As the first Aboriginal woman to make a solo recording, Ruby Hunter was a role model for many Australians. A member of the infamous "stolen generations", she was once labelled a "juvenile delinquent", spent time in various institutions and survived homelessness before finding the strength and confidence to follow a career in music.
In Australia, she was nominated for two ARIA awards and won three Deadlys (indigenous music awards). In the twilight of her career, she became familiar to audiences in the UK as part of The Black Arm Band. This ongoing project was initiated in 2006 as "a symbol of resilience and hope in the spirit and action of reconciliation", and Hunter is credited with being the inspiration behind it. When I interviewed her for an article previewing their sold-out show at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in June 2008, she recalled the day she was removed from the family home at the age of eight.
"They told my Grandmum that they were taking us to the circus that day," she said. "My eldest brother had previously been taken ... He just went into town to get the supplies with one of the uncles and never returned. They said they were taking us to the circus. We didn't go to a circus, we were transferred to a place where they had bars on the windows."
Hunter has also said that the foster parents she was later placed with were "very nurturing", but the damage done was soon apparent. At 15, after being "freed" from an institution for "troubled girls", with 20 dollars to her name, she ended up as a street kid living on her wits, but protected by her "aunties" – older homeless women who looked out for her. A year later, she met her life partner Archie Roach at a Salvation Army centre in Adelaide, a day he later recalled in the song "Old So & So". He was also homeless at the time, having been taken from his family as a three-year-old.
Hunter first sang in public in 1988 during a festival at Sydney's Bondi Pavilion in Sydney, where she performed "Proud, Proud Woman," the first song she had written. In 1990, when Roach was looking for an extra song to finish his debut solo album Charcoal Lane, she gave him the autobiographical "Down City Streets", which recalled her time as a homeless alcoholic: "Crawled out of bushes early morn / Used newspapers to keep me warm / Then I'd have to score a drink / To start me up, help me to think."
The album won Roach ARIA awards for Best New Talent and Best Indigenous Album. All this prompted friends and relatives to ask Hunter if she had any more songs up her sleeve, and four years later, she made her own debut with Thoughts Within.
Of mixed Ngarrindjeri, Pitjantjarra and Kookatha descent, Hunter had retained the language she had learnt as a child (unlike Roach), but chose to sing in English to reach a wider audience. Her songs were her own life stories, which she sang in a peculiar deep, husky voice. Rather than use indigenous instruments and styles, her music drew on country, gospel, blues and folk.
In 2000, she released her second album Feeling Good, which, like her first, received an ARIA nomination. The following year, Hunter made her acting debut in the movie One Night The Moon, by the Aboriginal director Rachel Perkins (of the (Arrernte people). The story was about a white girl who got lost in the outback and died because her father refused to allow an Aboriginal tracker on to his property; Hunter played the tracker's wife.
In 2004, Hunter collaborated with the pianist and arranger Paul Grabowsky, The Australian Art Orchestra and Roach, on the acclaimed experimental stage show Ruby's Story, which fused jazz improvisation, spoken word and song to chart the journey of her life. This was captured on the album Ruby (2006), which included her only recording of "Down City Streets".
That year, she also became part of The Black Arm Band, who have since performed around Australia and abroad. Roach and Hunter were among the 28-piece group that presented the stunning multi-media show Murundak ["Alive"] in London two years later. The show was introduced by the British actor Pete Postlethwaite, who had worked with Roach on the documentary Liyarn Ngarn (2007). Hunter and Roach performed "Down City Streets", and Roach's own equally frank "Took The Children Away".
Hunter performed that song (singing backing vocals with Roach) at Federation Square in Canberra in February 2008 when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave his public apology to the "Stolen Generations", for whom the song had become an anthem.
In July 2009, The Black Arm Band appeared at WOMAD in Wiltshire. Hunter's most recent recording was a new version of her song "Ngarrindjeri Woman" for The Black Arm Band's second album Hidden Republic. She made her last public appearance – again with Roach – a few days before her death at the St Kilda festival in Melbourne.
Vale Ruby Hunter, singer and songwriter: born South Australia 31 October 1955; married Archie Roach (five children); died Western District, Victoria 17 February 2010.