Review Summary: An essential Australian album from the other side of the tracks.
Every person, living or dead, has a story. It seems a true shame that some of life’s greater stories are often lost in a subterfuge of celebrity and politics; but in a way, it has the benefit of only a special group of people knowing them. Such is the case of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. If ever a story was well hidden, Gurrumul’s is surely atop the best: born and raised in Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory, more or less literally in the middle of nowhere. Blind from birth, he listened to the stories of his ancestors instead of playing with the other children, and chose to pursue a different kind of storytelling in the form of music. After performing in well-known indigenous bands such as Yothu Yindi and The Saltwater Band, Yunupingu’s own musical voice was hatched years later with his debut solo album, Gurrumul
. With this, one of this country’s best-kept secrets was unhatched.
Despite soft layers of other instrumentation and backing vocals, the centrepiece of this music lies in the haunting, transcendent voice and the quaint finger-picking guitar of Yunupingu. The man’s singing abilities almost defies logic- a selective mute with no previous training sings in a gorgeous, emphatic upper range which evokes to-the-core emotion and, at times, somewhat of a state of euphoria.
Underneath the powerful voice, Yunupingu is also a skilled guitarist- another credit to the context of his story, as he learnt to play right-handed acoustic guitars left-handed on a solely independent basis. His somewhat characteristic finger-picking style weaves through the music, leaving a mark of poignancy and beauty through its simplicity. Accompanying Yunupingu is double bassist Michael Hohnen, who adds a sense of depth and subtle dimension to the stripped-back arrangements, with almost a jazz-like feel at times (“Marwurrumburr” is a standout example of this).
The languages in which Gurrumul
is sung is a thing of great magnificence- the dialects of the Galpu, Gutmatj and Djambarrpynu nations are all sung in, as well as, occasionally, English. The dialects are unique, beautifully pronounced words and phrases that assist Gurrumul
with a real sense of identity. The use of English is brought to the forefront to tell Yunupingu’s story in the track “Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)”. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more meaningful, honest and starkly powerful opening couplet than Yunupingu’s “I was born blind, and I don’t know why/God knows why, because he loves me so”. The other stories told involve spiritual dreamtime tales (“Djarrimmi”), celebration and pride in nations (“Galiku”), a change in the season (“Baywara”) and a protection of the tradition that has been taught by their land (“Galupa”). The language you may not understand, but the soul that is essentially omnipresent throughout the record says all that needs be, with or without translation.
Perhaps the best example of this lies in “Bapa”. The folklore surrounding the song in Yunupingu’s homeland tells how grown men have wept at performances of the song; and your first experiences with it shall surely explain why. Soaring across a poignant arpeggio and sorrowful violin is the pained voice of Gurrumul, singing of his deceased “bapa” (father) as the story effects his nation. The story is told simply (“Grief has taken hold of me/For my father”, the translation reads), but not for one second is any kind of sentiment simplified.
Transcendence is the key to what makes the music of Gurrumul
work so brilliantly. This isn’t a case of catering to a specific audience, but simply presenting tales of indigenous culture to any and all that will listen, in a medium that is enriched by tradition and identity. Easily the best Australian record of recent years, the album also stands as a quintessential homage to what great tales lie in the midst of the Aboriginal culture of Australia, past and present. In a time where the welfare and survival of small indigenous communities is paramount in Australia, take solace in the music of Geoffrey Gurummul Yunupingu. Indigenous culture is upon what this country was founded, and at this time there is no greater example than Gurrumul
of the good that has come from it.
”Gurrumul has a sublime and natural talent. It is a privilege for me, as a musician and friend, to work with him”
- Michael Hohnen