WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains an image of a person who has died. Archie Roach’s family has given permission for his name and image to be used.
Emma Donovan’s first experience of Uncle Archie Roach’s music was hearing her Uncle Merv singing one of his songs. “I come from a really country background, where a lot of uncles played country music,” she says. “I remember Uncle Merv was strumming, and he used to sing Down City Streets all the time. I already knew that was a different kind of song.”
Donovan is a proud Gumbaynggirr and Yamatji woman from a long line of musicians – and these days, she is the one who channels the words of the legendary Gunditjmara and Bundjalung storyteller. Her musical career began as part of the Stiff Gins in the late ’90s, before joining the Black Arm Band in 2007, where she played alongside Uncle Archie. In 2013, she made a name for herself as Emma Donovan & the Putbacks, releasing debut album Dawn in 2014. This July, she’ll pay tribute to her longtime friend and mentor as part of One Song: The Music of Archie Roach, a celebration of the artist's life at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.
This year, gift them a dinner to remember with a Broadsheet Gift Card.BUY NOW
“When they did the state memorial, the family requested I sing Nopun Kurongk, and it’s such a beautiful song," she says. “It’s powerful, the way he sung about reflection, about looking back at country, and how he fit in to all that. Simply going to a river, that’s how he fed himself: energy, lyric, connection. I’m going to try and do that song justice.”
Backed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, One Song will feature other prominent First Nations artists who have been inspired by Uncle Archie in some way, including Dan Sultan, Jess Hitchcock and Kee’ahn. Donovan believes the act of sharing stories and song provides a genuine opportunity for healing and for reconciliation to begin, as well as being in keeping with Uncle Archie’s lifelong practice of community collaboration.
“When I joined Uncle Archie as part of Black Arm Band, that was a collaboration of Aboriginal songs and stories backed by other Western instruments. I think that’s what makes up the beautiful story of this country,” says Donovan. “It’s something that musos are offering themselves to: making new connections, and taking ownership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and stories, and sharing it together. There’s an organic feeling there, a natural connection, it’s not forced, that’s bringing people together. It’s what everybody loves.”
In preparing to perform a cover, Donovan steeps herself in the songwriter’s lyrics, channelling the original intention of the song. “I think a lot about lore, for Aboriginal songmen and songwomen, for representation and how I fit myself into our community,” she says. “This is what I’ve been given; somehow this is my contribution to mob, to family and community. It’s not anything I do there on the day that I sing: it’s there with me in everyday life.”
While the occasion is bittersweet for everyone who loved and admired the man, Donovan views the performance as a continuation of the traditions shared with her not just by Uncle Archie, but also other Blak musicians such as Uncle Bart Willoughby and George Burarrwanga.
“I’ve been spoilt – I always use the word cradled,” she says. “The mob that are involved in this, it’s such a communal thing, and it goes back to kinship. Having someone like Uncle Arch has made that easy for me as an Aboriginal woman. All them old fellows who were making us feel strong, and making beautiful space for us younger mob to tell stories. I think this gig will be a continuation of that. Uncle’s songs, his presence, they’re still guiding us.”
One Song: The Music of Archie Roach will take place at 7.30pm on Wednesday July 5 and Thursday July 6, 2023. See more information and book tickets.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with MSO.