Encapsulating the spirit of African Australian culture, The Deep North is the first African Australian musical to ever be produced. Written and directed by Flinders Lecturer Dr Matt Hawkins and produced by the South Australian Playwrights Theatre, The Deep North deals with the African Australian experience of balancing uni and family commitments.
What Matt is most proud of is the fact that this musical features stories developed in collaboration with the African Australian community and a majority African cast of professional singers, poets, dancers and actors. Part of the production are Flinders Bachelor of Arts (Psychology) students Vivana Luzochimana and Prosper Hakizimana as well as recent Screen and Media graduate Taia Doyle.
Creating The Deep North
Having lived and worked in Ghana, playwright and screenwriter Matt has always been fascinated by the richness of African culture and draws inspiration from it frequently. He is also passionate about giving the African community in Australia a voice.
“I used to be a television series writer in Ghana. Here I learned to channel stories into drama and create characters based on the diversity of people across West Africa. Accra, the capital, was an incredibly rich cultural environment. Dance, music and storytelling were embedded in daily life. All I had to do was sit back and take notes.
“People in Australia don’t realise the extent of the anglophone African film and television industry. I recall in Accra, DVD sales were mainly African films. The odd copy of Die Hard 2 featured on the shelves, but often it was gathering dust! Driven mainly by Nigeria, ‘Nollywood’ films find audiences everywhere. The African diaspora wants to hear their language and see their faces on screen. I was privileged to be a humble part of it for a year and a half.
“The African music industry is equally extensive, dynamic and entrepreneurial. Modern African music styles go well beyond Afrobeat. Soukous, kwasakwasa, township music, hip-life and hi-life are all hugely popular styles on the continent, and starting to influence bands in the west beyond the usual ‘world’ music festivals.
“Our performer Elsy Wameyo is a strong example of this. Deeply proud of her Kenyan roots, she performs a blend of RnB and soul and afro-fusion. Two other members of our performance ensemble, Burundian Australians and Flinders students Prosper Hakizimana and Vivana Lusochimana are poets and dancers, tapping into a strong tradition of African poetic narrative ranging from the ancient griots of the West African deserts to modern-day rap and hip hop.
“The Deep North is a combination of all these forms of expression: storytelling, music, songs, poetry and dance. Emerging from a vibrant community of performing artists. As a writer I became a channeler of story and song, arranging the components into a musically driven coming-of-age story.”
How the play turned into a musical
Matt tells us, “The Deep North began as a project about the creation of Liberia. As it developed different members of the African Australian community began to get involved and bring their own stories to the project. Most of the performers also had a musical background and when James Bannah Jr became involved we started writing songs as well as including hip hop tracks. The narrative changed to one based on the experience of growing up African Australian.”
Composer James Bannah Jr elaborates on his influences, “At a certain point, we realised that what we were constructing was an African Australian musical. This had never been done before. It was both terrifying and exhilarating breaking new ground, combining a coming-of-age musical narrative with hip hop and other African music styles within the context of growing up as an African in Australia. After a sold-out season at the Adelaide Fringe in 2021, it became clear that music was the answer.”
For James, The Deep North is a very important project because it helps young African Australians remember where they came from, celebrates the culture and showcases the many talented musicians in this country.
“I want the whole world to hear African music. It has a great impact on the community, because Afrobeat makes you happy, even if the subject matter is sad. No matter where Africans are in the world, when we hear our music, it’s like a magnet that brings us together. It creates a sense of belonging – I am not here alone, I have my community. You feel free, you feel like you are home.”
Flinders students get involved
Flinders Psychology students Vivana Luzochimana and Prosper Hakizimana express themselves through poetry and dance, two other art forms integrated in the musical.
Vivana’s experience in the musical was deeply personal, “I dance because there is a story to be told, my story. As an African Australian, there can be a sense of not belonging and being stuck between two continents. So as a dancer and poet I asked myself how do I share my world? How do I expand the lens on my own unique experience as an African Australian?
“Our culture of Burundian dance involves replicating the natural world. The body movements are part of our storytelling. On stage, it is the continuation of a tradition that started in Burundi thousands of years ago. It is great to bring it to the people of Adelaide.”
Prosper adds, “I love to tell a story through movement. I draw from tap, ballet and traditional Burundian dance – which is very powerful and fluid. The drums and the movements are incredibly powerful. We draw upon all traditions.
“The Deep North is a type of performance that incorporates so many elements of African art. There is a traditional narrative, and the cast comes from all over Africa: Kenya, Burundi, South Sudan, and South Africa. It’s exciting to witness it all come alive. There are so many forms of music. James is a genius. No one has seen a show like this before. It is a totally new experience. You will leave expanded.”
Applying skills acquired at Flinders
Graduate Taia Doyle reflects on how she has been able to use the skills from her Screen and Media degree as a Stage Manager and Assistant Producer, “Since graduating from Flinders Screen and Media I’ve been able to apply filmmaking and storytelling skills to many areas of artistic output, from theatre to documentary. The Deep North combines elements of film, music, acting and dance. In the end, it’s all about telling a great, original story and I’m really happy to be part of it.
“I’ve really enjoyed working on such an exciting and ground-breaking show. Really the first of its kind. Working at the Adelaide Festival Centre is amazing. Such a joy to be working in a really professional environment.”
Come see a medley of African culture
Matt Hawkins’ brainchild The Deep North will be playing at Adelaide Festival Centre from 28 September till 1 October 2022. Get your tickets now.