One of Australia’s most gifted female singers, Aboriginal musician Emma Donovan will make her Maui debut on Saturday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center fronting the acclaimed Melbourne band The Putbacks.
A Gumbaynggirr woman from the north coast of New South Wales, whose lineage includes Naaguja and Yamatji people from Western Australia and the Danggali of South Australia, Donovan’s collaborations with The Putbacks has resulted in an exhilarating fusion of classic soul and funk embellished with contemporary arrangements.
“I hope to share a little bit more about my family, my lineage,” Donovan said about her Maui show. “My family stories is always what my messages are about, connecting to my family’s country and being proud about that. You can expect a lot of soul and funk. The collaboration between The Putbacks and I is pretty special. We’ve been playing music for such a long time. Making music with this band is my heart and soul.”
Rolling Stone praised, “(Donovan) can front a well-oiled soul band in her sleep,” while a Pop Matters review called the teaming, “a tour de force of funk and soul hailing from the land down under. Together these musicians create a unique blend of styles.”
Among the highlights on their latest album, “Under These Streets,” are powerful songs such as “No Woman Left Behind” about Aboriginal female solidarity, an affirmation of sovereign custodians on “Call Out” and the moving ballad “Home.”
The inspiration for “No Woman Left Behind” came from the work of Bunuba Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner June Oscar AO.
“There’s a really beautiful politician from the Kimberley,” Donovan explained. “She’s the commissioner for justice in Australia, and she was holding these gatherings in communal spaces for Aboriginal women all over Australia. It was about all the different roles we play as a woman, and I came up with that lyric that we will never get left behind. In other words, we got each other’s back.”
With “Call Out,” she addresses the traditional custodians of Melbourne, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations.
“I’m really privileged living in Wurundjeri country in Australia,” she said. “The names of the places where we work and live are being recognized now as Indigenous lands and proudly recognized. People are taking more ownership, even if they’re not Indigenous. When I wrote the lyrics I had that proudness in mind, how I feel when people acknowledge country. I’ve been inspired a lot by people that have paved the way for Indigenous voice in Australia. We’re always talking about Aboriginal land still being acknowledged.”
There are striking parallels between the colonial histories of the Aboriginal people of Australia and Native Hawaiians, with both suffering language and cultural suppression, loss of land and the impact of immigrant labor for sugar plantations.
“There’s still that fight for Native title claims that are over 20 to 30 years long in my communities, and the community fighting major oil companies and fracking companies to protect Aboriginal lands,” she said. “Our language was taken. Three generations ago, my grandmother couldn’t pass it down to my mom fluently. I come from a community in Australia where we’re being empowered again. With my music and my songwriting, I can contribute to my community by writing songs in language. There are some songs I’ve written in language, and I feel like there’s more younger than me, that are coming in the next generation that are probably a lot stronger because of our language centers and what our elders have done now to preserve it.”
The gospel-tinged “Home” on “Under These Streets,” feels like it taps deep into the earth. Donovan grew up listening to gospel music and country.
“The government removed so many Aboriginal families from their homelands to places like reserves and missions,” she said. “My grandfather and my grandmother were both at different missions, but they learned a lot of gospel music and learned a lot of church style songs. So I am very familiar with that gospel sound that my grandfather taught us.”
Throughout her career, Donovan has toured and recorded with many of the mainstays of Indigenous music from Archie Roach to Dan Sultan, and she was a member of the Black Arm Band project that promotes Aboriginal music.
Donovan has recently begun playing ukulele and last year released the children’s album “Follow the Sun,” with songs sung in English, Gumbaynggirr and Noongar languages.
“It’s a recent little thing that I do,” she said about the ukulele. “It’s not really played around areas where I’m from, but probably a little bit further on the other side of W.A. (Western Australia) there’s a few Aboriginal bands like the Pigram Brothers that are known for ukulele. I’ve never been a good guitarist. The uke fits me a lot more. I love playing it. I’ve written some kids’ songs, and it just fitted that style.”
Emma Donovan & The Putbacks perform in the MACC’s Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Saturday Tickets are $35, $50 and $65 plus applicable fees, available at MauiArts.org.