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;