Saturday, June 09, 2007

Broome and Perth

A tropical evening in Broome, and Uncle Baamba rolls up at the Mangrove Hotel to take me out. My one night here happens to coincide with the opening of an exhibition commemorating 100 years of the presence in the Kimberley of the Sisters of St. John of God. In 1907, a handful of Irish nuns, with no knowledge of Aboriginal people, appeared in the north of Western Australia, fuelled by nothing but missionary zeal and charity. Although they now wear simple modern clothes, and for some time wore white cotton habits, the first nuns were clad in heavy black wool from head to toe, with a train for good measure. Given that it’s 35C today, and this is the winter, they must have been stifled. “No wonder they were a bit grumpy”, says Baamba.

When we were doing Bullie’s House, it was very apparent that Baamba knew a lot about mission stations, priests and anthropologists. Now it’s clear why – he went to school on one. He shows me pictures of his mother as a novice nun (who never took her final vows!), himself as a boy in the dilapidated school-house; he introduces me to his numerous cousins, nephews and nieces, and his “favourite teacher”, who is an ageing nun. I’m always wary of evangelism in any form – but there is something very touching about this community and its place in this region. Not least the fact that, if indigenous people had not come here, they would have been massacred in the bush. Michelle tells me that Aboriginal people were being hunted for sport as recently as the 1970s; and that there was a conspiracy of silence to protect the perpetrators.

It takes us a while to find a restaurant which is still open at the late hour of 8.30pm, but finally get a Chow Mein in the local Chinese. It’s BYO (bring your own), so we drink water with it. There are lots of Chinese people here, as well as Malay and Japanese. Broome was exempt from the white Australia policy, as a step to encourage Asian people here to man the pearl luggers. Hence the incredible mix of races. Dalisa is part Aboriginal and part Malay. Jimmy Chi, the playwright and musician, is Aboriginal, Japanese, Chinese and Scottish – one quarter to each grandparent. Baamba had a Japanese step-father, and used to be allowed into the pubs when other Aboriginals were not, because the Japanese were regarded as closer to white. “Besides”, he chortles, “they had to let me in, ‘cos nobody else could play ‘em any music”.

We trundle across the road to the Roebuck Tavern, made famous by Jimmy Chi in Bran Nue Dae – the Aboriginal musical with its roots in Broome, in which Baamba played Uncle Tadpole; a character I suspect was modelled rather closely on himself. Sadly, the cliché of the alcoholic Aboriginal is much in evidence here. As we sit on the veranda, waiting for a taxi, they lurch and stagger around us. It doesn’t feel dangerous or threatening – just rather pathetic. And horribly understandable. There are people in this state whose first contact with the wider world was only a few decades ago. Now, even in this incredibly remote little town (two and a half hours’ flight from Perth, which is itself the world’s most remote big city), there are numerous cars, internet cafés, cinemas, tourists, and flashing corporate logos. And alcohol. It’s hardly surprising that people should have such a deep sense of displacement.

And yet, there is so much here that is positive in the community’s development and efforts towards sustainability. Baamba’s own work at Goolarri and in education (he’s one of the founders of Notre Dame University here) is extraordinary. Michelle takes me to Magabala Books – an independent Indigenous publisher. We browse through galleries of traditional art, wondering at the throbbing, shimmering vitality of these Dreaming-inspired paintings. And, of course, there was Bran Nue Dae. At the airport, I spot a CD of the music, which I have never heard – and snap it up.

Back in Perth for one evening, which I spend with Heath Bergersen, who played Bullie himself, and Bev Webb, his adopted mother, agent, and our Australian Associate Producer on the project. Both Heath and Baamba have the most incredible memories, and remind me of things which happened during that 2004 tour which I’d long since consigned to my internal recycle bin. There’s much laughter, and a little sadness over the death of Kevin Costello. It does us good to talk about him. I’d been a bit wary, because I know some indigenous Australians resist talking about the dead – but both Baamba and Heath initiate the subject with the generosity born from a shared loss.

Up early, and dash round to the Post Office, to collect a parcel of material from Bain Stewart, who is Leah Purcell’s partner and manager at Bungabura Productions. And now here I am on yet another plane, this time to Brisbane. I should be meeting Leah and Bain on Tuesday. In the meantime, I’m off to the Festival of the Dreaming.

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