Archie Roach cuts an almost mythical figure in Australian music. Overcoming an early life wreathed in hardship to flourish as an artist and musician revered amongst not only the indigenous music community, but the Australian music community as a whole, Uncle Archie – as Roach is affectionately known – has become a symbol for unity and strength, a model for ‘from little things big things grow’, a true leader of people and a musician second to none.
However, hardship has continued to play a role in Roach’s journey with his partner in both music and life, Ruby Hunter, dying early last year. This would have cast an unimaginable pall over things, and then to add to it, just as Roach was coming to terms with such a loss, he himself suffered a stroke last October; life certainly isn’t easy, as Archie Roach will attest. But this is a man who’s a fighter. No matter what life has hurled his way, he’s come through and kept going, and so when I get a chance to speak to the man, he carries with him a quiet air of not only dignity, but of defiance and, of course, strength.
“Yeah, I’m good,” he confides. “I’m feeling a lot stronger…I did get a bit crook, but I’m feeling a lot better now. So I’m just taking things easy, I’m at home in south-west Victoria, so I’m taking things easy, getting ready for a few shows coming up.” These shows include, amongst others, a night at Bilyana, the site of the Folk, Rhythm & Life festival in north-east Victoria, a night which will see Roach team up with Dan Sultan and Sally Dastey from Tiddas for an evening of aural delights, and it’ll be a memorable one for Roach – Bilyana is, for him, a special place.
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to that,” he smiles. “So that’ll be great sharing the stage, especially around that part of the country. We’ve played there many times before…it’s just a good venue, it’s a lovely place to play.” Roach has appeared at the site with Hunter a number of times in the past and so the venue itself holds a special place for the man. For those in attendance, no doubt it’ll shine through in his music.
We turn the conversation towards Dan Sultan, a musician who is, finally, receiving dues so much deserved, and his connection with Roach. I venture that Roach would have been watching Sultan’s career for some time, and that he’d no doubt be quite proud of the heights he’s beginning to hit. “Yeah, Dan and I first performed together as part of the Black Arm Band, but I first saw him play before then at a benefit concert for a friend of ours,” Roach tells. “I saw him with this band, he had a great band behind him, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is fantastic’, it was great to see a young guy like that.
“And he didn’t have a specific agenda, he was just playing music and having a good time, and that was good to see,” he adds. “And it’s good to see the recognition he’s getting, he’s edgy, and like I said, it’s great to see someone just get up and play music. For a young indigenous bloke, that’s really good, not like back in the days when we were young and were playing everywhere and were, I suppose, following a specific agenda.”
I think it’s fair to say that when Roach was younger, there was a specific agenda indigenous artists were following, and fair enough – those were times of rampant inequality and for an aboriginal musician to sing about them was perhaps one of the gutsiest things they could have done. Not to say these days don’t hold elements of inequality and racism, but to see Sultan up there just “playing music”, as Roach says, puts him up there as a musician above all that, and there’s tremendous respect involved as a result.
We move to what Roach is up to now. Of course, he’s been ill these past few months and no doubt music and the work involved would have been the furthest thing from his mind, but ingrained deep within this man, is the music, and so it’s never really that far away. “Yeah, well it’s only really been this last month or so that I’ve been getting stuck into it again,” he concurs. “So I played at WOMADelaide and then did something for Moomba, so yeah, it’s a bit more spaced out than it was, not as intense, and that’s the way, I suppose, we should be doing things at the moment…so I would like to find some time to do some writing and to get some more songs together.”
Roach’s last record was 2009’s, 1988, released through ABC’s Music Deli as part of a live archive series, and the one before that, 2007’s Journey. As such, it’s been a while since the world has been privy to an Archie Roach record of original tunes, but as he tells, there’s one not too far away. “Yeah, I am working on one, I’m getting new songs together, plus some old songs that never really made it on to other albums, just reworking them,” he confirms.
“And I think it’s good to go back and look at some old stuff that never really made the track listing of older albums. The first question you ask is, ‘Why?’ and you have a think and you work out why and then you rework them. But they were songs that when I was first working on them, I’d go, ‘OK, I’ll just leave these alone for a little while’.” I ask how far Roach is into the writing / gathering process at the moment, in terms of putting together this new record.
“I don’t know, but I guess it’s almost time,” he says with a smile. “You’ve just gotta give it the space and the time to see where it goes, plus there’s some rehearsing and pre-production, just to see where it might go.” Where it might go is anyone’s guess, but it’s a fair bet that with Archie Roach at the helm, it’ll go somewhere meaningful and real, much as his entire catalogue has done previously. As well, Roach is at a pivotal point in his musical life. He’s lost his partner, and has been reminded of his own mortality, what with getting so sick. This next record could well be his defining work, such has happened that would inform it.
So where to from here for the man who just refuses to give up? Slow and steady no doubt, but with an intent and a purpose, for this is always how Archie Roach has conducted himself. At least in his later years. “Yeah, it’d be good to do maybe a couple of shows a month, play for a couple of weeks then take half a month off and get back into it again,” he muses on how the rest of the year will pan out. “We’ll just be pacing ourselves.” This is what the man has done all his musical life, and it’s paid off. For Archie Roach is at the top of his game, and no matter the hardship, he’ll keep heading up.
Samuel J. Fell