Mowanjum culture on show
Mowanjum culture on show

A celebration of indigenous dance, music and culture, the Mowanjum community hosted the biggest public corroboree in WA last week.

It was the 15th annual Respect Yourself, Respect Your Culture, Mowanjum Festival held near Derby.

The swelling afternoon crowd was entertained by Broome didgeridoo player Robert Dann, who spent hours teaching young and old the finer points of getting good from the instrument.

Similarly Mowanjum woman Barbara Bear gave pointers on the art of boab nut carving.

“You get the best results from red coloured nuts” she said, recommending use of only nuts picked from the tree.

“If you collect nuts from the ground, you cannot be sure that they have not cracked when they hit the ground.”

As darkness fell, the grounds outside the magnificent, Wandjina shaped, Mowanjum Arts and Culture Centre, 8km from Derby on the Gibb River Road, came alive with people, children and dogs, jostling for best positions on chairs, blankets and tarps.

Amid the mob sat Deputy Premier Kim Hames, attending in his capacity as Minister for Tourism.

Dr Hames, who lived the first five years of his life in Derby, had spent the afternoon in town searching out the site of his grandfather’s butcher shop (now the Elders store) and his grandmother’s deli, right next door. Before celebrations, elder Janet Oombagooma and the Mowanjum dancers formed an honour guard for her nephew and legend Mowanjum dancer, Samson Morlumbun, who recently passed away.

A smoking ceremony was held as per tradition, to respect his memory on the dance grounds where he had performed for years.

This year’s program, co-ordinated by Peter Croll, started with a group of Derby District High School boys, performing for the first time, and trained by local Torres Strait Islander dancer Henry Williams.

The highlight was an audience participation sit-down dance. The Warmun community performed their dance, Guirrirr Guirrirr, which dance leader Gabriel Nodea described as a dream story told to Rover Thomas by an old Gija lady, the mother of senior Warmun man Morton Sampey.

The woman was injured in a truck accident as she returned from Halls Creek and attempted to cross a creek, swollen from rain which came south after Cyclone Tracey in 1974.

The truck overturned, and she was bitten by a snake, which wowed the unexpecting crowd as the Warmun dancers pulled the buried four metre totem from the earth of the dance space. Contemporary indigenous dancers and former So You Think You Can Dance Australia contestant Sermsah “Suri” Bin Saad, now based in Perth, and Anne-Janette Phillips from Broome, painted and dressed in white, performed a striking number to music inspired by the White Owl and the Wandjina.

“The music in the first half of the dance was composed by myself and hip hop artist Dazastah; the birdcalls represent the spirit, birds all have a message for us and we need to be aware of what their spirit has to tell us,” Suri explained.

“The dark music moves to light the pulse of the heartbeat – the backbone of the track, which represents hope and overcoming adversity for our people, who have been repressed.”

Anjo Phillips then rushed to shed her white paint and join her Beagle Bay girls dance troupe, which she teaches full time, to perform a gentle shell dance.

The finale was Mowanjum dancers performing the canoe dance, to honour elders who have passed on.

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