'Despite living with bipolar disorder for most of his adult life, Jimmy Chi wrote the musicals Bran Nue Dae and Corrugation Road which pioneered new understandings of Aboriginality and mental illness.
For Broome's Jimmy Chi, writing and composition gave him the strength to not just survive his own mental illness, but to take on some of Australia's biggest issues and move the nation towards a more sophisticated understanding of Aboriginal reconciliation.
"My name is Jimmy Chi. I was born in Broome in 1948, the same year as the formation of the state of Israel."
To talk a while with Jimmy Chi is to take a ride to unpredictable destinations, some enlightened, some ordinary and some inexplicable. His husky voice slides from light to dark, to manic laugh within a sentence.
The story of a life lived with mental illness and racial inequality can be found in his words. They are two forces that have battered Jimmy over the decades, but music and theatre have driven his resilience and made him anything but a victim.
Telling his own story
Despite being born in one of this country's farthest-flung corners, Jimmy Chi is a global production.
"I come from a mixed-race family; my father was Chinese and Japanese, my mother Bardi, Nyul Nyul and Scottish," he explained to Jacqueline Wright for ABC Kimberley Mornings.
Growing up in Broome, Jimmy attended Catholic school like most of the other Aboriginal kids. As well as being introduced to God, it's where Jimmy first heard a recording of Slim Dusty.
"They used to have 78 records of Slim Dusty, and there was this song Rusty, It's Goodbye."
The sad story of a dog waiting by a bush train station for his master, killed on a distant battlefield, had a defining impact on young Jimmy Chi. It opened his mind to writing about his own stories and how he could make powerful songs.
"If you can't write songs that touch your heart, your emotions and your soul, then you're not a good songwriter."
Moving 2,000 kilometres south to Perth to study engineering brought the pressures of cultural dislocation to Jimmy's early adult life. Around the same time that a car accident left him with serious head injuries, bipolar disorder settled in as a lifelong companion, and Jimmy retreated back to the shelter of Broome and the Dampier Peninsula.
"I was first diagnosed in 1970. I had to cope with medicines, which at that time were the only ones available, that made me overweight. I was 20 stone from eight-stone-10. When I got my first job in Broome, I had to lay on the bed and let my mother tie my shoes because I could not bend over."
As well as serious side effects, Jimmy's mental illness periodically resulted in psychiatric hospitalisation.
"Then I broke down again, and [the doctor] said, 'Why don't you go on social security?' which is very self-destructive to any person not being able to work at all. And so I had to develop my skills in writing, composing, and creating music and plays to keep myself going, as an interest and to stay alive."
Inspired by Slim Dusty, Jimmy started writing about his own Aboriginal and Asian heritage and the pearling history of his hometown. He shared his ideas with other young Broome musicians, and the realisation that they had something important to say grew.
"Meeting Mick Manolis...when Mick came back from Darwin, and Stephen Pigram when he was back from school at 16 years old, and we started writing songs together."
The repertoire grew over ten years and culminated in the musical Bran Nue Dae, regarded as Australia's first Aboriginal musical and Australia's most popular musical of the early 1990s.
The production took on a swathe of Aboriginal issues including land rights, deaths in custody, cultural loss and dislocation, and the influence of Christianity. But arguably its biggest impact came from helping to update the general perception of Aboriginal people from stone age hunters to the modern, smart, funny and complex people they were.
"Through our songs we made an attempt to reconcile Australia, or Western Australia, with the Aboriginal struggle. A lot of our songs have been our attempts to bring about change for the better for everybody, even though they don't believe that," Jimmy said.
His follow up musical Corrugation Road in 1996, drew heavily on Jimmy's experiences with mental illness. Once again he broke boundaries and pioneered new attitudes, and went on to win a Deadly Award in 1998.
Compassion from adversity
Despite propelling the careers of many well-known Australian actors and musicians, and inspiring new attitudes on some of Australia's biggest issues, Jimmy Chi lives a modest life in Broome surrounded by friends and family.
He has good days and bad days, but Jimmy's experience with mental health has highlighted the importance of self-belief.
"The doctors can help you somewhat; the hospitals are good, there's a lot more different medicines now. But it's all up to you. Suicide is never justified; it takes more guts to stay alive and face your problems. Believe me it does get better. Not all the time, but it does eventually."
Jimmy's drive to reconcile goes beyond Australia and mental illness to all humanity. The play he's currently working on tells a story of a Bardi Aboriginal man from north of Broome, who meets a Jewish woman while he's fighting in Italy during WWII. They return to North West Australia with survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to find an Aboriginal prophet who has a message for the world.
While adversity can diminish the ability for compassion in some, it's the adversities of Jimmy Chi's life that fuel his passion for humanity.
"We are all human beings. We have all suffered. I think we need to show some humanity for people everywhere."'