WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following may contain images, story and voices of deceased, by and about persons. Discretion advised.
27 July 2021 // Marlene Cummins
Marlene Cummins (1954 - ) was born in Cunnamulla. She is a jazz blues singer, saxophonist, songwriter, artist, activist, broadcaster, dancer, cultural educator and actor. Her traditional people on her Father’s side are are Guguyelandji from Cape York. Her mother was a Woppaburra woman from Great Keppel Island.
Marlene grew up in the outback along with her siblings. Settling for a time in Winton, Queensland she spent her formative years there before moving to Meanjin (Brisbane). Due to the impacts of racism and through growing up under the cloud of the Aboriginal Protection Act of the 1950s and 60s, Marlene had a ‘grassroots’ upbringing in a very politically aware family. Coming from a family fragmented and inextricably impacted by this oppressive regime, as a teenager she divorced herself from mainstream society.
She found herself at the centre of the Aboriginal rights movement in the 1970s. In 1971, she became the first recruit of the Australian Black Panther Party. The party was inspired by the American Black Panther Party. They spent their time campaigning for medical, educational and legal services. They also monitored police conduct on the "pig patrol". While primarily, based on the 'Ten Point Program' it was adjusted to reflect Australia with Land Rights replacing the constitutional right to bear arms. In 1972, at the age of 18, Marlene was present at the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra on the grounds of Parliament House.
Having grown up around her talented musician father Darcy Cummins, Marlene always loved the saxophone. At the tender age of 14 Marlene attended a Rock N Roll concert at the Milton Tennis Courts. She was fortunate to meet saxophonist Rudy Popilli (Bill Hailey and the Comets) and mentioned she would love to play. She was also Inspired by Motown legend Junior Walker and the All Stars, she had always wanted to play saxophone. After watching Ngarrindjeri Tenor Saxophonist Veronica Rankin's performance with No Fixed Address in 'Wrong Side of the Road' and taking a few lessons, her decision was compounded.
She relocated to Tarndanya (Adelaide) to attend the Centre of Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) in 1981/82.
On completing her course, she returned to Townsville. As a young single mother on a pension, she sought advice from Eddie Koiki Mabo on how to get a grant or loan to buy an instrument. This would change her life forever when he responded by placing a call to the local music store and going guarantor on her first saxophone.
Marlene later refined her skills as a blues saxophonist and songwriter at the Berklee College of Music Boston in the mid-90s.
Over the past 20 years Marlene has continued to perform with her band at festivals, events and clubs throughout Australia. Considered one of Australia’s foremost Indigenous female blues writers and performers, Marlene knows the blues from an Aboriginal woman’s perspective. Her story is one of vulnerability, strength and survival.
Marlene's first song 'Pension Day Blues' appeared on a compilation produced by Koori Radio. She co-wrote her next release "Whichway Up" with writer & performer Isaiah B Brunt. An EP, it was recorded and produced by Tony Buchen and released in 2008. "Whichway Up" made the top 10 Australian Blues Radio Charts and was picked up by Qantas where it aired on high rotation.
Marlene's song Pemulwuy was written as a way of giving back to the Redfern community who see him as a hero. After dancing for Prince William, she gave him a copy of the song and explained the significance of the story to him, along with a petition to bring Pemulwuy's head back to his people.
In 2012 she attended an international gathering of Black Panthers in New York hosted by Kathleen Neal Cleaver and spoke of her experiences. This fed into her biographical documentary film Black Panther Woman which she co-wrote with Rachel Perkins and premiered at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival. To coincide with this, Marlene released her first full length album 'Koori Woman Blues'.
In 2017, Marlene performed on saxophone with Charles Neville (Neville Bros) at Snug Harbour New Orleans and cites this as a career highlight.
An actor, Cummins was involved in the Black Theatre of Redfern and has appeared in Redfern Now, Supernova and The Matrix Reloaded. She also performed in a number of landmark productions including 'I am Eora' and in the role of Beenie in Nardi Simpson’s play ‘Black Drop Effect’ premiering at the Sydney Festival in January 2020.
A regular broadcaster on Koori Radio with her renowned blues show, ‘Marloo’s Blues’, Marlene won Broadcaster of the Year at the 2009 Deadly Awards and Gadigal Information Broadcaster of the Year 2015. Running for over 30 years it is marked by the familiar catch cry 'If you loves the Blues as much I dos you'll choose Marloo's Blues'. In recent years Marlene has represented Koori Radio at the Byron Bay BluesFest as a roving reporter interviewing major blues artists from around the globe.
An accomplished painter she was shortlisted for the New South Wales Parliament Art Prize. Marlene is currently a Board Member of Koori Radio and is a past Board Member of the Australia Council for the Arts. She has lived in Redfern for decades and is a regular fixture busking the streets of Newtown, an inner city suburb of Warang (Sydney) NSW.
She is presently working on her second documentary, 'Common Ground Blues' acknowledging the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musicians to Jazz and Blues and a musical theatre
production 'Boomerang Alley'.