Archie Roach has long told his remarkable life story through music. But the ailing singer-songwriter has plenty more to tell – this time on the page, not the stage.
Archie Roach closes his eyes and bows his head, and knits his fingers together as if in prayer, and I realise he’s not here any more.
He’s no longer with me at his dining table, in his white brick cottage near the coastal town of Warrnambool, four hours west of Melbourne, where the sky is cool grey and his nectarine tree blossom is hot pink.
Roach is in his own mind, inside a boiling hot tin shed in far north Queensland, and he’s a young man again, experiencing a seminal moment closer to the beginning of his lifelong itinerant journey of self-discovery than to its end. As he falls more deeply into his trance, I notice the looseness in his skin, his basset-hound cheeks and the steady rocking of his smooth, bald scalp, like the bottom of a big, brown egg.
Roach, 63, is maybe 18 in this memory from the Atherton Tablelands, which begins on an Indigenous settlement, sitting in the dust, drinking beer. A few trucks roll in, he says, and blackfellas in Akubras and cowboy boots and chequered shirts get out. They’re horsemen from the stations around Cape York. They have guitars and they sing into the night, then an old, snowy-haired bloke arrives. The men put down their drinks. They stand.
“Old fella started talkin’ language,” says Roach, eyes still closed. “I’d never heard Aboriginal language – never in my life. Nobody spoke it in Melbourne or Sydney. But he just rattled it off. And then the young fellas, those ringers, they went inside the shed and took off their hats and their boots and their shirts. And they’re standin’ ’round just in their jeans. The old fella said a few other words and they come out with some boomerangs and clap sticks, and the old fella said one word that I remember: warrma.”
Roach didn’t know it then, but warrma means corroboree. And the sounds they made then are the sounds he sings out now in his lounge room: “Eeeeeh, hup! Chick-chick-chick, aaaaahhhh!”
His head sways into that rollicking past now, and his eyeballs frolic under soft, waxy eyelids. “I was just standing there. Stunned. They danced and they danced!” he says, big eyes opening. “They danced pretty much through the night. That’s when I asked the old fella, ‘What’s all this? We don’t do this down south where I come from.’ ”
No? the old fella replied. Why not? Roach didn’t know why not. They just … didn’t.
“I’m sorry about that, my boy,” the old man said. “You fellas are different. The white men came to your country long before they came up here. They wanted the green, wet country first. We were able to keep stuff. You fellas couldn’t keep anything.”
Roach had left home at 15, ended up in Sydney at 16, seen Adelaide at 17 and visited that hot shed outside Cairns not long after, before heading south again, home to Melbourne. His skin was blacker from his time on the road, under the sun, and his soul was, too – his insides warmer and darker from his cultural reckoning. “Why don’t we dance?” he asked his friends. “Why don’t we talk language? Why don’t we go out and hunt?” They looked at him funny. Just shut up, Archie Roach.
“It changed me. It started a new search for me. It was a turning point,” Roach says, nodding. “It was as if there was more to all this life than meets the eye. More that I don’t know about. More to learn. As if there’s more to me.”
Photography by Kristoffer Paulsen