A song to sing

By Amy McQuire, February 28, 2013 | Tracker Magazine

Aboriginal singer/songwriter Archie Roach.

NATIONAL: AMY MCQUIRE speaks to one of Australia’s treasures – Archie Roach – about the album that helped him find light through his pain.

There is something inspiring about Archie Roach. Talk to anyone, whether they know him through his life or his music, and they’ll tell you.

He holds a power over the hearts of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia.

His power is not solely through his story – his painful separation from his family, his time walking the Charcoal Lane, his journey with the beautiful Ruby Hunter and his redemption through song – although it is inspiring.

His power is not even through his music – his anthems of the downtrodden and dispossessed, which are both sad and uplifting – although they are undeniably inspiring.

His power seems to be almost innate, through his calm exterior, his kind eyes and his ability to exude a wisdom recognised equally amongst black and white.

Archie deals with political themes in his songs that are often dismissed by white Australia.

He sings about what he knows – the issues that confront the Stolen Generations and other consequences of government policies – but he soothes the uncomfortable messages through the gravel of his distinctive voice.

Tracker interviewed Archie last year, while he was on the promotion trail for his newest album Into the Bloodstream.

Into the Bloodstream is an important album. It is about healing and celebration. And it is optimistic; a surprising element given the ashes it rose from.

Months after Ruby passed away of a heart attack in February 2010, Archie suffered a stroke which left him struggling to speak. A year later he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“Losing Ruby… it knocked me down,” Archie told Tracker.

“I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to play music anymore, and you feel really down and lost. I didn’t really know where to go. You just lock yourself in your room.

“I felt like I didn’t really want to continue playing music. But for one, I don’t think Ruby really would have wanted that. She was the one that really turned me around and got me to make (my first) record.

“… I was in two minds whether to do it or not. After I stopped drinking and got on my feet and straightened myself out a bit I started working with community, and I used to love that. It was about giving back. But she turned me around and said, ‘It’s not about you Archie Roach’, and she reminded me that as an Aboriginal person, if you do well in your chosen field, you’re not just doing it
for yourself.

“You’re doing it for your people.

“So thinking of things like that just made me determined. It picked me up out of the dump that I was in and helped me carry on.”

The album was a way for Archie to process and find ways to deal with his pain.

A life lesson is that sometimes the pain will never go away. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still find fulfillment, he says.

“I thought there are some things you can let go of, and there are some things that you can’t. Or it takes a long time.

“But we have to process that in a more positive way, where you can use that in a positive sense instead of going off the rails.

“And through music I found that I can channel that pain into something else.

“I’m lucky I can do that, not everyone can, but we have to find ways of dealing or processing that pain… we can use it to our own advantage.

“I’ll probably never get over not growing up with my parents. But I wrote that song ‘Old Mission Road’ that helps me feel at peace. It’s like I can take them back to the old mission and work with their spirits down that old mission road.”

He describes the album as a “celebration of life”. It celebrates not only Ruby’s life but also that “no matter what we’ve gone through as people… we should celebrate the fact we are still here”.

“It could have been a lot different. I got really crook there for a while. I was really sick,” he told Tracker.

It’s about rising above the pain, he says.

When asked about where the emotional and physical pain of Aboriginal people, Archie agrees that the health and welfare problems facing our mob are related to racism.

“Racism can be indirect,” he told Tracker.

“There were doors we didn’t have access to. They were closed. That, in a way, is a racist attitude… to deny access (to Aboriginal people) just because of who they are. It’s racially motivated.

“… A lot of people don’t realise how much (racism) is entrenched. Politics is so entrenched in racist attitudes that they don’t even realise it themselves.”

But despite the themes of his songs, Archie says he has never acknowledged himself as a political person. He does not pretend to have any more wisdom than other people.

He writes songs based on the human side of policies. How it affects himself, his family and his people.

“I try to bring it back and find the human element. There is a personal element within that song.

“I know a lot of people see political statements in my songs – like Took the Children Away and others – but I write songs that deal with the effect certain policies have on people.

“In many ways I want to write about people getting better and trying to overcome, and healing, because we make ourselves sick by holding on to too much.

“So I’ve tried to tell people (in this album) to get up and dance.

“Yeah we’ve been down but we can get up in the end and sing that song.”

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