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From lost at sea to Sydney stage: Brothers perform with a purpose for their people

Mid-shot colour photograph of West Papua dancers and brothers Yoshua and Sam Roem against a black wall with a spotlight.
Yoshua and Sam Roem were teenagers when they travelled to Australia by canoe 11 years ago.

ABC RN: Teresa Tan

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The Roem brothers, from West Papua, aren't supposed to be here — alive, that is. It's something they think about every day, and it informs their dance and music.

In 2006, Yoshua and Sam Roem, then 12 and 16 years old, huddled next to their eldest brother Donny in a dugout traditional wooden canoe.

They were lost at sea and completely out of hope. They were waiting to die.

"It's a journey I'll never forget. To be able to be here is such a privilege," Yoshua says.

Tonight they will perform as part of a collective of dancers, rappers, drummers and vocalists called Sorong Samarai with their Melanesian countrymen on the Sydney Opera House Forecourt.

Colour photograph of a live on stage performance of Sorong Samarai at Womadelaide.
The stage show features a mix of musicians and performers that hail from Sorong to Samarai.

Supplied: Benjamin Bayliss

The show is part of Homeground — a free festival celebrating the fusion of ancient customs and contemporary expression by First Nations artists from all over the world.

The Roem brothers have come a long way from their home in West Papua, where friction between Indonesian authorities and pro-independence supporters is ongoing.

They were among a group of 43 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia in 2006 — sparking a diplomatic crisis with Indonesia at the time.

Brothers Yoshua and Sam Roem stand side by side against a black wall with fists raised in solidarity for West Papua.
Yoshua and Sam Roem aim to bring hope to their people through music.

ABC RN: Teresa Tan

"There was a moment between the three of us on the boat when our brother [Donny] apologised. He said: 'I'm so sorry to bring you here to die'," Yoshua says.

He and his brother Sam believe their music and dance can impact people's lives — especially for their brothers and sisters back home.

Protest through dance

Sorong Samarai is inspired by the West Papua protest song of the same name. The term was popularised by exiled West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda in his address to the United Nations in 1997.

Sarong Samarai refers not only to the independence movement, but also the island of New Guinea itself.

Sorong is a town at the island's most north-western tip, within the borders of Indonesia, while Samarai is an island off the south-eastern tip of Papua New Guinea.

Mid-shot colour photograph of Port Moresby hip-hop artist MC Sprigga Mek leaning against a dark wall with a spotlight over him.
Port Moresby hip-hop artist Sprigga Mek raps in a number of different languages.

ABC RN: Teresa Tan

This band of "wantoks" — which means brothers, countrymen or friends from the same place — have dedicated their lives and careers to highlighting the ongoing conflict in West Papua.

The 14-strong collective include a range of established and emerging artists, including former Bangarra dancer and choreographer Albert David and new-wave Port Moresby hip-hop and rap artist Sprigga Mek.

Musical call to action

Sorong Samarai's director Airileke Ingram is a Papua New Guinean-Australian ARIA-award nominated producer and drummer.

Ingram explains that West Papua and Papua New Guinea have a very diverse culture, with over 1,000 languages — almost a fifth of the languages on the whole planet.

"Within that diversity there's only a few things that pull us all together and to unify us — and that's drumming," Ingram says, explaining that in West Papua and Papua New Guinea, music is knowledge.

Mid-shot colour photograph of producer and drummer Airileke Ingram standing against a wall under a blue light.
Airileke Ingram learned traditional drumming from his mother and grandparents.

Supplied: Airileke Ingram

Ingram's ancestral village is called Gabba Gabba, which translates in English to drum drum.

Ingram has spent his life travelling the Pacific, studying the art and legacy of drumming across Melanesian and Polynesian cultures.

And he says it's helped him understand how cultural developments and social influences and pressures create music.

"We have a ceremony called sakisim. It's a drumming tradition of only two drums, but the drumming goes non-stop for three days," Ingram says.

Colour photograph of activist Ronnie Kareni standing in front of the Morning Star flag held up by Yoshua and Sam Roem.
Sorong Samarai bassist and activist Ronnie Kareni calls West Papua "a country in waiting".

ABC RN: Teresa Tan

Sakisim is based on duality — a ritual and oscillation between two different spirits such as night and day or masculine and feminine.

In this context the drumming becomes more about understanding how the universe works and about maintenance of your community, your environment and keeping balance in society.

"You go through the ceremony to gain knowledge and responsibility for those things — and you only play the drumming if you have that … You don't play the drum for entertainment, it's just for that purpose."

A project of decolonisation

Australia's stance on the ongoing conflict is clear — they will not intervene.

Ingram says growing up in the Top End of Australia and now living in Far North Queensland has convinced him that the actions of Australia to acknowledge native title will have consequences for their island neighbours.

He reflects that the three places his life and work revolves around — Australia, West Papua and Papua New Guinea — are really all the same, but at different stages of the same process of decolonisation.

"The first place we have to decolonise is our own minds," Ingram says.