• Joel Dwek

AUSTRALIA: Gurrumul - Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

A masterpiece of the highest order that evokes plenty of emotion and highlights the importance of preserving Aboriginal culture

About two weeks before I began writing the review for Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s debut solo album Gurrumul, I saw an article on BBC News about a tree sacred to the Djab wurrung Aboriginals of Australia that had been destroyed, and it filled me with a great sadness to see something so culturally important be removed. If the insult was not enough it was cut down to make way for a highway, of all the boringly perfunctory things in the world. In some ways, it is an encapsulation of the the truly callous, cruel, and uncaring way successive Australian governments have treated its native peoples. Cultural sites and heritage being destroyed is just the start, Aboriginal Australians have historically had to endure massacres, the systematic theft of their children in what has become to be known as the Stolen Generations, and to this day endure the evils of systemic racism in the form of racist violence, deaths in police custody, and unequal access to healthcare and education. It’s enough to make you weep in despair and marvel at the bravery and resilience of Aboriginal activists. This, to me, is why the music of Yunupingu – commonly known as Gurrumul but for the purposes of this review I’ll refer to him as Yunupingu to avoid confusion with the self-titled album under discussion, Gurrumul – is so important. It reminds us of the essential compassion and humanity that exists in us all. Yunupingu, himself an Aboriginal Australian from the Yolngu peoples, had to overcome huge hardship in his life, including being born blind, to achieve the success that he did, in doing so uniting audiences not only of white Australians and Aboriginals, but also peoples of all races and creeds around the globe. By the time of his lamentably early death at the age of 46, he had become the most successful Aboriginal Australian singer of all time. Through his music, he was able to unite people in their common humanity, and in doing so, be the best ambassador for his people he could be.

A quick sidebar relating to the Yolngu culture. Avoiding using a deceased person’s first name is part of their grieving practice. Another aspect of said practice is to not to look at pictures of the deceased person. Though I have taken some steps to avoid using Yunupingu’s first names, it is hard to avoid completely as it is the name of his album. I initially hesitated about using it at all, but then I came across the fact that Yunupingu’s family took the unusual step to break with tradition and to allow the use of Yunupingu’s name and photographs in the media, to ensure that his legacy lives on. In that spirit, I hope to help continue in some small way the further promulgation of said legacy.

“Yunupingu loved Western culture... What he was asking us to do was to love his culture in return, and to treat it with the respect it deserves.”

As a young man, Yunupingu spent time in a well-known band at the time called Yothu Yindi, a group comprised of white Australians as well as Yolngu musicians including Yunupingu’s uncle, before he eventually decided to form his own band called Saltwater Band, and then he became a solo artist. His solo work was aided by his friend, spokesman, translator, and producer Michael Hohnen. Hohnen is a crucial component of Yunupingu’s story. Alongside Mark Grose, Hohnen founded Skinnyfish Records, a label started to promote Yolngu music, after Hohnen came to Elcho Island (Galiwin'ku in Yolngu) while running a music industry course in Darwin, and noticed the huge amount of raw musical talent among the islanders. Yunupingu was one such islander, and the Saltwater Band was their first signing, and they continue to promote artists from indigenous Australian communities to this day. Hohnen was the first one to suggest that Yunupingu record a solo album, and though initially reticent, which Hohnen attributes to his natural shyness as well as the fact that Yolngu people do not usually go out into the world of the Balanda (their word for white people) on their own. However, once he realised the power of what he could do, he agreed. Hohnen and Yunupingu remained close friends until Yunupingu’s death, and that friendship is documented beautifully in the documentary film Gurrumul. Hohnen and Yunupingu understood each other perfectly, with Hohnen able to promote Yunupingu in a way he would never have done for himself whilst still allowing Yunupingu to express himself and his culture as he wanted to, entirely on Yunupingu's terms.

Gurrumul is an astoundingly beautiful collection of songs that touch the soul. Yunupingu’s voice is like no other. I know people often say that, but this time I really mean it. High-pitched, lilting, seemingly weak and fragile yet simultaneously powerful and resonant, it is a voice that sounds like no other human I’ve heard sing, and he manages to wring out all the emotion available in every syllable. This is all the more astounding considering most of the album is sung in Yolngu languages, a collection of dialects spoken by approximately 4,600 people. For most of the album I have no idea what he’s saying, and despite that, the emotion in his voice hits me in my soul. It is impossible to listen to a song such as Wiyathul or Marwurrumburr and not feel deep within you the melancholy with which Yunupingu sings, just as the hope and optimism is felt in a song like Djarimirri. Usually, when I review music in a language I don’t understand, I like to find translations of the lyrics to give me a better understanding of the songs. Here, I not only have not done that, I think it could diminish my enjoyment of the album. Yunupingu’s voice speaks for itself, getting across everything I need to enjoy this masterpiece.

If there could be considered a ‘mission statement’ song, it would undoubtedly be Gurrumul History, one of few songs on the album to be mostly in English. It’s simultaneously heart-breaking and uplifting. It never fails to elicit tears from me when he sings the simple, yet devastating line “I was born blind, and I don’t know why.” I have familial experience with people who have disabilities similar to the one Yunupingu suffered, and it’s the randomness of it, the pure chance, the lack of any real understanding of why they happen that can make it seem so cruel. It is a simple line, but it is a truthful one. Yet Yunupingu does not wallow in pity. The following line turns it on its head in a very powerful manner. He continues “God knows why, because he love me so.” This is Yunupingu’s way of acknowledging his disability and understanding that he can if not overcome it but at least come to terms with it, because in his eyes, it was given with love, with a purpose. The song also talks about his parents, “crying their hearts in confusion” at their son’s choice of path in life, and his own doubts and fears, touchingly expressed when he sings “how can I walk straight and tall in society, please hold my hand” as he “try[s] to bridge and build Yolngu culture”. This shows how he saw his music as having a higher purpose. Even though he might have been fearful and scared at points of putting himself out there, he wanted to be able to showcase his culture on the world stage, to, as he put it, build and bridge his culture with the world. That part is important, I think. It’s not solely a showcase, it’s an invitation as well. Yunupingu uses Western instruments like the acoustic guitar (which, being left-handed, he learned to play upside down on a right-handed guitar) alongside traditional Yolngu ones, therefore expressing the cultural fusion he wishes to see.

This, along with the song’s final words in English sum up much of Yunupingu’s ethos: “united we stand, divided we fall/together we'll stand in solidarity.” It can’t have been easy for a blind Yolngu man to make his way in white Australian society and still keep true to his roots, and somehow Yunupingu managed it. This speaks to our shared humanity, and in an oblique way to the Aboriginal experience. As with any community that experiences systemic racism, members of that community have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously and to have the same opportunities, and here, with his first album, Yunupingu is calling for unity, for solidarity with all Australians. Yunupingu loved Western culture. He was a noted fan of Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, and Cliff Richard, and an admirer of Queen Elizabeth II. What he was asking us to do was to love his culture in return, and to treat it with the respect it deserves.

Yunupingu passed away on the 25th of July, 2017. He had suffered from liver and kidney damage after having contracted hepatitis B in his childhood. Once again, Yunupingu is emblematic of the Aboriginal Australian experience. Poor renal health is a common chronic illness in Aboriginal communities, and the lack of nearby healthcare facilities exacerbates that, in what has been called a preventable health crisis. Aboriginals experience healthcare discrimination, one manifestation of which is the fact that they’ve one third of the chance of receiving a kidney transplant than their white counterparts. It is a tragic end to a remarkable and spectacular life. Yunupingu gave the world some incredible songs as well as the gift of his ethereal and spectacular voice, the likes of which we will likely not see again for many years, but equally he gave his people an unlikely champion and icon to revere. Having been born blind, his family feared he would never find his independence. Yunupingu proved them wrong. He was rightly recognised upon his death as a champion of both Aboriginal Australians as well as being a figure that fostered greater understanding between white Australians and Aboriginals. His legacy will hopefully be continued into the future by his many fans, and hopefully with the message of unity and compassion Yunupingu promoted, Australia can find a future that works for all its citizens, white or black.