‘Yarns’ from an iconic storyteller

Archie Roach returns to The Drum with songs and stories from his memoir Tell Me Why. Picture: ADRIAN COOK

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

One of Australia’s great singers and songwriters Archie Roach says he’s more a story-teller than a politician.

“We as a people – First Nations people – we don’t have a monopoly on suffering and trauma,” says Roach – who is touring a show based on his recent memoir Tell Me Why.

“Everyone needs to traverse that landscape and to rise above that.

“So that’s why I’m less political and more universal.

“When you get to the crux, it’s about your story – and how the powers-that-be can destruct your life.

“That’s what it’s about – standing up to that tyranny.”

Roach will share stories and songs from Tell Me Why at The Drum theatre in Dandenong on 7 May.

“It’s almost like we’re around a kitchen table having a yarn – that’s the idea of the show”.

Which is how he recorded his first album Charcoal Lane 30 years ago – around the kitchen table.

His signature songs such as Charcoal Lane and Took The Children Away are now widely known.

But it certainly wasn’t the case for his debut performance as a support act for Paul Kelly at Hamer Hall.

He was stunned how huge the packed house was. But each song he played was met with a vast silence.

At the end of the set, he thought: “Oh blow it.”

“Thank you very much anyway,” he told the audience as he walked off stage.

Sporadic claps started. They built into a “big thunder” of applause filling the theatre.

An amazed Roach later asked audience members and singers Vika and Linda Bull why the delayed reaction.

“We were all stunned,” they said. “The songs about children taken away and people dying in jail – people hadn’t come across songs like that.”

Roach thought: “Wow, what a response. Maybe I’ve got a chance.”

He reflects that unfortunately the themes he sung about happen across the world – and still happen.

Thirty years on, Aboriginal deaths-in-custody disturbingly is a prominent problem. It has been the subject of a Royal Commission yet “we’re still talking about it today, for goodness’ sake”.

“It’s still happening – I get so tired of it.”

His love for music started at his foster family. Alex, a Scotsman, had an inspiring collection of LPs – not just of “ballads and bagpipes” but great black American singers like Nat King Cole and Otis Redding.

His foster sister Mary played a Hammond organ before it was popular, he says. It was shipped from overseas. They would sing hymns and other songs together in the home.

Tell Me Why is at The Drum, corner Lonsdale and Walker streets, on Friday 7 May, 8pm. Bookings: drum.greaterdandenong.vic.gov.au or 8571 1666