Archie Roach critically ill during ARIA performance

Singer and songwriter Archie Roach has revealed that he was critically ill at the time of his induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame on 25 November last year, performing from a venue near the hospital with a medical team in tow and an ambulance waiting outside.

Roach has lived with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for years, but it escalated in November. He was admitted to Warrnambool Base Hospital, where he spent some days in intensive care.

He was taken from the hospital in an ambulance to accept the award via a broadcast from the Lighthouse theatre in the south-west Victorian coastal town, where he also performed, with his medical team standing by backstage.

Roach sung his most celebrated song, Took The Children Away, sitting down and breathing through a nasal cannula, before being taken back to hospital for several more days.

“It wasn’t looking too good for a while,” Roach said, speaking to the Guardian ahead of rescheduled dates touring what is likely to be his final album, Tell Me Why. “Fluid had gone from my legs to [around] my heart, so I had to go to ICU for a while, while they tried to get me under control. After the ARIAs, things seemed to pick up after that.”

Roach had originally intended to accept his induction in Melbourne, but his illness and inability to travel meant the Lighthouse theatre was reserved for his performance instead. Members of his family, including his grandchildren, performed a Welcome to Country ceremony beforehand.

Fellow singer and songwriter Paul Kelly, who co-produced Roach’s debut album, Charcoal Lane, said the most emotional part of the day for him was rehearsing with Roach in hospital before the performance.

“The staff gave us their lunch room, they cleared it out for us and we went in there, they wheeled Archie in and we did a little acoustic rehearsal, just to know how the song would run with the band,” Kelly said.

“And I remember thinking at the end of that, thinking well, yeah, that’s the performance, we can go home now! But of course, we knew then, he’s going to be great – it sounded good, he could sing it strong.

“There was a little bit of uncertainty about whether it would go ahead, [but] if you’ve seen the performance from the ARIAs you notice how his voice got stronger throughout. So we were all really happy with the way it went, so was Archie, and so were the doctors.

“Talking to the them afterwards, they were saying, ‘Could you come down and do this every day? Archie’s got a real lift, he looks healthier today from just singing.’ Which I guess is not unusual; I think there are studies on that. It was a really, really good day.”

Roach said his induction into the Hall of Fame, which he received alongside trophies for best male artist and best adult contemporary album for Tell Me Why, meant a great deal to him – particularly to be standing alongside and as an example to other Indigenous artists.

“I’ve been doing this for a while now, over 30 years, and seeing some of the other people inducted, especially Uncle Jimmy Little and Yothu Yindi and others, I was very proud to see that,” he said.

“To be recognised in such a way of course is great and important, but to also be an example to others, especially our First Nations people – that no matter where you come from you can achieve great things if you put your mind and heart to it.”

Looking back on his career, Roach said the intimate relationship he had developed with his audience over the years stood out to him. “The people that come and listen to me and hear the stories, they actually give me as much if not more sometimes than I give them,” he said.

“It’s a real connection, so I think that’s very important to me. It’s more than just going out on the stage and doing a set and walking off. There’s this actual relationship that I have with these people.”

First published in the Guardian, 12 February 2021

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