By Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach
Professional production – Queensland Music Festival 2005
Who is this exotic woman walking gently onto the stage, head down so that her spectacular feathered headdress is in full view of the audience? In her ruby-red velvet dress, adorned with sequins and feathers, she’s like a bird woman or an enchantress, and her full-moon face types her as an ancient goddess.
She is all of these things, but she’s also Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri/Kukatha/Pitjanjatjara woman who, with her long-time partner Archie Roach, make music that pierces your heart. This show tells Ruby’s life through song and story, put together in a loose chronology with the unlikely but totally inspired backing of Paul Grabowski and his band of innovative musicians. They give these simple songs a context that deepens and heightens their meaning, raising them to a universal plane of human suffering and perseverance.
We’ve heard the Stolen Generation stories many times, and perhaps wept over them, but when we listen to Ruby’s song “Held up to the Moon in my Grandfather’s Hands”, which details the birthing and welcoming rituals for Aboriginal babies, we realise for the first time the trauma that this tearing-apart must have been for both parents and children. And then, when Archie Roach’s harsh powerful voice sings his famous “Took the Children Away”, we see the mourning as part of a life cycle for people who used to be in harmony with the land and now suffer the consequences of this rending of soul from country.
The raw richness of Ruby’s voice, like chocolate gritty with coffee grains, is deceptive in its simplicity, and raises the question of when artlessness becomes art. Or should that be the other way around?
Is the connectivity between Ruby and Archie, their constant movement to each other’s rhythm, their affectionate touching and kissing, just choreographed into the show, or is it a genuine display of affection and harmony? There’s enough spontaneity in the production, enough roughness in the timing of song and spoken word, to suggest that this is indeed a genuine experience for all of the musicians and singers on stage, but I saw the very first performance of a production that was staged especially for the Queensland Music Festival, and if it becomes part of their regular repertoire, production values may take over from the original warmth.
But somehow I don’t think so. Roach and Hunter are well-known performers, but have never lost the authenticity of their approach to their material, which is in itself gently powerful enough to move an audience on an emotional as well as a technical level.
What struck me particularly about this show was the ultimate rapport between singers and musicians. At first, the orchestra was so loud as to seem self-indulgent, drowning out the singers/narrators, but the disparity in volume forced us to listen to what was being said, and find in the simple words a profundity that we might not have otherwise been aware of.
For the songs themselves aren’t very complex or even original in genre, showing the influence of all kinds of world music, from the Red Hot Mommas of the American nightclub scene to Country-and-Western to gospel music to rock ballads. But it’s the way they are presented, and the rhythmic power of Roach’s body in particular, that give them a unique personality. And when the orchestra gets going, and percussionists Niko Schauble and Vanessa Tomlinson get the joint jumpin’, it’s a show like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
The trouble with festivals is that nothing is ever on for long enough to allow the grapevine to get budding, so the show will have come and gone by the time this review is posted. But if it does go on tour, which I hope it will, I also hope that it will never lose the spontaneity that make it a totally magical experience.
And, to end on one sour note, I hope that the lighting is improved so that Ruby and Archie aren’t always out of spot. Whose story is it, after all?
Musical direction by Paul Grabowski, with the Australian Art Orchestra
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes, no interval