• Jimmy Chi with Bran Nue Dae cast. (Blackfella Films)Source: Blackfella Films
He brought taboo Aboriginal issues onto the stage and used music and humour to talk about mental health and racial discrimination. The pearling town of Broome was always his home and now the small town mourns the loss of their jewel of the Kimberley.
Rangi Hirini

27 Jun 2017 - 4:20 PM  UPDATED 29 Jun 2017 - 3:19 PM

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should exercise caution when viewing this article as it contains names and images of deceased persons, which may cause distress to members of these communities.

Jimmy Chi, the man behind the play turned movie, ‘Bran Nue Dae’ has sadly passed away in his hometown of Broome.

With family consent, we’re allowed to use his full name.

According to a statement released by the family, Jimmy Chi passed away peacefully in Broome on June 26.

“Jimmy is much loved by his family, friends and the Broome community. He was a brilliantly intelligent man who had a wicked sense of humour and time for everybody. He was more than an artist for Australia, he was a family man.”

Earlier Years

Chi was born in Broome in 1948 to a Bardi Aboriginal mother with Scottish heritage and a Broome born father whose parents were Chinese and Japanese.

He left Broome and moved to Perth to study an engineering degree, but like many Indigenous people who leave home to study, the displacement caused him mental problems. He moved back to Broome to pursue music. In 1981 he formed the band, Knuckles, in Adelaide, while studying at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM).

The band won international recognition and a trip to Germany to perform at the Third Annual International Cologne Song Festival in 1982 with their original song, ‘Miliya Rumarra’.

Nue Beginning

In 1990, Jimmy Chi and friends debuted his acclaimed musical, ‘Bran Nue Dae’, along with his band ‘Knuckles’. It took six years to get it to the stage.

The musical celebrates family, forgiveness and reconciliation, and issues relating to Indigenous Australians.

The play was turned into a movie in 2009,  directed by Rachel Perkins and boasting a star-studded Indigenous cast, including Jessica Mauboy, Ernie Dingo, Dan Sultan and Deborah Mailman.

The Bran Nue Dae movie was the acting debut of Darwin girl turned superstar, Jessica Mauboy. The ARIA Award winner told NITV News: "So sad we have lost Uncle Jimmy, but his dry wit and sharp vision will live on forever in his music. My heart is with his mob in Broome.”

The Bran Nue Dae play and the film received a variety of recognitions.

The musical won the Sydney Myer Performing Arts Award in 1990. The awards are decided on a national basis recognising the contribution to Australian society through the performing arts into the future.

The following year the published script and score won the Special Award in the Western Australian Premier's Book Awards.

Suicidal blues

After his success with Bran Nue Dae, Chi wrote a second musical. Like his debut play, it also tackled taboo issues facing many Indigenous people.

‘Corrugation Road’ is a story about an Aboriginal schizophrenic patient in a mental hospital. The musical is based on the writer’s own experience at Perth’s Graylands Hospital. The musical aims to break down misconceptions about mental health, abuse, sexuality and religion through humour and optimism.

The musical previewed at the Canberra Theatre during the National Festival of Australian Theatre and premiered officially at the Melbourne International Festival of Arts.

Like Brand Nue Dae, Corrugation Road toured nationally and awards followed. It won the Deadly for Excellence in Film or Theatrical Score in 1998.

Kyle Morrison , the artistic director of Yirra Yaakin, one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal performing arts organisations, told NITV News Bran Nue Dae gave Aboriginal people a more genuine representation.

“I was 11 years old when I saw Bran Nue Dae. [I was impressed by] the power of seeing our mob represented authentically in good humour, in good strength but with culture and spirit."

Bran Nue Dae inspired Mr Morrison to get involved in the arts. 

"I didn’t want to do anything with the rest of my life. I saw the benefit of strength of our storytelling told by Uncle.”

Quintessential man

Jimmy Chi's hard work and persistency paid off. His artistic endeavours and thirst for justice for First Nations Peoples also saw him recognised by state and federal governments.

In 2004, Jimmy Chi was named a WA State Living Treasure. He was lauded as a creator of landmark Indigenous theatre and as an ambassador for the cultural diversity and energy of Broome.

The playwright and author was also awarded the Centenary Medal for his contribution to Australian society by the Commonwealth.

West Australia’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, spoke about the playwright earlier today in Perth.

“[Bran Nue Dae is a] wonderful playwright, incredible history and story that is very much the history and story of Broome.”

Minister Wyatt described the play as an “epic Kimberley performance” and said his favourite memory of the play is the song, ‘There’s Nothing I’d Rather Be’.

Minister Wyatt also wished his condolences to his family.

Jimmy Chi is survived by his partner and three children. His family have asked for privacy during this time.