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Roger Knox sings the country songs of Aboriginal Australia

Andrea Warner

Roger Knox is a survivor. It’s in the Aboriginal Australian country musician’s blood. His mother and other family members were stashed in Aboriginal mission camps. He's been on the receiving end of racism his whole life. He has cheated death, surviving two plane crashes in a single day — and that’s not even factoring in the threats from the elements. This interview alone, in support of his brand new album, Stranger in My Land, took almost two months thanks to both devastating floods and wildfires mere weeks apart — and the fact that he lives in an area so remote, he doesn’t have regular access to phone or internet.

Thankfully, Knox perseveres. Stranger in My Land is an ambitious collection of the country, folk and traditional music from Aborigine artists. The songs illustrate the complicated, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful legacy of Knox’s ancestors, and the album serves as a fantastic time capsule of a genre of music few people even realize exists. In our email interview, Knox discusses how music changed his life, Aboriginal culture and working with artists like the Sadies and Kelly Hogan.

This collection has you covering songs written by your peers and predecessors. How did you decide which songs to use to map the Aboriginal Australian experience?

The songs we decided to go with all tell a story about our history, culture and heritage, also our connection to country and our spiritual connections.

There are some who use country music as a shield for racist and conservative beliefs, but obviously it has a lengthy history of revolution as well. How did it come to be your genre?

Country music was the only music around growing up, although gospel was around as well. We were drawn to country music because our language, songs and dance were taken away from us and we couldn’t use them to express ourselves and tell our stories. There were family members that were on the mission who played music; at the time there was no radio. These were people like Charlie Duncan, Ted Hinch, Albert Dennison — they would be playing and singing country music on the mission.

You sing about displacement, racism and poverty. How does music help you make sense of your culture?

I sing my songs to help tell our stories, to help educate the wider community. These stories are from a history of songlines across the country, creating connection between Aboriginal people Australia-wide, connections to one another and connection to our country.

“Took the Children Away” is a song that has particular resonance with many Aboriginal people in Canada and horrific experiences in residential schools. Is there anything that non-Aboriginal people can do to help in the healing process?

Non-Aboriginal people can be of great help by standing by us to identify witness and understand the effect the Stolen Generation had on Aboriginal people across our whole continent. The effects have manifested into many weighty issues like drunkenness, cultural, social and emotional maladjustment, unemployment and discrimination within the justice system — high percentages of black people incarcerated for lightweight offences — lack of equality and the need for improvement of Aboriginal conditions without loss of identity. There are non-Aboriginal people doing great things with reconciliation and "closing the gap" programs.

Does it frustrate you when people say, "Oh, but that was so long ago. Why dwell on that? Why not just move on?"

It is always very frustrating to hear this. It was a long time ago, however in some ways the past is all we have, we believe our past is part of our hope for a better future. This attitude by non-Aboriginal people has proven to be a means and way to try to discredit the values, and attitudes of traditional cultures. Through European education our beliefs have often been dismissed as superstitious and irrelevant to the realities of so-called modern times. Sadly the effects still live on in our communities and most likely will for some time yet.

The concept of a post-racial society has come up a lot in North American pop culture. What hope do you have for that sort of world?

I find it really hard to visualize a world not divided by race. However, I am hopeful that by developing better understanding about each other this may open the doors to acceptance. I can’t be anything other than what I am. If people of different races, beliefs, religions and culture can understand our ways, then we have a better chance of appreciating and accepting each other for who we are.

Many of these stories are lifting some pretty heavy messages on happy, hooky melodies. What appeals to you about that juxtaposition?

Aboriginal people are happy-go-lucky. Humour is a big part of our culture; it helps us to deal with a lot of problems including anger, hurt and pain. If we didn’t laugh we would be swallowed up by it all.

You have quite a range of guests on this album. What does it mean to you to reach out across the world for collaborators?

To have people like Jon Langford, Sally Timms, the Sadies and Kelly Hogan is great! They help me to tell my stories and sing my songs to reach out to a whole new audience. They are an inspiring and uplifting bunch of people.

Looking back, how has music changed your life?

Music has changed my life so much. It gives me the opportunity to travel to many Aboriginal communities across this land; from the central desert to the northern coastal towns. It has given me the chance to meet Aboriginal people from many different nations and people from different countries. There have been plenty of “down” times in my life that slowed me up and it is music that gives me the healing I need to keep going.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

More to explore:

Listen to Tom Power's Deep Roots stream
Listen to CBC Music's Indigenous stream
Listen to CBC Music's World stream