Once upon a time someone tapped two sticks together and sang a story. The ancient tradition of music making is as old as humanity. The diversity of today’s music represents the complexity of the human community. Mixing the different groups doesn’t always result in a harmonious outcome.


Crossing Roper Bar is an ambitious project which blends some of the world’s most disparate musical genres in a musical collaboration which is touring WA this month. At its core is an ancient songline from the Ngukurr people from the Roper River in the Northern Territory, fused with the contemporary jazz sounds of the Australian Arts Orchestra. AAO director Paul Grabowsky initiated the project in 2004 with the late songstress Ruby Hunter and the project has since toured Australia and Europe where it played to standing ovations in Paris and at the London Jazz Festival.

The Ngukurr community is only accessible in the dry season by driving across a strip of land called Roper Bar. The Crossing Roper Bar tour takes its name from that natural bridge. And as the group of musicians sing their way from Darwin to Perth they are building a different kind of bridge.


For Broome-based singer and guitarist Stephen Pigram – a recent addition to the line-up – the connection is made through music.

“I’ve taken The Ngukurr people fishing and we have shared a few words from our different languages,” Pigram says. “But the music is what is bringing us together. The music will carry everything.”

“The Ngukurr are brilliant singers and performers.  It is about showcasing traditional musicians at the top of their form and providing an arena where people can sit and listen. Yothu Yindi has done it a bit and Gurrumul (Yunupingu) sings well in language but that is more disco and pop music. This is fused with a jazz slant.”

Pigram will be contributing some of his original songs to the mix. “It is like dressing your children up in different clothes and sending them out to the world,” he says.

The indigenous folk singer has collaborated in similar ways with Black Arm Band and the Australian Chamber Orchestra for their Reef tour.

“In this day and age you have to challenge musical boundaries, because everything is starting to sound the same. This takes it somewhere fresh for the musicians and translates it to something unique for the audience.”

Tour director Tos Mahoney says the project has evolved since the first west-coast tour in 2008.

“There is a sense of real joining now, of connecting between genres. It is musically more subtle and sophisticated and it has evolved into really quite an avant-garde work.”

Cross-cultural collaboration can be fraught, with lots to lose and little to gain from combining different musical languages. Mahoney says the success of this project lies in the artistic rigour and commitment to longevity.

“What is really amazing is how the project has kept going, and the personal connections the artists have made. It works because there is no intent to make a commercial success or to soften the art to make it more romantic or palatable. The result is a powerful joining that conveys profoundness and emotion.”

The tour will include workshops and collaborations in Djarindjini/Lomadina, One Arm Point, Beagle Bay and Roebourne as well as concerts in Kununurra, Karratha, Exmouth and finally the Perth’s State Theatre on October 29th.

This article copyright The West Australian newspaper 2013