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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Archie Roach is back by John Tognolini

Journey
Music from Archie Roach
Liberation Music, 2007, $30

“I thought writing the song‘Took the Children Away’ was in part, a way of telling people that taking children from their families was not necessarily the best or so-called solution concerning the child or their family’s well being. I was wrong. We thought the Bringing Them Home report would see measures taken to ensure it should never happen again. We were wrong. We thought the Deaths in Custody [Royal Commission] would prevent such things happening. We were wrong. The songs of Journey are a reaffirmation of identity, country, beliefs and spirit and how no one has listened to our recommendations on stolen kids or people dying in jails. So it continues, but we are still watching and definitely taking note.” Archie Roach, 2007.

A couple of years ago, I was reading the debate section of the BBC History magazine and the topic was the return of Aboriginal remains from Britain’s universities and museums to Australia. I was sickened by the obscene case being put forward to keep these Aboriginal skeletons in the collections of British and other European universities and museums. When Roach introduced his song “Travellin’ Bones” on this topic, at his recent performance in Katoomba’s Triselies nightclub, to a packed house of over 140 people, he told of the story of the remains of a little girl that were brought back to Australia and how she had a bullet hole in her skull from over 100 years ago.

Many of the songs on Journey were inspired by a journey that Roach took with English actor Peter Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father, Brassed Off, Baz Lurhman’s Romeo & Juliet) and Indigenous leader and Yawuru man, Patrick Dodson. Journey has been described as an eternal moment of dreaming. Reflecting songs of pain, loss, racism, redemption and hope. Roach described it as a marriage of Aboriginal and Western philosophy from the heart and mind. He is an extraordinary writer and singer. Journey is a companion piece to the recently released Liyarn Ngarn DVD, a compelling tale of racism and a plea for a new future in black/white relations in Australia.

Journey was produced by Shane Howard (of Goanna) and engineered and co-produced by Nash Chambers. It was a long time in the creation and preparation and a short time in the recording. Recorded live in Melbourne’s Sing Sing studios after a journey that took Roach from the spiritual Ngurrarra paintings, south of Fitzroy Crossing, to the jails of Roebourne and Fremantle, where Indigenous people had died in custody. It continued through the desert country of central Australia and the inevitable connection back to Roach’s home country of the Gunditjmara/Kirrae Whurrong of south-west Victoria.

I’ve only seen Roach play live once before at the Building Bridges Concert at Bondi Pavilion nearly twenty years ago. I and other BLF scaffolders volunteered our labour to put up the stage for this concert, on the eve of the massive Aboriginal Anti-Bicentennial Invasion Day Protest on January 26, 1988. Roach performed “Charcoal Lane” and I thought what a terrific voice and a moving song. Roach was joined that afternoon by Paul Kelly who joined him again on Journey, performing the song “John Pat”.

John Pat was a young Aboriginal man who was strangled to death in Roebourne jail in West Australia in 1987. His death, along with many others, led to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody being convened in 1987. This song is from a poem by a West Australian Aboriginal poet Jack Davis. Roach played it to him before he passed away in Fremantle hospital.

Also featuring on the album are Ruby Hunter, Bart Willoughby, Amy Saunders (formerly of Tiddas), David Birdie, Mark Punch, Troy Cassar-Daly, Ewen Baker, Helen Mounfort, Jarad Hearman, Shane Howard, Dave Arden and Amos Roach.

Roach has seen a lot, some would say too much hurt, but still these hallowed songs reach out to bridge the divide between black and white and challenge Australia’s culture of racism. Roach Roach turns suffering into hope and art with his music. His unique voice is in the league of Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker or George Jones. As an elder statesman of Aboriginal music, Roach takes us on a journey of epic dimensions but the music and the message are absolutely clear and uncomplicated.

I encourage you not just to buy his album but also to see Roach perform. I helped organise his Katoomba performance where he was joined by Shane Howard, Dave Arden and Amos Roach. For tour dates and venues check out these links and

[This article was first published in the New South Wales Teachers Federation journal, Education November 2007]

From: Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue #735 12 December 2007.

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