Archie Roach is one of Australia’s beloved singer/songwriters with a voice and sensibility that is this country’s most important songline. He chats with Seven in the leadup to his performance at Boomerang Festival, October long weekend.
Archie, you are a man with many great songs under your belt. What are the ones that you are proudest of?
Took the Children Away, Weeping In The Forest, Small Child and Jamu Dreaming.
Your songTook The Children Away alerted the broader community to the experience of the ‘stolen generations’. Why do you think it took people so long to acknowledge and recognise such a terrible practice?
That subject was not really talked about in schools as part of Australian history. Some people did know but many others did not. As far as the wider community goes it was told Aboriginal people were a dying culture, living in the deserts and in the bush, throwing boomerangs and spears.
It’s hard to pinpoint but documentaries such as Lousy Little Sixpence and films like Women of the Sun and songs like Uncle Bob Randall’s Brown Skin Baby helped raise awareness. There are still people that come up to me today after hearing Took The Children Away and tell me that they did not know this took place. People are still learning about the stolen generations but there is much more awareness than there was 20 to 30 years ago.
Are you able to describe your sense of spirit and how it works in your life?
I liken my spirit to a small child. It’s the inner voice that guides me through life.
Who are the musicians who have most influenced Archie Roach?
There are so many, but if I were to name a few they would be Uncle Jimmy Little, Uncle Bob Randall, Hank Williams, and a few American gospel and soul singers such as Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples.
Do you mentor many up-and-coming musicians? Who are the ones that you have helped kick along?
Singer/songwriters such as Dave Arden, and my own children, and people who have opened shows for me such as Dewayne Everett Smith.
What do you think is the essence of good storytelling? Why do you think story is so important to us as people, and as a country?
The essence of good storytelling is a good story. In Aboriginal culture the storytelling (oral tradition) is central to preserving culture. For the wider non-Indigenous community there are the storytellers that have also played a central role such as Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson.
Were you always musical? Being a successful musician is an unlikely path for anyone – what got you started and kept you going?
Yes, I was always musical. I remember I heard a woman sing and play guitar in church one day and from that time on thought that’s what I wanted to do. It was my community that provided the encouragement that kept me going, writing songs, recording and performing them.
How do you think festivals such as Boomerang assist cross-cultural interactions? Are you a believer in the power of art, song, dance in connecting people of all tribes?
Festivals such as Boomerang play a very important role in assisting cross-cultural interactions.
What do you hold most precious?
Was it hard to approach musicmaking again after the passing of Ruby? How do you honour her memory?
Yes, at first. But then making music again became an integral part of getting better and the best way to honour Ruby’s memory was to continue to write, sing and perform.
The kitchen table is the place of creativity for you – I love that as an image of the magic in the ordinary everyday goings-on. What is it about something as homely as the kitchen table that inspires a story man like yourself?
It’s the cups of tea, food, grandchildren running around, family life around the kitchen table; it’s just a comfortable place to be.
We have had some very shameful incidents of late in the media where people such as Eddie McGuire have said some very racist and thoughtless things. What do you think that says about us as a nation?
Eddie made a stupid mistake. I believe that if he could go back he would not have said it, but it’s done. It was stupid and silly.
In your opinion Archie, are we still a racist country? Were the ‘slip-ups’ of late just a sign that some people are racist, but they’ve just learnt to hide it?
There’re elements of racism in this country, but you cannot single out Australia; racism exists everywhere in the world.
How do you think we can move such an ugly blight on our nation?
It’s through education, either at home and in the school or the wider community, teaching our children about consideration and respect of all other people. When we come to truly respect each other we start to get better and heal as a nation.
Tell me what to expect at Boomerang. In your musical presentation with Lou Bennett, Emma Donovan and Deline Briscoe and the 10-piece ensemble and, of course, your conversation with Jeff McMullen?
I will be performing twice over the Boomerang Festival weekend. I will be launching a new show called Creation where I will be performing songs from my first four albums, and songs that never made it onto those albums, with a 10-piece ensemble supported by the sublime vocal harmonies of Lou Bennett, Emma Donovan and Deline Briscoe.
I will also be launching Ruby and my children’s illustrated songbook/CD of children’s songs and DVD documentary, Butcher Paper, Texta, Blackboard and Chalk. We will be screening the DVD documentary and playing songs from the children’s album. Jeff McMullen from the Ian Thorpe Fountain for Youth will be in conversation with me about how it all came together.
Tickets and program enquiries to www.boomerangfestival.com.au.