At the National Folk Festival last Easter weekend in Canberra, a group of accomplished musicians joined the stage to perform Songs from the Inside, a collection of songs they co-wrote with inmates at Roebourne Prison and other jails across Western Australia.
Songs from the Inside is one of a series of arts programs established across Australia by Big hART, a national arts and social justice organisation based in Tasmania.
Big hART began working with inmates at Roebourne (Iremugadu), in the Pilbara region of Western Australia back in 2011 in an attempt to change what it calls “the negative effects of the justice system on the community”. It led to the birth of the New Roebourne Project, which comprises a suite of workshops, performance pieces, video and music programs delivered simultaneously to build community skills, resilience and pride. The project has a mission to bridge the gap between the life inside and the one beyond the walls.
As part of that effort, Big hART engaged a group of musicians and songwriters to work with local people, particularly inmates at Roebourne prison, to produce music reflecting the community’s experience. Musicians included the likes of multi-instrumentalist David Hyams, singer–songwriter John Bennett of the Kimberley community of Bidyadanga, guitarist Lucky Oceans and blues specialist Harry Hookey.
The songs were released on an album called Murru, a title which reflects the nickname of the late John Pat, a young Indigenous man who was killed in a fight with W.A police while in Roebourne prison in 1983, just before his 17th birthday. The young boy’s death sparked a demand for a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and for Indigenous Australians John Pat became a national symbol of unjust treatment within Australia’s justice system.
Speaking to The Saturday Paper recently, David Hyams, a participant in the songwriting project and producer of Murru, said that many of the inmates had little or no songwriting experience but were keen to express themselves and learn new skills.
“I think some people really have something that they want to express, to write about and get off their chest,” Hyams said.
Hyams is one of W.A’s most accomplished composers, producers and multi–instrumentalists. He is also a major contributor to W.A’s music industry – he is as previous member of ArtsWA’s contemporary music panel and a longstanding West Australian Music (WAM) board member. Aside from his work in the contemporary music field, Hyams has worked on a number of projects in Aboriginal and regional communities. Over the years he has been running songwriting workshops in several W.A prisons resulting in over 55 songs being recorded, including a collaboration with a women’s choir in the Boronia Pre-release Centre.
“My brief was to make an album with inmates in the jail and there was also a component in the community as well,” he told The Saturday Paper.
“I wasn’t really sure how that would work. But then I realised there were so many people [in Roebourne] who had passed through the jail.”
The musicians brought together for The Roebourne project, which Big hART has now expanded into five separate arts projects, still collaborate together playing a mix of the inmates’ songs and their own. The far-reaching benefits of the program have proven to be invaluable to the community.
Big hART was established 25 years ago as an innovative experiment to find new ways of dealing with disadvantage. Originally motivated by the closure of a paper mill in the industrial town of Burnie, Tasmania, Big hART began working with the local community to create high quality art to communicate their stories. Since then, the Big hART model has impacted over 50 communities nationwide. Another music program they run is called Acoustic Life of Sheds, a site-specific new music work set in the sweeping landscape of North West Tasmania. The project combines sound artists, communities and farming families in celebrating the culture and acoustics of their working sheds.
To learn more about Big hART’s inspiring mission and initiatives, head here.