Roebourne has been beset by poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism. But its Indigenous community is taking control of its story.
Just outside Roebourne – on the flat plains of the Ngurin river, where the landscape turns violet in the dying sun – sits the regional prison. The jail, so close by, is a reminder of the fraught history of this Aboriginal town.
It was here in Roebourne where John Pat, aged just 16, died in 1983 after being taken into custody, shining a spotlight on police brutality in Indigenous communities. It is here where hundreds of men and women are incarcerated.
And it is also here that music is providing a new form for hope: in the form of songs written by the prisoners. Last week, in the prison quadrangle, scones with jam and cream were served as Archie Roach entered the jail to teach a workshop organized by the not-for-profit Big hART, which helps empower disadvantaged communities through art. One by one the prisoners sang him their songs, including a track called Prison Blues, a country jive and a reggae love lament, and another titled I Won’t Be You’re Stepping Stone.
Located some 1,200km from Perth in the West Pilbara, in an area now dominated by the gas and oil industries whose vast factories scar the landscape, Roebourne has long been notorious. The greater region is home to 13 language groups, including the Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi people; like many disadvantaged remote communities, the town is beset by poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism (the local pub was shut down in the late 1990s and is currently being redeveloped as a community space).
Most infamously, Roebourne has become a byword for child abuse. In 2017 the West Australian police commissioner, Karl O’Callaghan, described child sex offenses in the former gold rush town as a “cancer”. The streets, he said, were a “war zone”.
In August, the ABC revealed that figures relating to abuse had been exaggerated; many here feel that they have been unfairly targeted. Yet the reputation remains, and it is one that locals are fighting hard to combat.
To build goodwill, and to bolster community, on Saturday – the weekend anniversary of Pat’s death – Big hART and the local Indigenous community launched the inaugural Songs for Peace next door to a memorial that was opened for him last year.
“We will always remember [Pat],” says Michelle Adams, 48, a Yindjibarndi woman and a board director of the Wirlu-Murra Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation. “And always honor those families who have lost loved ones at the hands of the police.”
Under the stars, local musicians shared the stage with established acts including Brian Ritchie, the bass player for the Violent Femmes, the Grammy-award winning Lucky Oceans, who curated the evening, and Roach. Children darted freely in the grass, residents danced and there was a free sausage sizzle. As Roach put it: “Music brings people together … it’s all about the future.”
It is also about taking ownership of the story – a story that for too long people here insist has been dictated to them by white people and a sensationalist media.
“This whole changing of the narrative in Roebourne is what we need to do,” says Dawn Bessarab, 64, a Yindjibarndi and Bardi woman and professor at the University of Western Australia medical school, who made the 16-hour drive up from Perth for the event. “Because our young people have fallen for the colonial narrative that we’re worthless, we’re useless and we don’t have anything of value.
Adams says: “We’re actually working with traumatized young people, a traumatized community … That’s the effect when someone has always been in control of your story.”
Critical to Songs for Peace is not just the concert itself but the years-long process that helped create it. In 2010 Big hART was invited by elders to work in Roebourne. Since then they have delivered nearly 2,000 workshops – including, in this case, songs created in the Roebourne regional prison.
“There is a tradition of music in Roebourne and in the West Pilbara but there’s also been a lot of trauma here since 1868 [the date of the Flying Foam Massacre]”, says Scott Rankin, Big hART’s creative director. “In some ways, the music died … There was a desire for music but it was quite hard for the community to sing.”
Big hART built a local choir for women and started doing prison workshops. Rankin notes that the latter was just as important for morale in Roebourne as the former: the jail, he says, consists of “a very fluid wall. It’s a white fella way of seeing it as a separate community [from those who are free] – it’s the same community”.
“Here is a community that is singing again,” he says.
Lucky Oceans says that when Roach came to the jail for the workshop last week, one of the two women prisoners presents held Roach’s hands. She missed her family and her country, she told him. “Then [she] sang the first and only song she has written for Archie and told how she sings it to herself to find comfort when things are especially dark.
“The prisoners’ songs, musicianship, and singing were nothing out of the ordinary,” Oceans says. (Guardian Australia was not allowed to enter the jail). What was moving, however, was that “people who are for the most part voiceless were free to share their deepest hopes and dreams”.
Such hope was on full display on Saturday night. “Gonna see those western skies / with my true love by my side,” crooned musicians, performing the prison song If I Ever Get Outta Here, to loud cheers from the crowd. “Ride my Harley down the road / Hear this song on the radio.”
Adams believes that change will happen – although the statistics look grim. Over the past half decade, the number of prisoners in Australia has soared by 39%, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, meanwhile, make up 28% of all those locked up – while only accounting for 3% of the total population.
“It is an international shame,” Adams says. “So rather than take to the streets to fight, we promote peace and seek conversations with Australians too.
“The history between black fellas and police across the country has never been an ideal one but in 2018 we hope that Roebourne will start to lead the way.”
This year about 500 people attended Songs for Peace. As the annual event gains momentum, there is a reason to believe that thousands will come, mimicking the success of Indigenous-led concerts such as the Yarrabah Band festival, and giving voice to the all-too-often invisible stories – and songs – of the people here.
For Adams, the event is a coming together, of white and black, of young and old. “Non-Indigenous Australians, they’re hurting too,” she says. Sitting together around a fire, playing music, creating art, chewing the fat and just being. “That’s the thing that promotes respect,” Adams says. “And says: ‘I’m with you.’”