This Friday will see the epic Jandamarra: Sing for the Country (Ngalanybarra Muwayi.u) – a dramatic cantata with music by Paul Stanhope and a libretto by Steve Hawke, written in association with the Bunuba people of the Kimberley who own the story – return to Sydney in a performance at the Sydney Town Hall. The landmark event is 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.

JandamarraEmmanuel Brown and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing Jandamarra in 2015. Photo © Jane Dempster

The cantata tells the story of Bunuba hero Jandamarra, who led a resistance war against white pastoralists in the Kimberley region in the late 19th century. A legend of the Bunuba people, the story of Jandamarra­ – “a Jalgangurru, a man bestowed with spiritual powers that flowed from the timeless law of our country, who could disappear, transform into a bird and shield himself from deadly weapons” – has been retold in film, theatre and now on the concert hall stage.

Emmanuel Brown, who performed the role of Jandamarra when the cantata premiered at Sydney Opera House in 2014 (as well as numerous different roles in previous retellings of the story) is one of several performers who will return for this second iteration. “I am very excited to be back in Sydney to do this show again,” he told Limelight. “It is a great honour to play the role of Jandamarra, and to be up on the stage with my family and my countrymen from the Kimberley.”

“The story of this great hero has always been a huge part of the Bunuba oral tradition,” says Hawke, whose relationship with the Bunuba community stretches back to the late 1970s. “The film project was started by the Bunuba elders way back in the 1980s, even before the definitive history, Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance was written by a friend of mine Howard Pedersen, collaborating with Banjo Woorunmurra. I came on board the film project a bit later – in the early 90s I think it was. We came very close a couple of times to pulling off the big feature film, but have never quite made it. The notion of doing it as a stage play bubbled up out of conversations with the then Artistic Director of the Black Swan Theatre Company, Tom Gutteridge. We put on the first production at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2008. And then Bunuba Cultural Enterprises mounted its own tour, taking the play to the Kimberley – including a five-night season at Windjana Gorge – in 2011.”

“It is important to point out that the project, the scripts, the productions belong to the Bunuba people through their company Bunuba Cultural Enterprises, with me having the privilege to work for them on it,” he says.

The cantata was an entirely new format for Hawke. “I am not terribly musical, so essentially I approached it as an exercise in writing narrative poetry for a range of voices, with Paul looking over my shoulder with his eye for rhythm and rhyme,” he says. “I won’t say it was without its challenges, but it was also great fun, and enormously satisfying. I loved the collaborative nature of the process.”

So why a dramatic cantata? “A cantata simply means a ‘sung’ piece (as opposed to a sonata – an instrumental piece) and add to that some dramatic elements you get ‘dramatic cantata’,” Stanhope explains. “The baroque cantata involved soloists, instruments and choir and a Lutheran chorale runs through it, and Jandamarra has all of this except the Chorale. Instead, we have verses from the Yilimbirri Junba – a Kimberley Indigenous song cycle dreamed by Adam Andrews – that takes the place of the chorale. We have old Double A’s offspring from the Andrews family singing the Junba and also creating its dances, making this aspect of the piece very special.”

“The collaboration has been a wonderful journey, and it’s really all credit to the level of trust Steve Hawke has built with the members of the Bunuba community that things have travelled relatively smoothly,” Stanhope says. “I’ve been struck by the generosity and openness of the Bunuba cast and in full admiration of the musical and acting abilities the cast has developed since first working on the play version of the Jandamarra story with Steve about 15 years ago.”

The size and scope of the work was a challenge for the composer, however. “Composing a 60-minute work in under a year was a huge task,” he says. “In 2014 I worked for three solid months without a weekend in order to get the piece completed. I was a bit of a mess afterwards! There were also challenges in solving some dramatic problems. One movement, called The Choice – which is actually one of the key dramatic moments of the piece where Jandamarra has to make a terrible choice of killing his mate the white trooper, Richardson, or see his closest relatives and elders rot in prison – took a lot of thinking through. I probably re-drafted that movement many more times than the others in order to satisfy the needs of what Phil Thomson the director needed to be put across.”

As for the interactions between his own music and the Bunuba music in the cantata, Stanhope approached this in a number of different ways. “Firstly, giving the traditional music space where it is performed alone, and working the choral/orchestral score around the keys of the Junba and wangga songs so that there is a nice sense of flow,” he says. “In two movements, the Junba is threaded into music from the Western tradition, firstly in a movement entitled Requiem for Lindsay where the Children’s Choir sing a sort of modal chant with a Latin text while the Yilimbirri Junba cycles around against it. I mocked up a version of this in the early stages of composition and played it in a trip to Fitzroy Crossing to check whether it would be OK to do this. To my relief they were delighted with it. Then in The Choice, more verses of the Junba song by Adam Andrews are used by the Chain Gang who sing to Jandamarra, forcing him to make the difficult moral choice which is at the centre of the work. The Junba song is set against a large canvas of choral singing, extended orchestral techniques, operatic-type recitative and body percussion. The way the Junba is sung by the Bunuba singers is incredibly powerful here.”

When Jandamarra premiered at the Sydney Opera House in 2014, a commission from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, it played three sold out concerts and met with critical success. In Limelight’s review, Clive Paget described it as “a hybrid work, part dramatic cantata, part play with music, of enormous variety and considerable power” likening Stanhope’s music to that of Holst, Britten and Jonathan Dove, and the work went on to be a finalist in the orchestral category at the 2015 Art Music Awards.

Despite the work’s success, Stanhope felt he needed to make some revisions, and this performance will be the second edition of the work, which includes “a couple of big changes and myriad small ones”.

“The big question would actually be why wouldn’t you want to make some revisions to such a large piece?” he says. “The first big change is a new Prelude. In the original version the Prelude was just sung by children’s choir: the new movement has all choral and orchestral forces. Moreover, all the musical threads had been resolved by the second last movement in the original version, so the upbeat finale introduced new material which sat slightly oddly. I’ve now woven threads of the finale This is our home movement into the new Prelude and a lot more in other places where I’ve underscored spoken word passages. These underscored sections (which weren’t in the original) are richer in terms of leitmotifs which support the unfolding of musical and dramatic material. Overall, this seems to me to make the piece more symphonic and less episodic.”

Steve and I also were keen to involve the Bunuba singers and dancers more in the last 20 minutes of the piece,” Stanhope says. “To this end, we see a return of the wangga dance seen at the beginning and also have the Bunuba singers and didjeridu performing in the final movement which was originally only choir and orchestra. It also helps with the architecture of the piece. This final movement is mostly sung in the Bunuba language, so it’s great that it is richer now in terms of some of its sonic components.”

The cantata is challenging for the choirs, especially in terms of the text and “getting inside the issues of this frontier conflict,” Stanhope says. “Many of the issues seem so remote from us and so terrible that they are difficult to comprehend.”

“The story is so steeped in Bunuba culture and perspective that this has been a joy to really get our minds into this space. In preparing choirs in rehearsal, we’ve been getting our mouths around a lot of Bunuba language, and that in itself is a terrific challenge,” he says. “Moreover, there are a lot of notes for the orchestra, plenty of extended techniques and perhaps some rhythmic complexity student players may not have come across very much. Also it’s a challenging children’s choir part – but Sydney Children’s Choir are equal to the task.”

For Hawke, the Jandamarra story has resonances for the wider Australian community even beyond shining a light on the frontier wars. “I think that the essential thing is that Jandamarra is a great hero, in the deep and epic sense of that word, for a nation that is short of such figures,” he says. “A conflicted man who struggled with demons, yet rose to the greatest of heights.”

With this performance, the story will be shared more widely. “Unfortunately due to copyright restrictions from the SSO and Sydney Opera House, I haven’t been able to share video of the original performance,” Stanhope tells Limelight. “To this end, Professor Anna Reid – the Dean of Sydney Conservatorium – has been amazingly supportive in insisting the Con put on this piece again as it is such an emblematic resistance story, and she sees the work as having historical importance.”

This new performance will be recorded and captured on video. “So hopefully this will reach an even wider audience in the future,” Stanhope says. “Steve, Phil and I still haven’t given up the idea of having this piece performed in one of the London Proms – now wouldn’t that be great!”

Jandamarra – Sing for the Country (Ngalanybarra Muwayi.u) is at the Sydney Town Hall on October 18