or Colroy Johnson, who, “wanted to be an actor like Jack Chan”?
Morganics still remembers the response he got when he told a Wilcannia local the song was being played on triple j.
“He said, ‘OK that’s good for them, but we know that song, that’s our song’,” he says.
“They’d already claimed it as their own. They didn’t need the validation of triple j to know that it was a great song.
“That’s a great life lesson in a way. Sure, you can be famous in the city, but if it’s not approved and people aren’t proud of it in your home town, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Small town to big stage
The Wilcannia Mob won a Deadly Award and Down River entered the 2002 Hottest 100 — then a few years later MIA sampled the song on her track Mango Pickle Down River.
The compilation CD that originally featured Down River even got a mention on a New York Times top 10 alternative albums list.
But the culmination of the Down River experience was an eye-opening trip to Sydney to play on the main stage of the Homebake Australian music festival.
The Wilcannia Mob played on the main stage of Homebake in December 2002. (Supplied: Melinda Collie-Holmes)
The boys hopped on a bus with their families in tow. For some, it was their first visit to the city.
“Coming over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, they took a photo of us and the caption says, ‘I don’t think this would be a good bridge to jump off’,” says Buddy Blair.
Their performance in front of 20,000 people at Homebake was an unforgettable moment for them, Wilcannia and Australian music.
“It was mind-blowing. The Domain was full, front to back. The side of stage was full too. Every artist was there to watch them. To see that support and enthusiasm — and curiosity — that’s great,” Morganics says.
“As I’m walking out on stage I stood up to my fear. I was scared, how many people were there,” says Colroy Johnson.
At the time, the Wilcannia Mob were the youngest musicians to play at Homebake. (Supplied: Melinda Collie-Holmes)
The Wilcannia Mob’s Keith Dutton still remembers the shock he got at the size of the crowd.
“Pretty shame when you first walk out there. Very nervous. I just went out there and did the best I could. The crowd went off,” he says.
Inspiring a new generation
After their immediate success, it was always unlikely the Wilcannia Mob would continue — they were young, for one thing, and they’d been brought together by chance.
Buddy Blair was 12 years old when he helped form the Wilcannia Mob. (ABC RN: Timothy Nicastri)
But their shared history cemented their relationship. Fifteen years later, the band members continue to lean on the experience.
“It just built our confidence heaps. It’s something that pushes me back up, no matter how far I’ve fallen down,” Blair says.
“We’ve done that, so we can do anything. Especially when we realised what’s outside of Wilcannia.”
Lendal King says the experience changed him.
“Now I go to community meetings. I went down to Canberra to fight about our water, that’s how much I love my river. I’m trying to step up and do stuff like elders used to do,” he says.
King, who was the youngest member of the band, is now 24. He’s passionate about encouraging Wilcannia’s youth to express their culture through music like he did.
Earlier this year, a new track from the Wilcannia community surfaced. The Wilcannia Mob: Intergeneration’s Our Country, Our Way started getting airplay on triple j Unearthed.
The song pays homage to the original Mob, and shows how the Wilcannia community feels ownership of the story.
“The song is based around Barkindji land. It features kids from Wilcannia High School and leaders from Broken Hill and Wilcannia,” says Desert Pea Media’s music director, Josh Nicholas.
“The sound is a bit dark, it’s a bit grimy, but I think it gives the Wilcannia Mob a really cool background,” he says.
Nicholas believes the new track is a chance to introduce a new audience to Barkindji culture, and the famous Darling River.
“They’re still there, they’re still strong,” he says.