Wednesday, November 14, 2012

From the soul of this country: Archie Roach and Into the Bloodstream

image: The cover of Into the Bloodstream is based on a painting by Robert Lowe Senior and tells the story of Framlingham Aboriginal Mission in south-western Victoria.

''My recent bouts of illness, I'm sure, are a result of the Pain of being removed from my family at a young age and more recently, the loss of someone I loved so dearly. But Pain can also bring about change in one's life for the better, we can choose to ignore the Pain until it becomes unbearable or we can do something. I used to think that letting go of the Pain was the only way of getting better but that may not be necessarily so. You see some events in my life I will never ever truly get over and the Pain will always be there, but I can do something about [it].''Archie Roach in an interview in The Age

Archie Roach's new CD Into the Bloodstream confirms that he is Australia's finest soul singer.

Into the Bloodstream is a remarkable testament to human resilience and the Aboriginal experience. It is also a profoundly beautiful and moving narrative about Roach's own life and his family bonds. The CD  is Roach's reclamation of his musical heritage after a series of tragic losses and serious illness including the sudden death of his wife of 40 years, a serious stroke that left him partially paralyzed, and a diagnosis of lung cancer and removal of part of his lung.

But the CD is much more. Musically, lyrically and emotionally this is such an Australian record. It speaks to and evokes not just Aboriginal history but the larger spirit and history of this country.

And it is a profoundly political CD, in that it tells stories about the personal human and social consequences of  racism and the unjust exercise of power by those who hold political and economic power.

Roach's work is further evidence that Aboriginal musicians are making some of the most powerful and important music in this country.

Listen to the power and profundity of old Mission Road , a song about the mother and father he never knew.

Stories about and reviews of the CD are here, here, here and here 

In the The Global Mail Bernard Lagan has written a moving piece about  Archie Roach and the album
Along the way Archie Roach nearly gave up. In 2010, his partner Ruby Hunter died; she’d been his music soul mate and the mother of the couple’s two boys. The next year a stroke felled Roach just as he was resuming his musical career at Turkey Creek, near Broome. Last year he was told he had lung cancer.

Who could not understand his desolation? The stroke was as cruel as the loss of Ruby. The pair, who had been together almost 40 years, met as teenagers on the streets of Melbourne; both were homeless then and heading for addictions. Children came. So did more alcohol. Ruby left with the kids and Archie had to make a decision: the bottle or the family? She’d told him: “Alcohol — I can’t do that anymore and see my children suffer.”

Roach has set down his life in the album's dozen tracks. The cover is a reproduction of an Aboriginal man's painting — done in the desert style — of the Framlingham Mission in Victoria’s southwest. Roach had lived there with his six older brothers and sisters before he was forcibly taken from the family when he was three years old. Looking at the album cover, Roach picks out his old house. He never saw his mother or father again. Instead, he was to pass through orphanages and at least one bitter experience in a foster home until he ended up with a kindly farming family, the Coxes. They had a large record collection, and in amongst it Roach discovered Mahalia Jackson, Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots, and happy years in what he describes today as a beautiful family.

Eventually, a letter from one of his sisters arrived, telling of what had happened to him as a child. This would later trigger his spiral into teenage homelessness.

Roach writes more personally than he has ever done about being taken from his family in the track Old Mission Road; he imagines his hand in his mother’s as he walks with her through Framlingham and hears her stories of his early childhood. It is a burning lament for the mother he lost.
Won’t you walk with me, darling,
Just a couple of miles,
Won’t you tell me the stories of when I was a child.

Now age 56, Roach still has flashes that come like Polaroid stills of the day he was taken;
“I remember running through bracken near the mission. I do remember stopping somewhere. They told me later it was the old Geelong prison. All the children stopped there for a break. I do remember some big man in jacket, a navy-blue jacket with a lot of silver buttons, picking me up on his shoulders and walking around.”

The dark years of living homeless and in the grip of alcohol are sung, relived, in Big Black Train — a story of his experience and a plea to young people to avoid that journey; “It was pretty hard. Me and Ruby, we ended up going to a half-way house. It was Ruby who led the way. She just grabbed the children one day and said, ‘I can't live this life anymore.’”

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