Skip to main content

A year since Uncle Archie Roach’s passing, Kee’ahn joins other First Nations artists with a deep connection to the singer for a tribute with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Hamer Hall this July.

As Uncle Archie Roach listened to Kee’ahn perform their soulful Better Things, he closed his eyes and cried.

It was the fourth episode of his Youtube series Kitchen Table Yarns, a program initiated to support emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander singer-songwriters, released in late 2021.

“I’ve got to gather myself for a moment,” he said after Kee’ahn finished singing, wiping his eyes. “Special songs like that have a way of reaching out.”

Kee’ahn gently responded, “I’ve got a lot of love for you, uncle.”

Indeed, Roach, who passed away in mid-2022, has anchored the emerging artist’s growth and vision.

Kee’ahn started their music career busking and performing at open mics in their hometown of Townsville. Then, during a camping trip about five years ago, the Kuku Yalanji, Jirrbal, Zenadth Kes singer arrived in Naarm. They decided to stay. As they continued to pursue music in the city, the artist connected with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musicians and joined DRMNGNOW.

2023 MSO Blog one song Keeahn

In Victoria’s first bouts of lockdown, Kee’ahn longed for their home community in far North Queensland. They drew from Roach’s music to write Better Things. Released in May 2020, the vulnerable song muses on mental health challenges in social isolation.

Kee’ahn first learned about Roach in childhood after their parents introduced the iconic artist with his well-known Took the Children Away. As Kee’ahn grew in age and as a musician, they began to listen to more of Roach, with a particular affinity with the healing message of Let Love Rule.

Kee’ahn won the Archie Roach Foundation Award at the 2020 National Indigenous Music Awards, with Better Things also nominated for Song of the Year. The Kitchen Table Yarns performance – where Kee’ahn was able to personally dedicate Better Things to Roach on the live stream – further deepened the artists’ bond.

And it continues to deepen. Over a year on, Kee’ahn will celebrate Roach and his legacy at One Song: The Music of Archie Roach this July. Hosted by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s NAIDOC Week program at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, the tribute honours the memory and cultural significance of the Gunditjmara (Kirrae Whurrong/Djab Wurrung), Bundjalung Senior Elder, song man and storyteller.

“I’m imagining singing to him for this performance,” says Kee’ahn on the event that will feature stories and renditions of Roach’s songs. “I can imagine everyone else is thinking the same. Uncle Archie is a leader that we all look up to and are inspired by and have love for.”

Kee’ahn is excited to join a multi-generational lineup of artists they’ve “admired since I was a kid” for a tribute that holds importance in “building community, strengthening community.”

“We’re [always] loud and proud. Sometimes, it’s the [lack of] accessibility and people in the wider community not listening,” Kee’ahn shares. “This opportunity to connect with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and perform at a huge venue with talented collaborators is just one way of making space, amplifying voices in my community, sharing our messages and values and showing love for one another and our elders.

“It feels really healing and special to come together with other Blackfella artists and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to just sing his music to him, and carry his story and his legacy. It’s been great to be a part of this and to honour him.”

For Kee’ahn, it’s one meaningful event amongst others this year. The artist just returned from Bluesfest, “a big dream” with a “teary moment.” Their father, coming on stage during their performance, recalled memories of their collaborations from early gigs and childhood “family jams” (and even attending Bluesfest as a family when Kee’ahn was little).

For 2023, the artist has performances lined up with St Kilda Festival, WOMADelaide, Blues on Broadbeach and Blak Day Out. They also have plans to refocus on creating music ahead of their debut EP in 2024.

“I’m creatively trying to find space to be a bit slower and to take lessons from all these experiences,” Kee’ahn reflects. “I admire Uncle Archie’s ability to write and his creative flow. I’m trying to take some inspiration from him.”

With Music Director Paul Grabowsky AO, Stage Director Rachael Maza AM and Conductor Jaime Martín, the lineup includes Dan Sultan, Emma Donovan, William Barton, Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO, Jess Hitchcock, Radical Son, Sally Dastey, Kee’ahn, Tamala Shelton and the Dhungala Children’s Choir.

Words by Tahney Fosdike. First published by Beat.

One Song: The Music of Archie Roach

5 & 6 July 2023
Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall

More info

Stay tuned. Sign up.