Away from the studio or the stage, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is a man of few words. The North Australian native, blind from birth, grew up as a member of the Gumatj clan on Elcho Island, off the coast of tropical North East Arnhem Land. In his culture, the elders are the spokespersons for the clan. But the self-effacing Gurrumul, as he likes to be known, doesn’t have to say anything at all; the songs on his self-titled debut speak volumes. His compositions are simple in approach yet eloquent in effect, sparingly arranged with overdubbed vocal harmonies, acoustic guitar and double bass. There’s warmth and immediate familiarity in his gentle, soothing voice.
The emotional impact of his work is instantaneous too; he reaches in to grab your heart and touch your soul; whether he’s evoking the symbols of the natural world central to the Gumatj clan’s art and culture on “Wiyathul” or outlining the compelling circumstances of his own life and career on “Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)”. As the Sydney Morning Herald declared when Gurrumul was first released in Australia, “There is something so timeless and so direct, it is impossible to remain unmoved. It is as though Yunupingu has reached into a wellspring so deep it transcends cultural barriers…This is not just a very good record, it is one of the greatest records ever made by a local indigenous musician.”
They went further, calling Gurrumul “the greatest voice this continent has ever recorded.” Audiences down under responded passionately, turning Gurrumul into a double platinum-selling success. Nominated for four Aria Awards, including Album of the Year, at the Australian equivalent of the Grammys, Gurrumul won Best Independent Release as well as Best World Album. Now, says his producer, fellow musician and translator Michael Hohnen, Gurrumul is regarded “as a national treasure by a big part of the population.” The rest of the world has begun to follow suit.
In the United Kingdom, where the album was released last year, Gurrumul claimed the top of the world music charts. Three singles were added to the BBC Radio 2 playlist, “Bapa,” a poignant lament for his late father, “Wiyathul” and “Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)”; only six non-English language tracks had previously been featured in the playlist in the last ten years. Gurrumul was also named one of the top ten world-music releases of 2009 by the BBC.
Mainland Europe was equally enthralled. Gurrumul’s debut achieved best-selling world music status in Germany and Switzerland; he performed a gorgeous live acoustic duet of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” with Sting on French television, translating the lyrics into Gumatj and sweetly stealing the show. Elton John asked Gurrumul to open the veteran artist’s dates at the Sydney Opera House.
Though new as a solo artist, Gurrumul is no stranger to the world stage. As a teenager, he was, for a time, a member of Yothu Yindi, the groundbreaking Aboriginal ensemble fronted by Gurrumul’s uncle, the singer-songwriter-activist Mandawuy Yunupingu. The large ensemble was best known for its 1992 album Tribal Voice, to which Gurrumul contributed guitar, keyboards, percussion and vocals. The anthemic “Treaty,” a bilingual call for reconciliation between Aboriginal and white Australians, became an international sensation in a driving, dance-remix version. When Gurrumul tired of traveling with the band, he returned to Elcho Island, where he helped to form another well-regarded Aboriginal combo, the reggae-influenced Saltwater Band.
Songs have always been an essential means of communication for Gurrumul. As a young boy, the left-handed aspiring musician wanted to learn to play guitar, but all he could find on the island were instruments for right-handed players. No matter: he just turned a right-handed instrument upside down, switched around the strings, and taught himself to play, and he’s performed like that ever since. A multi-instrumentalist now, he draws from a rich legacy of indigenous material, ancient songs and stories passed down from generation to generation. He was no stranger to popular music either, gravitating to the harmony-rich tunes of the Eagles and especially to the spare but evocative, guitar-oriented rock of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits. It’s this combination of the contemporary and the traditional, tribal myths and religious faith, stories of his life on Elcho Island and memories of his world travels, that informs his work now. But, Hohnen cautions, “There’s not just one thing that you can put your finger on.” The ingredient list of Gurrumul’s songs remains slightly mysterious, like the stuff of dreams, featuring a bit of nostalgia and a lot of hope.
Michael Hohnen first encountered Gurrumul when he came to Elcho Island in the mid-90’s to teach a music workshop to young would-be recording artists. Hohnen himself is a classical bassist, a composer and record producer, but he also did time in the Australian pop band The Killjoys. As he recalls, “They brought Gurrumul in to meet me on the second day I was there. When you meet him, he seems to have this special presence about him. He’s really cautious, really reserved. He came and sat in and listened to me work. Then he was given a guitar and sat in with the band and you could see straight away that he lifts the quality of everything around him. At the end of two or three hours, I talked to him and told him how beautiful his playing was.”
There was an instant rapport between Gurrumul and Hohnen; the native musician soon embraced Hohnen as an adopted brother, a designation and an honor that allowed Hohnen to integrate himself over the ensuing years into the island’s social system. Gurrumul also gave him a song: “He’d recorded this four-track demo. I still remember the sound of that song -- he’d overdubbed, multi-tracked, did some more guitar, some vocals -- it was so beautiful.” That proved to be merely a hint of things to come. “He’s got melodies just seeping out of him. Every time I do a session with him, he’ll come up with something that is so simple, but with so much character, I could throw 20 songs in front of him, he’ll noodle and come up with these beautiful little melodic phrases every time.”
After releasing two Saltwater Band albums on the Skinnyfish Music label that Hohnen co-founded and touring behind them, Gurrumul was, says Hohnen, “on a bit of a precipice, of not giving up music, but not being so involved anymore. Saltwater had done two popular albums in Northern Australia; they had done their thing, there wasn’t a challenge in that anymore. So when I suggested a solo album, he said yes and got on a plane to Melbourne. I wanted to stay very true to what he does. When he sits at home and is playing guitar and singing, this is what he sounds like. I wanted to hear that sound, to bring out that feeling. I have this big belief that when you put a record on, it’s this beautiful hour. It’s an experience; it’s not just a collection of single songs. You won’t put Gurrumul’s record on and just say I love the guitar or I love the bass playing; you’ll say, I love this sound.”
Gurrumul is one beautiful hour indeed. – Michael Hill