Three decades ago, John Pat was 16 and living in the Pilbara town of Roebourne 1. He loved horses and music. His family called him ‘Murru’. One night in 1983, John died in custody in the town of Roebourne, and the community outcry triggered the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and shining a spotlight on the increasing rates of Indigenous incarceration in our country. Amidst the grief, John became know as ‘the Boy’, and Murru is a musical tribute to him and his still grieving family.
For the past three years, Big hART has been working with the community of Roebourne, the Pat family and prisoners in Roebourne Regional Prison as part of the Yijala Yala Project to create a collection of songs to commemorate his passing, released as an album on the 30th anniversary of his death in September 2013.
Since this launch, the performance of the Murru album has become an uplifting concert with a luminous range of talents – including Archie Roach, Lucky Oceans, Emma Donovan, John Bennett, Harry Hookey and many more – who together create a towering evening of song.
Combining breathtaking imagery from the Pilbara region with beautiful harmonies and arrangements, co-written by inmates from the Roebourne prison, Murru is an exuberant and heartbreaking celebration of our country – a hymn to the land and its people, a remembrance of those we’ve lost and a paean of hope for the future. It is a gift to the country from the community of Roebourne… an example of maragutharra2, working together – across cultures, across generations, across genders, across country – allowing for mutual teaching and learning, and of thinking in a new way.
As Harry Hookey says:
“These songs are as true as they come. They have not been written so much as they have been lived. It was an honour and a privilege to be a part of their creation…”
If John had lived he’d be a leader in his community today. He’d be negotiating with government and resource companies, for his people. Like many other mothers around the country, Mavis misses her son deeply. It’s tough to admit this, but right now, every second young person in juvenile detention in our country is Indigenous (51%)3. This has to change, and it will only change if all Australians work maragutharra.
The Murru Concert opens the Melbourne Festival in Federation Square on October 10th, 2014 before touring the country for the next two years to raise awareness and support for reducing Indigenous youth incarceration statistics by the 2016 federal election.
There are also plans for a second album to be produced, this time working with more prisoners and prisons across the country.
Murru is one part of the larger Yijala Yala Project – a four-year creative collaboration between the community of Roebourne and Big hART – sponsored by Woodside-operated Pluto LNG and supported and encouraged by cultural leaders and the creative talent of this Pilbara community.
1 Roebourne (Ieramugadu) is on Ngarluma country in the western Pilbara
2 The word maragutharra is Yindjibarndi; the Pat family’s language group
3 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2013. Youth detention population in Australia 2013. Juvenile Justice Series no. 13. Cat. no. JUV 31. Canberra:AIHW
Murru grew out of the Roebourne Regional Prison Music Program – a regular workshop series that is part of Big hART’s Yijala Yala Project. It commenced in October 2010, and has been running almost continuously since then.
Music operates primarily in eight to nine week blocks comprising two half-day workshops per week in guitar-playing, singing and song-writing. At the end of every eight weeks, there is a two-week break when the regular facilitators are on leave. On some occasions, if they are available other Big hART facilitators deliver the workshops. Between 8 – 12 students regularly attend these sessions. Where possible, they are enrolled in Cert II Music, subject to the availability of a tutor to assist with the paperwork.
An underlying premise of the Big hART deliveries is to engage the students with successful artists and role models, particularly Aboriginal artists who are high-profile musicians. To that end all the facilitators are highly competent performers and we have had regular input from Aboriginal artists Trevor Jamieson and Derik Lynch.
Performance and recording goals are set for the group. These include in-prison performances during NAIDOC Week and the Christmas Family Day. Recording operates at several levels: CDs for individual students and their families; prison compilations for distribution to other prisons, family and friends, and for the more advanced student, recording for radio play within the restrictions of prison regulations (no names are written on the CDs or the covers, and the selected radio stations are advised that no names are available). Students concerned must be members of APRA and all recordings and airplay, require the written permission of the student, and learn about copyright and licensing their work as well.
Participation and skills have been building over time to the point where there is now over five albums worth of recorded material. Four CDs of work have been produced – two compilations and two by solo artists. These have been sent to radio stations throughout Australia, with some tracks receiving regular airplay. The music program has shown that the participants are not only enthusiastic and prolific but exceptionally talented and creative lyricists and composers. The program has had a remarkable effect on the mental health of the individual participants and also on the wellbeing of other prisoners who benefit from regular concerts.
I cannot underestimate the high value of having Big hART regularly involved within the prison. Their staff are professional and highly motivated. Eminently suited to working with Aboriginal people, their enthusiasm is contagious and they are strong positive mentors for the students. The music programme has proved very popular and the fact that the facilitators focus upon professional development in the music industry, exposes the students to the technical side of recording, APRA requirements, intellectual property matters and related knowledge. Students also spend a lot of extra time writing and drafting which has a beneficial flow-on effect for their literacy development.
Delphine McFarlane, Roebourne Regional Prison Campus Manager 2008 – 2012