Paul Stewart personifies the essence of rock ’n’ roll ideology. Stewart is most famous for fronting iconic Australian rock band, Painters And Dockers, but his work in Dili Allstars has left a profound social and cultural impact on the lives of our less- fortunate neighbours in East Timor.
Stewart’s ties with East Timor were sewn when his brother, Tony, was one of five Australian journalists murdered by Indonesian forces in Balibo, East Timor, in 1975. “I often say to people that ‘you know, I lost one brother up there but I met Gil [Santos] and he’s my brother now’,” says Stewart of his Dili Allstars co-founder. “And it’s been an honour for me to meet Gil.”
Formed in 1992, Dili Allstars are a funk/ska/reggae/rock collective comprising Australian and East Timorese musicians, who are committed to assisting the people of East Timor and other pertinent social causes. “Rock ’n’ roll is about rebellion and bucking the system,” Stewart expresses. “We don’t play to make money or to be popular. We’re more like revolutionary fighters than rock ’n’ roll musicians.”
Dili Allstars have held numerous benefits for single mothers, aids victims, war widows, disabled citizens and starving children, while Stewart met Santos at a Melbourne protest on the day that East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão was captured by Indonesian forces. “I’d gone along to this rally and we were all at the front shouting abuse at the Indonesians for invading East Timor,” Stewart relates. “Gil was there and we struck up a conversation; he told me he was a musician as well and said ‘y’know, we should actually make some music together’, and it all kicked off from there.”
Since, more than 30 musicians have played with the band in their 18 year history. “We describe the band as a bit like an aeroplane – a lot of people have come on board for the journey, some got off, some got air-sick along the way, some have jumped out with a parachute,” Stewart chuckles. “I’m the loud-mouth show-pony because I’m not shy in putting myself forward, but Gil is definitely the brains behind the two of us; he’s the real soul man. Even though he’s ten years younger than me, often he takes me aside and says ‘Paulie, calm down – we’ll be okay; we’ll get through this’. He’s been fantastic like that – he’s been a guiding light for me… and the whole thing about coping with my brother’s death is that to be able to make music and do something positive out of this tragedy, it’s been an absolute blessing in my life.”
Last year, Dili Allstars won the Fine Arts ‘Best Soundtrack’ ARIA Award for writing the score for the Balibo film. Stewart’s favourite Dili Allstars performance was the Tour Of Duty concert in 1999, where the band performed alongside John Farnham, Kylie Minogue and The Living End: “It was the first time that all the Timorese members of the band – both boys and girls – got to go home after 25 years, so that was such a buzz for them to be able to go to their homeland and for me to go with them was such an honour.”
Dili Allstars became Australia’s official representative at East Timor’s Independence Concert in 2002 while their song, Liberdade, has become an unofficial national anthem with pro- independence campaigners utilising the song in the lead-up to the Referendum in 1999. “We heard that the Indonesian governor of East Timor had written all these songs where he was saying that he wanted the country to stay part of Indonesia, so we thought ‘oh, well we might as well write a song for the independence people’. It was a song that we wrote just off the cuff, but it’s probably grown to be the biggest song I’ve been involved in – and that’s after 35 years making music in the ‘Dockers and Dili Allstars,” he chuckles. “To this day, when I go to East Timor, little kids come running up to me in the street singing Liberdade.”
Dili is, of course, the capital city of East Timor. “East Timor was formerly Portuguese territory so when you go up there, the first thing you notice is that the people don’t look like people from other parts of Indonesia,” Stewart informs. “The majority of people in Indonesia are Muslim, but 98% of East Timor is Roman Catholic and there’s lots of different traditions and cultures. The people of East Timor were given the chance to stay part of Indonesia and it was put to the national vote, but people voted overwhelmingly for their independence, so I’m just honoured that the Dili Allstars played a part in helping them get it. They’re Australia’s closest neighbour…just a drop-kick above Darwin, so Australians certainly have some obligation to help the East Timorese.
They’d been occupied for about 300 years and now they’re independent.” The brilliant Best Of The Dili Allstars compilation was birthed when the ABC rang the band to express their interest in releasing the record. “That was just a real thrill to us,” Stewart enthuses. “We went through the four albums that we’d put out and also the songs that we’ve done for benefit causes – everything from Kids Under Cover to aids victims to the Melbourne Immigration Museum – so we picked songs that we had recorded all over the place and put them in the one compilation.” A ska interpretation of Painters and Dockers’ Advance Australia Where is also included. “It’s funny… when I joined the Dili Allstars, I wanted to downplay the ‘Dockers side of things, but all the Timorese boys really loved the punk energy of the ‘Dockers.” Stewart explains that Timorese books and food will also be available at the Dili Allstars’ album launch at The Evelyn Hotel this Monday.
Painters And Dockers’ induction into The Age’s EG Hall Of Fame last November was a bonus in what Stewart describes as a blessed two years: “I was a real bad boy and I had to have a liver transplant, so I almost died and I remember lying in hospital thinking, ‘All I want to do is come out and play one more Painters and Dockers gig and put out a Best Of Dili Allstars album’. And now it’s all happened…so I’m the luckiest son of a bitch in the world, mate, I tell you.”
DILI ALLSTARS launch The Best Of Dili Allstars (out now through ABC/Universla) at The Evelyn Hotel this Monday November 1 (Cup Eve), with guests Tabura and Project Puzzles.