Marlene Cummins is Australia’s foremost Indigenous female blues writer and performer. Marlene knows the blues from both an Aboriginal and more specifically, an Aboriginal woman’s perspective in this country and her story is one of vulnerability, strength and survival.
Born in the southwest town of Cunnamulla, her traditional homelands are Laura up Cape York way on her Father’ side (Guguyelandji), and Keppel Island (Woppaburra) on her Mother’s side. Marlene comes from a large family of ten and grew up around very poor, oppressive conditions. Her father worked for rich landowners in Queensland but the family lived in tin shacks and tents on a fringe camp called Boomerang Alley in the town of Winton, enduring oppressive conditions as Aboriginal people were not citizens until 1968. Marlene would sometimes wander off into the bush unbeknown to her family and find the largest dead log for her “stage” and perform on her own.
Growing up amidst the Aboriginal Protection Act of the 1950s, Marlene was raised with a very political ‘grassroots’ upbringing, as her Father Darcy Cummins was a pioneer in fighting racial injustice. OPAL (One People Australia League) was an early Aboriginal organization that Darcy was involved with. He named his band after it, The Opals, and was instrumental in organizing the Opal Dances, a regular place for the Aboriginal community to congregate and be entertained. Just like her father, Marlene likes to use music as a medium to make the world a better place to live in.
Marlene’s strongest musical influence comes from her father who was also an extremely talented musician with his own band called ‘The Ravens’. He played many instruments including guitar, steel guitar (pedal & lap) and trumpet in the Winton Town Band. Darcy and other Aboriginal musicians like Ducko Fraser and Richard Martin would find solace in jamming in those oppressive times and Marlene grew up on this diet of grass roots music and politics.
“You think of Buddy Guy as a real blues Most blues artists today but he hasn’t lived that life of apartheid and segregation that Marlene has”, says her album producer, Richard Field. “The life Marlene has lived is closer to the life that produced those original blues singers such as Muddy Waters, compared to any contemporary American blues artist”.
Richard Fields is referring to the iconic American blues artists who came off sharecropping into the ghettos. Marlene came off a mission and into the slums of Sydney where she endured hardship, segregation and discrimination.
As a young Aboriginal girl who inadvertently had her home broken up due to institutionalised racism from school right up to the justice system which left her brothers and sisters in a home, her home fragmented, Marlene ended up on the streets homeless and aimless.
Marlene knows the Blues from an Aboriginal perspective in this country.
As a young woman, she became a member of the first and only Australian Black Panther Party. As an Aboriginal woman, Marlene continued to endure hardship, discrimination and abuse, “The struggle was priority and Aboriginal women supported their men in the struggle,” says Marlene. Marlene has maintained an outspoken stance on political issues committed against Aboriginal people.
In the mid-90s, Marlene refined her skills as a blues saxophonist and songwriter at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Marlene continues to refine her craft as a saxophonist by busking a few times a week, as she finds this helps her to maintain and develop her feel as a musician.