Black Orchid Stringband’s songs of freedom

After forming in 2010 to support a fundraiser of a countryman representing West Papua at the United Nations, the members of Melbourne-based The Black Orchid Stringband have used the band as a platform to share stories and injustices from their homeland.

West Papua is just 200 kilometres north of our mainland and, according to Black Orchid Stringband’s Joe Richard Wally, many Australians are unaware of the human rights abuses taking place in West Papua. “So, we felt that it is our obligation [to educate],” he says.

Music plays a key part in the West Papuan community more broadly. Wally says that he will see a lot of people at church each Sunday, and they often get together to eat and hang out afterwards. He says that whenever the community is together, music is never far away. “Most of the people in the [West Papuan] community are naturally gifted musicians and singers. So that’s how we hang out most of the time.”

Since coming together in 2010, the group have become involved in Victoria’s multicultural programs, often performing at events such as Moomba Festival and contributing to the West Papuan community radio program on 3CR. Wally says this radio program is important as it is streamed, reaching more isolated members of the West Papuan community.

With more than 300 languages in West Papua, there is a diversity of language and story that many Australians would be unaware of. An integral part of the Black Orchid Stringband is to share these languages, dialects and culture, but also to help preserve them – not just for the members themselves, but for the generations to come.

“One of the reasons why we sing in [West Papuan] languages,” Wally says, “is because some of the kids, the ones who were born and raised in Australia, their parents don’t want them to forget the language … We need to teach them that English is their language, but the father’s [and] forefather’s language is their language too.”

The eight members of the Black Orchid Stringband each have a different story as to how they came to Australia, but the band plays a crucial role in maintaining their cultural and spiritual relationship to their homeland. Traditional to Melanesian culture, ukulele features prominently in the band.

Black Orchid Stringband (Photo: Michell Grace Hunder)
Black Orchid Stringband (Photo: Michell Grace Hunder)

“West Papua has not been touched by development in a long time”, Wally explains, meaning instruments such as guitars are often “out of reach” to many West Papuans. But “the traditional method of building a ukulele” is passed down and even those without means can craft one from wood and simple fishing string. The “very unique sound … is a really significant part of the music,” Wally says. “It speaks to me and remind[s] me of West Papua”.

While the band are surprised that they are now asked to tour to cities such as Adelaide, they see it as their obligation to those left behind. “We don’t get this kind of opportunity back in West Papua, we don’t get this kind of freedom of speech,” Wally says. “We are hoping to get our word out to the wider community about the human rights abuses and injustice and marginalisation of Indigenous West Papuans that is happening in West Papua right now.

“We always say, some people they use guns and heavy armouries to fight. But for us, music is one of our weapons.”

The Black Orchid Stringband
Nexus Arts
Saturday, May 4
nexusarts.org.au

Header image:
Michelle Grace Hunder

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