Emily Nicol: A voice like no other – A reflection on the life of Gurrumul

In Art/Literature, BlogX, Reviews by Luke Pearson

Author: Emily Nicol

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EMILY NICOL LIVES IN SYDNEY AND HAS BIRRI GUBBA (NORTH QUEENSLAND) AND MURRAY ISLAND (TORRES STRAIT) HERITAGE. SHE IS CURRENTLY THE PRODUCER/PRESENTER OF MAKING TRACKS ON KOORI RADIO, AND A DIGITAL PRODUCER FOR NITV.

A voice like no other – A reflection on the legacy of Gurrumul

Although his family feared that it would be his great burden, tying him to a destiny of dependence, being born blind did not define the life of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.

Born in the community of Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island in 1971, Gurrumul was the first of four sons born to Ganyinurra (Daisy) a Galpu woman and Nyambi (Terry) Yunupingu, a Gumatj man of the Yolngu nation. When it was discovered around the age of 12 months, that Yunupingu was visually impaired, his father offered that he would instead become like his Grandfathers totem and ‘see with his heart’. The kind of vision that would transcend such a form of disability. Reflecting on his life journey, it may be that this vision was fulfilled. Yunupingu never learnt braille, nor used a walking aid.

Yolngu are connected by gurruṯu, a complex kinship system which then governs the basic aspects of life, such as your place in ceremonies, responsibilities that are passed down from parent to child and marriage and avoidance rules. Life inYolngu culture is rich with song, dance, story and ceremony demonstrating beliefs and history, and the natural and spiritual worlds.

It was in taking part in these traditions that Gurrumul was first introduced to expression through music, and developed his ear. As a toddler, his mother and aunties would arrange empty tin cans on the beach for him to hit with sticks and at the age of four he started to play a toy piano. The church was another place where music, story and worship intersected and it was there that he spent hours and hours playing and experimenting on the guitar that he was given at the age of six, often becoming so engrossed in it that he forgot to eat. Being left-handed, he learnt to play the right hand guitar upside down, a playing style he kept throughout his career.

By the time he was a teenager, Gurrumul had become a part of the popular group Yothu Yindi , alongside family members including his uncle, Mandawuy Yunupingu – who had a world-wide hit with ‘Treaty’ during the 1990’s. His next project, The Saltwater Band which he formed in 1999, again alongside family members, including his brother Andrew Yunupingu and cousin Jonathon Yunupingu. Along with Manual Dhurrkay, he was lead singer and lead guitarist. It was within this band that Gurrumul began to re-interpret and present traditional songs of the Gumatj clan in classical ballad format, a style that would be present right throughout his musical career, and up to his final album ‘Djaramirri’.

Saltwater Band had several successful releases through Skinnyfish Records, an independent record label set up by musician and producer, Michael Hohnen, along with his friend Mark Grose. Hohnen helped to develop the bands sound and in 2007, singled out Gurrumul, hearing something unique and encouraged the shy musician to develop his sound as a solo artist, Hohnen felt that he had a presence and something special to offer.

It was the beginning of a partnership that would become more like a brotherly bond. The pair slowly built a working relationship and trust over many years, eventually coming to call each other Wäwa, the Gumatj word for brother.  

Hohnen helped to shape the solo sound and direction of Yunupingu’s lyrics and raw vocal delivery, and in 2008 they released his first solo offering, Gurrumul, with original songs and the addition of Hohnen on bass. The release was a hit both in Australia and overseas, selling half a million copies.

From that point in time, with increasing media attention and touring, Hohnen became not only a musical collaborator, but a spokesperson for the acutely shy singer, often sitting side by side at interviews, Hohnen would speak and Yunupingu would give an occasional smile and a nod.

Gurrumul was not the kind of artist to desperately seek your attention, trying to stand out amongst the masses with gimmicks or marketing. His voice came from a pure place that dropped you right in to the present moment, revealing a part of yourself that perhaps you didn’t know existed. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of first time listeners to be spontaneously moved to tears, or to see footage from his concerts with audience members in quiet rapture, eyes closed.

In a noisy, media saturated world, that itself is a generous gift.

With his first release, Gurrumul caught the attention of many of the brightest stars in the music and arts world, alongside critics, with many singing his praises at first listen.

Sting proclaimed that he had “the voice of a higher being” ; Former Sydney Morning Herald music writer Bruce Elder wrote in 2008 that Yunupingu had “the greatest voice this continent has ever recorded” and Rolling Stone acclaimed that Gurrumul was “Australia’s Most Important Voice”.

His voice seemed to bridge a gap between Balanda(white) and Yolngu worlds. As was spoken about in his community, “He was a bearer of their sentiment, and an enormous, subtle but powerful public voice for their strength and culture.” Hohnen told a journalist at the time of Gurrumul’s passing.

Singing predominantly in his Galpu, Gumatj or Djambarrpuynu language, his was a voice that transcended words, and one that the country, and the world was in awe of.

The album picked up five ARIA nominations and won 2, Best Independent Release and Best World Album, an acclaim that would continue with the rest of his releases.

In the following years, more success followed with the release of Rrakala in 2011, The Gospel Album in 2015 and this week his posthumous album Djarramirri (Child of the Rainbow) made history, debuting at #1 on the charts, the first for an album sung completely in language.

Gurrumul performed for former US President, Barack Obama, The Queen at her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and graced the stage with musicians such as Sting, and closer to home Paul Kelly, Jessica Mauboy and Briggs, all of whom declared a respect and admiration for the singer.

Despite who he was with or performing for, he remained unfazed and uniquely himself. In one of the charming sequences in the documentary, Gurrumul which takes us behind the scenes of his career, we see a performance with Sting on French TV show Taratatata. Yunupingu is still unsure of the song or even who Sting is, the day of filming. Once they hit the stage together for the rehearsal, an hour before show time, nerves are high as the production crew realise that Gurrumul is unsure of his part. As they run through the song, Gurrumul startes to get a sense of Sting’s reputation and finds the harmonies and language within ‘Every Breathe You Take’. He goes on to pull off the live performance almost effortlessly. Post performance, Sting comes to his dressing room to shake hands and express gratitude for the shared moment, Yunupingu simply smiles. It was a gift of being able to interpret and deliver such artistry, even in the last minute that Hohnen remarked was a source of stress at times but ultimately a strength of Yunupingu’s that they came to admire and trust in.

The documentary, filmed over a decade by film-maker Paul Williams, allows us to see a side of the very private singer that was often only available to those who were closest to him. Speaking to the ABC, Williams remarked that it was a crucial project that allowed him to reveal something rare. “The depth and breadth of Gurrumul’s culture needs to be revealed to our audience incrementally, with increasing sophistication as their sensitivities to its nuances develop,” he said.

“I want to leave them with the sense of awe that I felt when I came to understand just how deep the flowing waters of their culture ran. Ultimately the film is about two very different worlds coming together to produce something amazing.”

There is an endearing insight into his cheekiness, a playful side, and self-deprecating humour. We are given access to rare footage of his time spent at home with family, amongst his community, and at the funeral ceremonies for both of his parents. It’s clear to see the love, support and depth that Gurrumul was cherished within his family and community. Physical touch and closeness are a big part of showing affection. It’s easy to see how the contrast between life at home and life on the road as a touring artist created an immense homesickness that Yunupingu struggled with throughout his career. In one scene, Gurrumul sits in a hotel room on the phone to family back in Galiwinku, as Hohnen remarks that they always make sure to have a phone with unlimited access to keep the connection between the singer and his loved ones open at all times.

We also get a great sense and a reminder that the ways in which Balanda and the traditional ways of the Yolngu see and experience life, are completely different. The way that time and place is inhabited requires a complete shift in paradigm for an understanding to be reached.

On occasion, Yunupingu would not turn up for shows, or touring commitments in order to spend time with family and to continue to learn and grow in his culture. It was as natural to him as any other place that performing took him, and ultimately what fed his soul and in turn his music.

His final album, also documented in the film, is an incredible feat of the message that was contained within all of his art. Gurrumul, generously offers the stories and songlines of his people, the manikay, and seeks to fuse them with a classical western sound, collaborating with composer Erkki Veltheim and the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The result is an incredibly beautiful album which will remain a classic and continue the legacy of this talented, enigmatic and truly gifted man for generations to come.

As Yunupingu’s Aunty, Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi remarks as an insightful narrator throughout the film, Gurrumul’s gifts as a Djarramirri – Child of the Rainbow – become clear as one who is ‘inside of a rainbow’  – illuminating the spaces between an ancient culture and the modern world.

 “He is making it easier for the world to understand. And he’s making it new. The world wants to know more about him. Closing their eyes, and opening their hearts, they will see him”.

The documentary Gurrumul was released nationwide on April 26.

His final album Djarramirri is out now.

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