HE WAS 3 WEARS OLD WHEN THE POLICE found him that day, cowering under a pile of branches and leaves. "My cousins tried to hide me, but it didn't work," says Archie Roach now, more than 30 years later. "They took three of us first, me and two sisters. I never saw my mother and father again."

For Roach, and for tens of thousands of other Australian aboriginals, that wrenching removal from home and family was the result of "assimilation," the misguided government policy that called for aboriginal children of mixed blood to be forcibly placed in orphanages and white foster homes. The practice was abandoned in the late '60s, but its legacy of sadness has remained, and now it has been given voice on Roach's powerful debut album, Charcoal Lane. The CD, featuring Roach's husky, semisweet singing and spare guitar-based accompaniment, has brought Roach the sort of exposure in Australia long reserved only for white musicians. It has also brought the 37-year-old performer to the U.S. this month for the start of an 18-city tour, including shows in New York City and Los Angeles.

Steve Connolly, a guitarist for the popular Australian band Paul Kelly and the Messengers, first spotted Roach on a local TV talent show three years ago. "I was immediately struck by the quality of the song and his incredible vocal style," says Connolly, who persuaded bandleader Kelly to let Roach open for their group one night in Melbourne. Until then "I had never seen him perform," says Kelly. "I thought it was one of the most powerful performances I'd ever seen."

With Kelly's help, Roach landed a contract with Australia's respected Mushroom Records. Released in Australia in 1990, Charcoal Lane stunned many with its stark, gentle evocations of aboriginal despair, alcoholism, homelessness and, ultimately, the redemptive power of faith and family.

All are subjects that Roach knows well. He ran away from his third foster home at 14, after learning that his real parents were dead. The title track of Charcoal Lane is a lullaby for lost souls named after a street in Melbourne where Roach lived while he searched for his six brothers and sisters. Arrested for the first time; when he was 15—for stealing food from a grocery store—Roach began a grim passage through homeless-ness, street fighting, jailings and alcoholism. At 16, at a Salvation Army hotel in Adelaide, he met Ruby Hunter, a fellow aboriginal and a singer-songwriter who had fled her own foster family at 11. "We were street kids who found each other," says Hunter, now 36 and Roach's wife. "Archie was first pointed out to me as the man who didn't talk much. I liked him because he stood out from the others."

Among Roach's hidden gifts was a love for music, and "every now and then I'd get a guitar, strum a few songs," he says. "There was too much to think about, though. I really didn't play for a long while."

By 1981 he and Hunter were homeless alcoholics with two children to support. One day, she remembers, "we were in a park, and I went to have a drink. A kid came up and said, 'Oh, we've just brought your sons back from the soup kitchen.' That's what woke me up. They were 1 and 2. I just turned around and said, 'Archie, see you later.' He had to decide which was more important—the kids or alcohol."

Eventually music became Roach's deliverance. Struggling to change his course, he says, he "picked up the guitar again and started to write a few songs. It was a therapeutic thing. It gave me something to fill the gap left by drinking.

Alcohol-free for the past few years, Roach and Hunter now share a modest, three-bedroom Housing Commission home outside Melbourne with an extended family of eight that includes their own two children, Amos and Eban, two foster children and Ruby's sister and brother. Success has finally given Roach cause for optimism about the future. Since the release of his album, he has won two Aria Awards—the Down Under equivalent of the Grammy—and has become the first songwriter to receive Australia's Human Rights Award. "Things are getting better for aboriginals," he says hopefully. "Oddly enough, it's a big education problem, to convince them that they do have choices."

For proof they need look no further than Roach himself or perhaps listen to the lyrics of his song "Down City Streets": "Now I am a man, I'm not alone/I am married I have children of my own/Now I have something I call my own/These are my children and this is my home."

GUY GARCIA
FIONA SCOTT-NORMAN in Melbourne

  • Contributors:
  • Fiona Scott-Norman.