from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Under These Streets’ by Emma Donovan & The Putbacks

Emma Donovan & The Putbacks. Under These Streets. Melbourne: Heavy Machinery Records, 2021.

Timmah Ball

‘We’re in one of the most exciting times for Black writing I think that we’ve ever seen.’
Evelyn Araluen, qtd. on Art Works

In a recent article for ABC Arts, Gunai poet Kirli Saunders proclaimed ‘of course Black women are gonna change the world. Of course they’re changing the world through poems.’ Saunders’ sentiments capture the tone of Emma Donovan’s latest album with The Putbacks, Under These Streets. The Gumbayngirr, Dhungutti and Yamatji singer-songwriter’s lyrics are imbued with strength and power. The eight-track album demonstrates that Black matriarchs are changing the world through storytelling and survivance. Working with funk and soul band The Putbacks since 2014, in Under These Streets Donovan furthers the group’s musical trajectory where eclectic beats bounce against the gritty melodies of her deep vocal range.

‘Poetic’ is an apt way to describe this album, which was written and produced during the pandemic as part of the City of Melbourne’s Flash Forward program. But with the music industry’s live arm paused, the album entered a changing cultural landscape where listening was akin to reading, and the visceral engagement of live performance was replaced by the solitude of home. While this shift was sudden, it also offered deeper connection to music and closer readings of lyrics. Donovan relished the opportunity to make music as a critical mode of storytelling even if disconnected from audiences: ‘I’m at home a lot with two little girls and working around my family so any time I have I just use it and keep myself sane by writing as much as I can’, she explained, as we chatted over the phone in preparation for this review.

Donovan’s focused attention to writing and song making alongside a multitude of other responsibilities is illuminated through the album. In songs like ‘No Woman Left Behind’, care and protection of matriarchies, both her own and the wider Aboriginal community, is paramount. She writes:

There’s a sisterhood of mothers, genderhood of girls 
hey no woman gonna get left behind
there is magic in the healing that you naturally give
and a medicine in the love that’s been passed for us to live

Donovan’s lyrics echo other Aboriginal women writing today whose poetics fortify cultural ties, which are then passed on to younger generations. As poet Evelyn Araluen attests, Black writing is flourishing and is an antidote to the challenges we face. Much like other collections that arrived during the pandemic, such as Araluen’s Dropbear which disrupted the legacy of colonisation, and Elfie Shiosaki’s Homecoming, which spans four generations of Noongar women who solidified familial bonds against the colonial landscape, Donovan equally embodies sovereignty and survival through her words.

For Donovan, creating an album begins a lot like writing poetry. She describes the process of bundling up ideas and grooves: ‘It is like poetry I think when I look at it, it’s a whole bunch of things I want to say’. Words that she later shares and develops with the band. Across the album multiple tracks mirror the precision of poetry, where considered choices have enormous impact. This is highlighted in standout songs like ‘No Woman Left Behind’. Conceived before the pandemic, it pays homage to the work of Bunuba Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner June Oscar AO. In 2019, Oscar ran numerous community gatherings for Aboriginal women from remote and regional areas. Donovan describes how the song emerged during her participation at these gatherings:

I was dreaming up the lyrics then. There was a common thread every time we would meet about not leaving anyone behind in the room and the solidarity and sisterhood we have. I wanted to share that and I wanted to look at all the women in my community that have influenced me, not just my family but every woman.

This resolve continues through songs like ‘Call Out’. Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations are reaffirmed as sovereign custodians in a contemporary landscape which obscures their presence. Donovan writes:

We claim these stories
We share in all the old ways
We know this Black history
Under these streets

The album becomes a tapestry of emotions which move from the political to the personal, finishing with ‘Love Without Limit’, a haunting ballad which reflects the risks we take to love. In complex times, Under These Streets is a comforting reminder of our humanity, and of the possibility to love, care and fight for those left behind. Blak writing is reshaping the sociocultural climate in exciting and urgent times. Emma Donovan and The Putbacks’ new album perfectly sits within this body of work expressing important narratives with beguiling impact.

Works Cited

‘Museum of Contemporary Art & ABC Classic 100’. Art Works, ABC (2021). Sourced at: https://iview.abc.net.au/video/AC2012H004S00.

Story, Hannah. ‘First Nations Women and Non-binary Writers are Making Waves in Australian Poetry’, ABC Arts, 27 May (2021). Sourced at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-27/first-nations-poetry-flourishing-evelyn-araluen/100160654.

Timmah Ball is a nonfiction writer, researcher and creative practitioner of Ballardong Noongar heritage. In 2018, she co-created Wild Tongue Zine for Next Wave Festival with Azja Kulpinska, which interrogated labour inequality in the arts industry. Her writing has appeared in a range of anthologies and literary journals, including MeanjinRight Now and Etchings Indigenous. Timmah was awarded Westerly’s Patricia Hackett Prize in 2016 for her powerful essay ‘In Australia’, published in Westerly 61.2.

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