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13 May, 2021

New musical work celebrates Cooktown history

A leading Australian baritone and a Guugu Yimithirr singer are among the cast who will perform a vocal chamber work celebrating Cooktown’s rich botanical heritage and its role in reconciliation.

Scott Thomason and The Rangers at The Men’s Shed, Cooktown helped with set building for the Cooktown Cantata.

The Cooktown Cantata – Botanical Reflections will be performed in the Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery in Nature’s Powerhouse, Cooktown’s botanic gardens, on 17, 18 and 19 June.

A four-year labour of love for Creative Director and writer Jan Black, the collaborative musical work interweaves European and Indigenous history into a series of 13 songs about Guugu Yimithirr Elder and artist Tulo Gordon, his friendship with English naturalist and botanical artist Vera Scarth-Johnson, and the influence of Joseph Banks who collected local flora during the Endeavour’s stay in Cooktown in 1770.

“Vera settled in Cooktown some 200 years later in the 1970s and created a series of paintings depicting the same iconic flora collected by Banks,” Ms Black said.

“She became a great friend of Tulo Gordon who would take her out onto country to collect floral specimens.

“They painted together and shared a love and respect for nature which led to Vera campaigning to stop sand mining on the north shore of the Endeavour River.

“Guugu Yimithir singer/songwriter Derek Rosendale is Tulo’s nephew, and Tulo’s family have agreed for their cultural stories to be used in the production and performed by Derek.

“As a non-Indigenous person who comes from the north I wanted to create a work that encompassed the Indigenous and European stories of Cooktown and find a way forward for us all.”

The music, composed by classical/jazz pianist Louise Denson with contributions by Derek Rosendale and Dora Gibson, is relevant to each of the characters.

It includes classical, jazz, country and folk to create an accessible musical story describing what the Guugu Yimithirr thought when they saw Cook arrive, their creation story, Vera’s love for Banks and her friendship with Tulo.

Soprano and Head of Vocal Studies at the Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane, Margaret Schindler plays Vera, baritone Jeffrey Black plays Banks and they are accompanied by the Louise Denson Ensemble. The Dora Gibson Ensemble will join the Cooktown performance.

Guugu Yimithirr Elder Willie Gordon tells the story of his father Tulo, which will be retold in the Cooktown Cantata, pictured with Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery Association president Jean Stephan and didgeridoo player Harold Ludwick.

The performance will be held at The Judith Wright Arts Centre in Brisbane on June 12, and then at Nature’s Powerhouse, Cooktown on June 17, 18 and 19 as part of the Cooktown & Cape York Expo from June 11-20.

The Expo will kick off with the free Reconciliation Rocks Music Festival on June 11-13 featuring Busby Marou and Troy Cassar-Daley, followed by the Cape York Business Expo on June 14-16 and finishing with the popular Cooktown Discovery Festival weekend on June 18-20.

Cooktown & Cape York Expo 2021 is supported by the Australian and Queensland Governments and Cook Shire Council. For more information go to

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