Archie Roach is a singer, songwriter, and story teller in the tradition of his ancestors. Having survived a personal history that would have left most artists scarred and defeated, Archie Roach has emerged as an extraordinarily gifted Australian artist with a truly visionary talent. His first album Charcoal Lane recorded in 1990, was produced by Paul Kelly and Steve Connolly, and featured the Aboriginal anthem Took the Children Away. This song tells of the forced separation of children from their parents during the implementation of the government's assimilation policies. Many Aboriginal people identify strongly with the story carried by this song. It won two Aria Awards and a Human Rights Award. It was the first time a Human Rights award had been presented to a songwriter, was in the US Rolling Stone's Top 50 albums for 1992, and went gold in Australia. In 1993 Archie released Jamu Dreaming, which was nominated for an Aria Award in 1994 and made Australia's Top 40. Looking for Butter Boy, released in July 1997, was produced by internationally acclaimed producer Malcolm Burn who says that he'd " ... definitely put Archie in with the great singers. There's not many of them in the world, I think there might be 30". This album won three Aria Awards in 1998. Over the past decade Archie has toured Australia extensively and contributed to many benefit concerts raising awareness about issues of equality and justice that affect the whole community. Archie has toured with Paul Kelly, Weddings Parties Anything, Crowded House and international artists Billy Bragg, Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega and Patti Smith. In 1992 Archie’s American tour supported Joan Armatrading and Bob Dylan, and in 1993, Archie featured at the Corroboree Festival in London's Southbank Centre and returned in 1994 to tour the UK and Germany. In May 1995 Archie, along with Ruby Hunter, Tiddas and Kev Carmody toured to Canada's Music West Convention in Vancouver and travelled on to Europe for a major European tour. In 1997 Archie returned to Europe and went on to tour China, Japan and Taiwan. He then undertook a 6 week tour of remote Aboriginal communities in Cape York.
Until the age of five Archie lived next to a riverbank where he and his family survived largely on a diet of freshly caught fish. However this simple and satisfying life was disturbed one day when people from the Aboriginal Protection Board came and took him and his sisters away. His parents were told it was for their own good, so the children could be brought up properly by white families who would teach them how to read, write, and pray, and be real Australians. Archie had no idea that a similar thing was happening to tens of thousands of Aboriginal children all over Australia.
Archie and his two youngest sisters Gladdie and Diana were taken to a Salvation Army orphanage. He wasn’t told that he would never see his mother and father again, he was just made to wear shoes and sent to speech therapy. After living with two foster families that didn’t work out, Archie was finally sent to a couple named Alec and Dulcie Cox at the age of nine. Archie went to school and made friends and as time passed, he settled into a routine – gradually forgetting the memory of his brothers and sisters and his past.
The Coxes' natural daughter Mary introduced Archie to the piano and old gospel songs. But it was when he heard an acoustic guitar and a Hank Williams song that Archie became passionate about what he wanted to do. He wanted to play the guitar and sing! So he started to learn to play until one day his world was shattered by the receipt of a letter from one of his older sisters, Myrtle. He was 14 or 15. The letter said that his mother had died last week and mentioned several family names that Archie had never heard of. When he showed the letter to Mr and Mrs Cox, they began to cry. Archie began to piece things together. Gradually he began to understand what had happened and his behaviour began to change. At school, he started beating other kids, he was disrespectful to the teachers and to the Coxes, and he no longer cared about this white life. He made up his mind to go out on the streets, to find his own people, his own family. Archie ran.
The best part of a year had passed before Archie finally found one of his kindred. One day, sitting in a pub, a woman started talking to him and when she asked him his name, the drink made him forget his alias. "Archie Roach," he said. The woman started asking questions about his family and as he told her the names of the kin he could remember, she started to wave her arms around and yelling: "Baby, my baby: I'm Diana. I'm your sister. You're my brother."
Archie Roach spent 4 years on the streets. During this time he found out that his father and his sister Gladdie were both dead. He kept following further clues to trace his family, meanwhile drinking himself to the point of poisoning. Somehow, during all this he kept playing the guitar. He also met Ruby Power, and in 1983, when he was 29 years old, he finally returned from the wilderness to make a home with his children.
This turning point, when Archie finally went to a rehabilitation centre to get help with his drinking was significantly influence by Archie’s Uncle Banjo, who told Archie to stop singing other people's songs and to write about his own life.
So Archie sat down and wrote a song called 'Took The Children Away', the story of the day when he was stolen from his parents. The song was the beginning of a long therapy, in which he squeezed the poison out of his spirit and into his music.
In 1988 Archie moved to Melbourne. This year was also the Bicentennial and Archie became involved with preparing a celebration tape of Aboriginal music for the founding of Australia. His song was included on this tape which got airplay on a community radio station. A television station then got wind of it and asked him to play the song on an Aboriginal current affairs show. A Melbourne rock guitarist, Steve Connolly, who was then playing with Paul Kelly, heard the song and called Kelly, persuading him to let Archie Roach play an opening set at their next concert in Melbourne.
In November 1989, Archie Roach played to an audience of 2000 people at the Melbourne Concert Hall. He told the audience his next song ‘was about something that happened a long time ago'. Archie received a huge response. His life was never the same again. With Paul Kelly's help, he recorded an album ‘Charcoal Lane’ which won two Australian Record industry awards and was distributed in Australia and the United States.
Archie believes that if it hadn't been for his traumatic past he probably wouldn't be the person he is today, or the musician. He feels that it is his experiences, both good and bad, that have shaped him and given him the ability to perform, and in performing heal himself and others. He is on a plight now to heal his people and he sees reconnection with the land as one of the starting points – “the land and it's people, the Aboriginal law stories, the community of his people, music, dancing, walking country, and the tradition of story telling” he says.
On his most recent tour of Australia to promote his CD ‘The Journey’, Archie says that he has been seeing the difference in his people in the shows he has been doing. “More young people are getting involved in their communities and Aboriginal people are becoming more active in looking after themselves – rather than relying on government”.
Roach's latest album 'Journey' is his own reaffirmation of identity, country, beliefs and spirit. Recorded live in Melbourne’s Sing Sing studios, many of the songs were inspired during the journey that Archie took with Pete Postlethwaite in the hope of reawakening discussion of indigenous issues, and of Reconciliation.
"If it hadn't been for what happened to me, I probably wouldn't have been a musician. We are the sum total of our lives, of what's happened to us. A lot of things are sad, but I would never ask to be different. Terrible things happen because of misunderstandings, but I know I would be a poorer person if I had not been through these things."
This article appeared in Vol 1 Issue 22 of The Art of Healing