A to Z of world music

I'd been invited to visit Aboriginal soul-singer Archie Roach, and my cab homed in on a Melbourne council estate where cars, houses, and people all wore a battered, breadline air.

A little man with glowing eyes and short, twisted dreadlocks welcomed me in, shouting over his shoulder into the kitchen. "Mum! Bring us some tea, and keep the kids out."

Behind the closed curtains of the living-room it felt as if we were in the bush. Broken chairs stood round a central open space that was decorated with tribal bric-a-brac, and a huge Aboriginal flag adorned the walls. A tiny smiling woman brought our tea. It was Ruby Hunter, Roach's wife and co-star.

Over tea Roach told me his story, which was also the story of thousands of his coevals: abducted from his parents at the age of three by government agents and "assimilated" into white society via a series of fosterings.

"Then, when I was 14, my sister wrote that my mother had died, and I didn't know I had one. I didn't know who or what I was any more. The shock confused me totally."

After 10 years as a vagrant alcoholic - earning his drinks by playing his guitar - he met up with Ruby, whose story mirrored his own, "so we got together and had children". The rest is history: their songs of lost childhood and equally lost identity - his voice light and sweet; hers deep and sonorous - are now among the brightest ornaments of Aboriginal musical culture. Her album is called Thoughts Within (D31108); his best is Charcoal Lane (MUSH32013.2).

Thanks to groups like Yothu Yindi, culture has become a dominant strand in Australia's pop mainstream - assimilation with a vengeance - but it still thrives in its pre-technological form. For every didgeridoo-led techno-rock ensemble there are 10 players who still wield that ancient instrument in its unsullied acoustic form. For an idea of how the didgeridoo can blend acoustically with a wide range of instruments, get Charlie McMahon's Didjeridu Vibrations (EUCD 1691). For a superb conspectus of the whole scene, get The Rough Guide to Australian Aboriginal Music (RGNET 1026), which contains a large number of field-recorded songs for birth, initiation, and rituals of village labour.

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