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IT’S HARD to imagine David Leha ever serving time in prison. On the phone he’s a quiet man, thoughtful to the point of solemnity.
“Going to prison was perhaps inevitable, considering the things I was doing,” Leha says. “I was a behaviourally dysfunctional person. To get wasted was normal. To do illegal things was commonplace in the circles I’d been a part of. It was inevitable.”
Leha was just 19-years-old when he began an 18-month stint in Long Bay, Goulburn and Parramatta Jails — nine of which would be spent in solitary confinement. He’d been a promising rugby league player, already signed to the South Sydney Rabbitohs’ junior squad. “I got word I was to go up to first grade the next week, and that was the week I went to prison … I drank more and took more drugs than your typical player. I was probably lucky I didn’t make more money to do even more.”
Not that prison reformed Leha. The young man loved life behind bars — a thought that now frightens him. Tall and strong, he commanded respect among his inmates. And by the time he was released, still aged just 21, he had a flourishing heroin habit. Now 38, Leha didn’t kick the opiates until last year. “This is the longest time in my life that I’ve been off drugs,” he says.
Leha credits a move from Sydney to the New South Wales Central Coast as helping him give up heroin. But there have been other changes for the half-Kamilaroi, half-Tongan man. He’s talking from a studio at the University of Newcastle, where Leha is currently studying music. And this on the eve of the release of his debut album, Cause & Affect.
Recorded under his performing name, Radical Son (which refers to an “awareness of being different”), he has turned in a remarkably accomplished collection of music. Nestled in the familiar sounds of post-millennial dub and reggae, Leha’s refined songwriting and distinctive voice — the sustained sweetness of a Polynesian tenor tempered by rough-hewn timbre — enliven Cause & Affect, casting it very much as a soul record.
Ultimately, it’s the result of a fortuitous meeting almost 14 years ago. Steve Balbi, bassist with popular Sydney band, Noiseworks, was running a songwriting program in Redfern. “He was the man who really discovered me, if you can call it that,” Leha says. “A sister of my ex was involved in the program and I’d taken her to be recorded, and that’s where I met him.”
Leha had started dabbling in writing and at Balbi’s insistence eventually performed himself, delivering a spoken-word piece named ‘Black Baptism’. “It was quite an aggressive delivery and I guess Steve kind of dug that,” he says. It was enough to light a fire under their relationship, and soon enough Balbi was helping Leha develop his impressive singing voice.
Almost a decade and a half later and Leha is set to release Cause & Affect via Wantok Musik. But this is hardly an endgame. Leha claims to have still not immersed himself completely in music, and Cause & Affect isn’t defined by confident answers or proclamations of hope. Rather, like all good soul music, it rails against the injustices of the world with a passionate but weary spirit.
In conversation you don’t have to dig very far to find the remnants of Leha’s own rage. He talks with bitter disappointment about the system that failed him and in his mind continues to fail so many others. But, curiously, that bitterness never turns to spite. Instead, it backhandedly created a defiant motivation — Leha is a believer in doing things yourself and as a community, and not relying on the government. “We like to believe we can vote and change things but it’s like Midnight Oil’s [1983 song] ‘Short Memory’,” he says. “It’s one thing after the other, one politician after the other. It’s just a cycle and people have this belief that they can make a difference, when I don’t think they can.”
It’s not just talk, either. Leha is keen on being a positive role model for troubled youth, playing with Archie Roach in July at the Parkville Youth Justice Precinct in Victoria. As a boy, he idolised his father, a humble Sydney cab driver who had little time to spare for his kids, and reckons young men look up to any kind of male figure in their lives. Now, as an adult, he struggles to be a role model for his own children. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “It’s not a one-man job or the parents’ job; it’s a community job.”
And Leha himself? Does he still feel any guilt for the suffering he sings about having caused when he was younger? “It’s more pissed off,” he says. “Pissed off that the same mistakes my grandfather made, my father made and I made, and I see our kids make. I’m sick of these cycles, man. I’d like to see a change.”
by Matt Shea
‘Cause & Affect’ is out October 3