Jandamarra, story of First Nation freedom fighter, set for Sydney Opera House debut

It has been a book, a documentary and a stage play. Now the story of Jandamarra, an Aboriginal freedom fighter from Western Australia's Kimberley region, will be told in a major choral work at the Sydney Opera House.

Scene from Jandamarra, a play about an Aboriginal freedom fighter from Western Australia's Kimberley region.<br>(Image: ABC)
Scene from Jandamarra, a play about an Aboriginal freedom fighter from Western Australia’s Kimberley region.
(Image: ABC)

Claire Moodie ABC 2 July 2014

Playwright Steve Hawke has joined forces with leading composer Paul Stanhope to tell the story of Jandamarra, a Bunuba man who led a guerrilla war against police and white settlers in Western Australia's Kimberley region in the 1890s.

ABC TV Documentary Trailer

"The joke I make with the gang here is that we're doing Jandamarra in the white fellas' dreaming place," said Hawke, who is the son of former prime minister Bob Hawke.

"To be part of a production at the Sydney Opera House, it's an honour."

The production brings actors and singers from the Bunuba people together with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and more than 200 other singers from choirs around the country.

It is being dedicated to two Bunuba elders, Adam Andrews and Molly Jalakbiya, who composed traditional songs that are being used in the production, and Hawke's mother, Hazel, who was an accomplished pianist and patron of the orchestra.

"She would have absolutely loved it," Hawke said.

"She was passionate about this country. She was passionate about the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. She would have just loved it to death. So, here's to you, mum."

Indigenous hero's story told on the page, stage and screen

It is not the first time that Hawke has told the story of Jandamarra.

The veteran land rights campaigner has had a 30-year relationship with the Bunuba people and worked closely with them to write a stage play on Jandamarra that premiered at the 2008 Perth International Arts Festival.

"I'm a prose writer by trade. I've never written poetry before, let alone songs, and here I am exploring this whole new territory," he said.

"It's such a strong story for the Bunuba people. It's a central part of their heritage."

Hawke has been working with composer Stanhope on this latest musical telling of the story for more than two years.

"We call it a dramatic cantata, which is a very fancy word, but it's kind of a synthesis of music, theatre, of singing and of storytelling," Stanhope said.

"We think that the Bunuba people were about 10,000 strong and by the end of the Jandamarra wars, as they're called, there were probably only about 1,500 left so it really is a devastating loss for a whole community.

"It's virtually genocide and it's a story we need to remember in Australia, I think."

Bunuba freedom fighters' legend rivals Ned Kelly

For Bunuba man Emmanuel James Brown, who will play the lead role of Jandamarra, the production offers an opportunity to tell the story to a wider audience.

"Everyone knows about Ned Kelly, but not Jandamarra," he said.

"So it's good for us to take him to Sydney Opera House and let more people know about him."

Another Bunuba performer, Jimmy "Dillon" Andrews, takes tours of Windjana Gorge, the scene one of Australia's biggest gun battles between Jandamarra and his followers and police and settlers.

"It doesn't matter how good or how bad he was. We'll remember him as a Bunuba man who fought for this country," Andrews said.

Next week the Bunuba people will make the long trek to Sydney for the final rehearsals before the opening night on July 16.

"You go into these things as nervous as all hell," Hawke said.

"You don't really know if they're going to work. But I've got this gut feeling that it's going to be something awesome."

Lest We Forget the warriors who fell in 'The Frontier War' conflicts
Michael Anderson encourages First Nations peoples from across the country to use their city's Anzac Day march to remember the 'frontier wars' massacres.

 Go to Article & Video's

'The Forgotten War' - slaughter on stolen lands
While white Australians remember their casualties in overseas wars, they don't even comsider of Aboriginal deaths during the brutal colonisation of Australia.