Gurrumul's gift to the world

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Gurrumul (PG). Director: Paul Damien Williams. Starring: Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. 97 minutes

Geoffrey Gurrumul YunupinguAt the time of his death in July last year, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was the most commercially successful Aboriginal Australian musician to ever grace this world. Anyone expecting Gurrumul — the film about Gurrumul's career, on which he signed off prior to his death at 46 — to resemble anything like your typical popular music documentary will be quickly dissuaded. After all Gurrumul was a far cry from your typical popular musician.

The film's opening sees the former Yothu Yindi and Saltwater Band fringe-player Gurrumul sitting mum, as a radio interviewer rattles off the most predictable of questions (how does his blindness enhance his musical abilities?). Inevitably, longtime friend Michael Hohnen, co-manager of Gurrumul's Skinnyfish label, steps in. Throughout Gurrumul's career, Michael's is often the voice that connects his art to the crasser requirements of a commercial career.

When it comes to publicity Gurrumul is reticent, but when he sings he is limitless. The film transitions to the studio where we hear his vocals isolated from instrumental tracks, his raw technical ability exalted alongside a depth of soul that, as one family member notes, taps deeply into the songlines of his people. The multi-instrumentalist Gurrumul sings in language, in a form that connects his traditional culture to a mainstream, global audience.

This building of bridges between Aboriginal and white Australia, and between an ancient local culture that exalts family and tradition and a contemporary global one where fame and commercial success are hallmarks of worth, is a recurrent, fraught theme. It's laid bare in an excruciating sequence where Gurrumul is co-opted to perform on a French TV program with Sting a cover, in language, of Sting's hit ‘Every Breath You Take'. Gurrumul has no idea who Sting is.

We see it, too, in the disaster of Gurrumul's first mooted tour of the US. On the eve of the tour, Gurrumul is a no-show at Darwin airport, having stayed behind in his Elcho Island community on family business. The next day, Michael mans the phone to US promoters, trying to explain why the star attraction has bailed. Even the sympathetic Michael has to admit that after this, he can never book Gurrumul for a major international tour again.

This is a salient moment for Michael and for his Skinnyfish accomplice Mark Grose. Both these white men are palpably humiliated and disappointed by the turn of events. But they are aware enough to wonder if their responses are a reflection of their taking their relationship with Gurrumul for granted. Weighing the personal relationship against western conceptions of professional obligation, Mark affirms that the relationship must come up trumps every time.

 

"Here we see the ultimate merging of Aboriginal themes and music with the epitome of white European musical styles. It is spine-tingling stuff."

 

Years later, they continue to work with Gurrumul professionally. More significantly, they are present at the funerals of Gurrumul's parents. The film's fly-on-the-wall perspective shifts between Gurrumul's life as a professional musician — say, his typically taciturn appearance on the red carpet at the ARIAs — and the traditional life of the community to which he is inextricably connected. In so doing it constantly asks: Which is the more authentic?

The moment that most perfectly captures both the possibility and difficulty of these two cultures achieving synergy — through mutual listening — comes in the final act. During the recording of Gurrumul's fourth and final studio album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), we witness the inimitable sound of the didgeridoo being adapted and annotated for classical orchestral instruments; a task as formidable for the arranger as it is for the performers.

Here we see the ultimate merging of Aboriginal themes and music with the epitome of white European musical styles. It is spine-tingling stuff, of which Gurrumul's voice and songwriting, with their ancient roots, are the stars. Gurrumul would die before the album was released, but not before the songs were heard live by audiences at the Sydney Opera House. The gift of Gurrumul's commercial output is that we can hear those songs, still.

  

  

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu


 

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Existing comments

Tim he is sorely missed. A fantastic voice and a haunting style. You are right he was special, unique. A great singer.
francis Armstrong | 24 May 2018


"the disaster of Gurrumul's first mooted tour of the US. . . . phone to US promoters, trying to explain why the star attraction has bailed." You left out one of the best lines in the film! "All we lost was money" said Mark Grose. The way Gurrumul and Michael Hohnen could bridge the chasm between Gurrumul's spiritual, human-relationship focused culture and the "money's-what-matters-most" culture of most modern Western cultures was miraculous and heart-warming. This film should be compulsory viewing at the next Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. It's more than thirty years since Pope John Paul II said to Aboriginal people at Alice Springs "the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others." There has been very little and mostly superficial response to that in the Catholic Church in Australia. So much of the deep spirituality of our Indigenous brothers and sisters is disregarded in favour of compliance with European cultural understandings of the faith. If Jesus came to Australia today, he would surely feel more comfortable in Galiwin'ku than in any of our Catholic cathedrals. We have so much to learn from our First Nations people, and watching the film Gurrumul is an excellent starting point.
Gai Smith | 24 May 2018


Really moving review, Tim; well-written and truly touching the heart. Nicely perceptive comment, Gai. Over 60,000 years of richly cultural, ecologically-sustaining, and largely peaceful stewarding of the land has plenty to teach shallow, helter-skelter, develop-at-any-cost WATIC (western aggressive techno-industrial commerce) peoples. A Swahili aphorism is apt: 'Kukimbia si kufika' - "Why are we running when we don't know where we're going?" Isn't it time for an all-inclusive national debate asking: "What is truly humanly important?"
Dr Marty Rice | 24 May 2018


A terrific article, part eulogy part commentary, Tim. It carries the deep insight the art must transport us from the everyday into the deeper meta-narrative that applies to all of us, at the same time critiquing the manner in which we live. That Gurrumul's music set up such a critique of the shallowness of absolutely critical to critique of Australia's real lived values as opposed to what it says we live perhaps inevitably led to conflicts with the popular culture of celebrity and its devaluing of normal, ordinary lives. It also demonstrates how much most of us sell our souls and at the same time how difficult it is to live with some kind of integrity. A true Australian artist and a truly great Australian. Many thanks.
David Holdcroft | 25 May 2018


Thank you Tim for your insightful comments. I read that you share my humbled and deeply emotional response to this wonderful film, but you have also managed to identify and elucidate the tangle of issues, cultural factors and powerful strands of humanity that weave it untidily together. Garramul, the wisdom of his culture, the devotion of his enablers Mark and Michael and his sublime sounds stay in my mind.
Anna | 28 May 2018


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