Jandamarra - Sing for Country

1 August 2019
The Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Bunuba Cultural Enterprises present Jandamarra - Sing for the Country. This work for massed voices and orchestra tells the story of Jandamarra, a young Bunuba Aboriginal man and the dramatic story of conflict between Aboriginal people and white settlers.

Internationally recognised Australian composer and Sydney Conservatorium of Music Associate Professor, Paul Stanhope and librettist Steve Hawke were commissioned by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to create this work, telling the epic frontier story, which premiered in 2014. This will be the first performance of a second edition of the work.

Jandamarra – Sing for the Country (Ngalanybarra Muwayi.u) is written for large choral and orchestral forces and an Indigenous ensemble, and will be a collaboration between the Sydney Conservatorium Orchestra, Chamber Choir and Large Choir along with Sydney Children’s Choir and Sydney Philharmonia’s youth choir, Vox, as well as actors, singers and dancers from the Bunuba nation in the Kimberley.

Librettist Hawke co-wrote the original stage play upon which the work is based, collaborating closely with members of the Bunuba community with whom he has worked for three decades.

Jandamarra is one of the great Australian stories.
Steve Hawke

"It has been a privilege to work with my Bunuba friends over such a long period to bring this story to life, and to continue doing so, and to bring Bunuba culture, language, song and dance to Australian audiences,” Mr Hawke said.

“The collaboration between Paul and the Bunuba gang and myself has been a joy. The work that has resulted is a vivid testament to a great man [Jandamarra], and to the power of song.”

In collaboration with the Bunuba people, this performance brings to life the powerful story of Jandamarra which is emblematic not only of past confilict, but also of survival and connection to country.

“Much of the story of Jandamarra, as told in its original stage play, has to do with singing; the power of song to spur people into action or to console and heal. The threads of traditional Kimberley music which we are very fortunate to have permission to use – including verses from the Yilimbirri Junba which references the Jandamarra story – add to the rich texture of the story-telling,” Associate Professor Stanhope said.

“The weaving together of the earthy Kimberley singing, the power of dance and the telling of this narrative through song and the majesty of the orchestra brings to life the landscape, the terror of conflict and the triumph of survival.

“It has been an extraordinary journey in writing this piece and I am greatly honoured to have worked with Steve as well as the amazing cast from Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley in bringing this gripping tale to Sydney audiences and to share it with the students and staff of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.”

It is over a century since Jandamarra was killed, however, he has continued to be an inspiration and is remembered through stories, dance, songs both traditional and contempory, and now, in this performance. 

When writing the composition, Paul Stanhope was always mindful of ensuring the clarity of the story. As a result, the roles of the soloists, narrators and the choirs is paramount. As a narrative work, the orchestral music is used to underscore, as well as provide responses to, the dramatic events – it supports and colours the text. He employs the range available in the large orchestral and choral forces to great effect in order to evoke the story’s setting.

This compelling piece will be a landmark event held in the Sydney Town Hall on Friday 18 October.

Jandamarra is a legend of the Bunuba people, remembered as a great warrior, and as a clever and courageous leader who defended their country against overwhelming odds. He is remembered as a Jalgangurru - a man bestowed with spiritual powers that flowed from the timeless law of country, who could disappear, transform into a bird, and shield himself from deadly weapons.

Born in around 1873, Jandamarra grew up at the time when the pastoralists were first laying claim to the country. The land was a contested frontier; it was a time of violence and great upheavals. Sheep and cattle were killed by Aboriginal people, both for food and as a retaliation. Police and settlers would mount patrols and arrest people, march them to Derby and force them to work in chains.

At about the age of 11, Jandamarra and his mother came in from the bush to live on Lennard River Station, one of the earliest pastoral stations in the Kimberley. Jandamarra became a strong horseman, a crack shot and a competent English speaker. However, after this first taste of station life, he returned to join the Bunuba still living a traditional life, outside the control of the stations.

During this time, Jandamarra was arrested for spearing sheep. He was jailed; losing time and exposure to his own tribal law and education. He worked for the police in Derby, and on returning to his country, he chose to work on Lilimooloora Station rather than rejoin his family. When the sheep station was forced to close down, he and his friend Richardson became a policeman and a tracker respectively, hunting down the free Bunuba.

A patrol he assisted led to the capture of a large group from the Bunuba tribe. Under intense pressure from his countrymen – conveyed dramatically in the cantata – Jandamarra decided to rejoin his people. His close but uneasy friendship with Richardson came to a dramatic end when he shot Richardson, set the group free, stole weapons and then disappeared. From then on, Jandamarra used the ranges and caves as hideouts, leading organised, armed rebellions against the European settlers.

The Bunuba targeted property, crops and stock, and harassed the pastoralists without causing human casualties. In this way, they slowed the progress of pastoral expansion for over three years. Jandamarra developed an almost superhuman reputation amongst white settlers and police for his ability to elude them. 

He was finally tracked down and killed on April 1, 1897.

Concert program

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Sally Quinn

Media and PR Adviser (Creative Arts)

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