NORTH­ERN SONGS

Vic­to­ria Lau­rie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

Pil­bara songs are hang­ing in the air un­der a swollen moon, near a stony riverbed edged with spinifex grass. In the Ngurin Pil­bara Abo­rig­i­nal Cen­tre in Roe­bourne, most of the town res­i­dents have gath­ered in the am­phithe­atre to wit­ness a home­grown show: Tjaabi, Songs from the Pil­bara.

In­dian prayer bowls brim­ming with salt, spinifex seeds, sand and wa­ter have been laid on pil­lows of red dirt across the per­for­mance ground. Ear­lier in the day, lead per­former Pa­trick Churn­side re­hearsed his cher­ished songs, with a dozen lo­cal chil­dren herded into po­si­tion be­hind him.

This is a big night for Roe­bourne and Big hART, the arts com­pany that has come and gone from the town for nearly six years. The liv­ing pres­ence of Pil­bara Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture will be re­vealed to the vis­it­ing guests and pa­trons who’ve flown in, in­clud­ing Perth In­ter­na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val di­rec­tor Wendy Martin.

But the tough­est crit­ics will be lo­cals such as Churn­side’s Ngar­luma rel­a­tives and Yind­jibarndi neigh­bours. And, most cru­cially, a row of el­derly peo­ple seated within me­tres of him — the equiv­a­lent of the royal theatre box.

“We’ve got a bus­load of peo­ple from Hed­land, Tom Price, Parabur­doo com­ing,” Churn­side, 35, re­marks. “Who knows, there could be some old peo­ple from the desert com­ing in.”

A spot­light finds him on the dirt stage, against a back­drop of pow­er­ful video im­ages shot by the com­mu­nity and vis­it­ing film­mak­ers. “We’re go­ing on a jour­ney across the Pil­bara,” Churn­side tells the crowd. “When we are some­where spe­cial we might make a tjaabi song about it, it’s like a ‘sound selfie’,” he adds.

“Tjaabi can be about pow­er­ful things, pow­er­ful men, pow­er­ful coun­try … Now you’re say­ing, ‘Hang on, Pa­trick, you can’t go singing your spooky in­dige­nous songs!’ Nah,” he says re­as­sur­ingly, “you [will be] right.”

Big hART’s notes de­scribe Tjaabi as “crisp po­etic songs … cap­tur­ing dreams, thoughts, mo­ments which can be funny, sexy, pro­found or wist­ful”. And so it is that Churn­side’s songs and sto­ries are al­ter­nately com­i­cal and rev­er­en­tial. He sings about the warmth of the first ris­ing sun in Mar­tuthu­nira coun­try near the Fortes­cue River, the scent of rain, the rus­tle of leaves.

Roe­bourne’s tra­di­tional name comes from the rough-tex­tured leaf of the sand­pa­per fig leaf, or ire­mu­gadu, he says. “It ex­plains why you [lot are] so rough around the edges,” he jokes, ges­tur­ing to the crowd.

He sings a tjaabi about wash­ing clothes down at the Ngurin River, now dammed but once a flood­ing river that en­veloped the town.

“We’d have our sup­per, fold the clothes, pack them neatly and go back home. Then peo­ple came and said they needed to take away the wa­ter in the river. They named Ngurin River after a Mr Hard­ing. Then they said they needed to take away the iron ore.”

Among the in­vited guests are lo­cal govern­ment dig­ni­taries wear­ing T-shirts that proudly com­mem­o­rate 150 years of Roe­bourne set­tle­ment. It’s ironic that what they are wit­ness­ing is song and cer­e­mony sourced from cul­ture dat­ing back thou­sands of years.

On stage, Churn­side im­pro­vises ex­pertly on clap­sticks with fel­low mu­si­cians or brings an el­derly woman for­ward to take part. Then a dozen boys line up to take their turn in a solo dance. Each boy’s dance is idio­syn­cratic and oddly touch­ing. As each one advances on Churn­side in mock chal­lenge, a roar goes up from their fam­ily group. Pride swells. “Deadly!” shouts one rel­a­tive.

Big hART has sur­vived nearly 25 tu­mul­tuous years, won 35 awards and worked in 50 com­mu­ni­ties in far-flung places, from north­west Tas­ma­nia, west­ern NSW and south­west Queens­land to Pit­jan­t­jara lands in in­land South Aus­tralia. It’s an odd­ity, ad­mits Big hART’s found­ing di­rec­tor, Scott Rankin. What other com­pany would spend months in Roe­bourne, put on a lav­ish show and not ex­pect to per­form it for pay­ing au­di­ences for 18 months?

The com­pany is fa­mous for na­tion­ally tour­ing works such as Na­matjira, Stick­y­bricks and Nga­partji Nga­partji, bilin­gual creations forged from months or even years of com­mu­nity in­ter­ac­tion. Hip­bone Stick­ing Out, Big hART’s most re­cent ma­jor show in 2014, came from its first few years work­ing in Roe­bourne. This sprawl­ing op­er­atic theatre piece drew on a dark mo­ment in the town’s his­tory: the 1983 death of John Pat, 16, who died after be­ing taken by po­lice to Roe­bourne lockup. His death trig­gered the Royal Com­mis­sion into Abo­rig­i­nal Deaths in Cus­tody.

Hip­bone toured to Perth, the Mel­bourne Fes­ti­val and Can­berra Cen­te­nary Fes­ti­val, with a huge cast that in­cluded Churn­side, nearly a dozen adults and chil­dren from Roe­bourne, and pro­fes­sional ac­tors such as Les Mis­er­ables lead Si­mon Glee­son and for­mer Mamma Mia! mu­si­cal lead Natalie O’Don­nell.

While crit­i­cally ac­claimed, the show drained Big hART — and Rankin — of re­sources. “I re­alised I was older at the end of Hip­bone,” he ad­mits, for rea­sons that be­come clear later. “I couldn’t read the ex­haus­tion of things. But this show is re­ally in­vig­o­rat­ing.”

Churn­side walks in after re­hearsal and greets his friend Rankin, whom he af­fec­tion­ately calls “Juju”, or old man. “It’s com­ing to life,” he says of the show. “I didn’t re­ally ex­pect it when we sat down to­gether, Juju. We talked and you said ‘These tjaabi, these songs, maybe we could do a show around this.’ I guess you saw some­thing, you saw how to bring it out.”

In the past, Churn­side has performed against the back­drop of ag­o­nis­ing per­sonal trauma, after a very public fam­ily mur­der and the jail­ing of close kin. Sim­i­lar grief washes through Roe­bourne’s streets on trou­bled nights. It’s what turned Churn­side to­wards Big hART and per­form­ing in the first place.

“There’s been a lot of con­flict in the last few years,” he says. “I’ve been see­ing anti-so­cial be­hav­iour and neg­a­tive vibes grow­ing, so this to me shows good things can hap­pen. I can see through this work the pos­i­tive side of things.”

After his par­ents split up, Pa­trick took the same down­ward slide as many Pil­bara young­sters. “I started mov­ing from fam­ily to fam­ily, to my aun­ties and nanna, and get­ting into a lot of bad things — drink­ing, drugs and po­lice.” He even­tu­ally pulled him­self to­gether, met a girl, got mar­ried and went to work for the shire in the mining town of Tom Price. “I got into her­itage and lis­ten­ing to elders, and pol­i­tics.”

His per­form­ing tal­ents emerged only four years ago when Rankin in­vited him to do a wel­come to coun­try cer­e­mony. “The clos­est thing I got to drama was back in school,” he says. “Mr Scott here must have saw [sic] some­thing in me. And I thought, ‘That’s the fella we need.’ ”

Says Rankin: “Pa­trick’s in­ter­est was tweaked when he rocked in and he knew we were talk­ing with older men about singing tjaabi; they’d come in and sing some songs in work­shops but they wouldn’t carry on with it.”

Rankin sensed the men were stuck in a kind of grief “at­tached to the dif­fi­culty of con­trol­ling the tsunami of the West that’s over­whelm­ing them … When you sit in the com­mu­nity with it, there’s a seep­ing into you [of trauma].” But Churn­side had “a sense of op­ti­mism, a beau­ti­ful raw voice and grav­i­tas that says ‘kapow’ ”.

It was Roe­bourne’s senior women who first asked Big hART to come to town. They saw a video of Nga­partji Nga­partji, the play about West­ern Desert com­mu­ni­ties and their sur­vival of the Mar­alinga atomic test­ing, and told Rankin he needed to come and work with them.

For Allery Sandy, a noted artist from the town’s in­dige­nous gallery who toured with Hip- bone Stick­ing Out, the aim was not so much about mak­ing art. Some of her grand­chil­dren had gone off the rails; Big hART might help re­claim them.

“I saw my grand­son Ai­den clap­ping with boomerangs last night,” she tells Re­view the day after at­tend­ing Tjaabi. “I went all emo­tional, and the next boy was Max. They are both my grand­sons. I thought, ‘ Just look at the changes in them.’ They were do­ing some­thing for their com­mu­nity and when I looked at how the kids are so con­fi­dent, it blew me away.”

“The women said, ‘ We want this for our grand­chil­dren’,” re­calls Rankin. “The sec­ond thing they said was, ‘ We don’t want to talk about the old bad Roe­bourne but al­ways the new Roe­bourne.’ And the third thing they said was, ‘We want you to know that her­itage is a fu­ture con­cept for us, not a past one.’

“We just did what we were told and be­gan cre­at­ing lots of work with grand­chil­dren.”

What fol­lowed were hun­dreds of hours of film­mak­ing, the creation of an award-win­ning car­toon se­ries, and of art­work us­ing Pho­to­shop tech­niques, all skills learned in after-school work­shops open only to those kids who turned up for school. “It’s the arts equiv­a­lent of those foot­ball-train­ing pro­grams run to en­cour­age kids to com­plete school,” says Rankin.

He in­sists Big hART is not about mak­ing in­dige­nous work but work that en­twines cul­tures.

“The tra­jec­tory is you ar­rive, take a step, re­alise you’re blind, and then re­alise you have to slow down and lis­ten,” says Rankin. “And then you go through this dip where you’re apol­o­gis­ing for be­ing non-in­dige­nous, then you come back to a place where you’re not tread­ing on eggshells. You’re both crack­ing jokes and say­ing inappropriate things, and you find your­self in the fu­ture of the coun­try, which is an in­ter­cul­tural world.

“There’s a spark in the work, and the au­di­ence ex­pe­ri­ences laugh­ter and cry­ing. It’s not a guilt-based thing. It’s ab­so­lutely about the joy of the work.”

Big hART’s cul­tural and so­cial out­put is closely au­dited, in a part­ner­ship it re­quested

Pa­trick Churn­side started per­form­ing with Big hART four years ago; Ash­ton Cheedy dances on the red dirt stage, right

Churn­side with some of his young co-stars; Big hART found­ing di­rec­tor Scott Rankin dur­ing a com­mu­nity work­shop

A young­ster on stage for the per­for­mance of Tjaabi;

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