Paul Cooke explores the Australian icon whose music melded multiple cultures

Photo by Trevor Collens / Alamy Stock Photo

“One world is Balanda, the other world is Yolngu.” This is how Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, born 50 years ago this month, described the ‘different worlds’ he lived in. Articles in The Guardian have described him as having “a foot in both worlds” and “an unlikely career on the edge of two worlds”, but what I think is notable about Gurrumul’s life is the extent to which he brought these worlds closer together through his music.

Balanda is the European world. Gurrumul’s Yolngu world is centred on Galiwin’ku, an Indigenous community of just over 2,000 people situated on Elcho Island in north-east Arnhem Land – about 550 kilometres from Darwin if you are a waak (crow) but twice that distance by road and then sea. Elcho was the inspiration for Neil Murray’s “My Island Home”, a song that was performed at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games. This region, while not without interactions with the European world, is nevertheless one with multiple clans and tribes and very strong connections to traditional culture.

In this culture, songs with a regular repetition of rhythmic words are vitally important in transmitting knowledge: as Catherine J Ellis wrote in Aboriginal Music: Education for Living, music is “a guide to life. Every task, every object, every social relationship has a song”. Gurrumul, born blind, was unable to participate in many normal childhood activities, but learnt hundreds of songs from tribal elders as well as the stories and history of his people. He taught himself a number of instruments – not only the yidaki (or didgeridoo) but also guitar, keyboards and drums – and later played and sang Indigenous-inflected music with Yothu Yindi as well as reggae-based songs in local languages with Saltwater Band.

In 2008, he released his first album, Gurrumul. The songs, sung mostly in Indigenous languages, focused on love of country and a spiritual connection with the land. What set his music apart and resonated with listeners, however, was his “unearthly”, “angelic”, “sublime” voice, which “—like all the best tenor voices —combines robustness and fragility along with an emotion-laden timbre that conveys passion and a deep sadness”.

The ‘different worlds’ tugged at him. His family was happy for him to be the bridge between two cultures but concerned that he wouldn’t be able to maintain his increasingly important responsibilities within the Galiwin’ku community: in 2011, 44% of the population were under the age of 20. At the same time, Gurrumul was being acclaimed both nationally and internationally, and being encouraged to broaden his musical horizons. Michael Hohnen, his musical partner and a classically-trained double bass player, and arranger and conductor Erkki Veltheim, worked closely with him and the ultimate result of their collaboration was Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow). Released in 2018, a year after his death, it was the first Aboriginal language album to top Australian music charts. Here ancient chants relating to specific Yolngu totems and culture are set against orchestral arrangements owing much to the Minimalist tradition of Nyman, Pärt and others. The music is intellectually stimulating; Gurrumul’s singing is exciting. In “Waak (Crow)”, his voice “prickles and then sighs, glides and pushes up and away”. As Quincy Jones said, truly “one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices I’ve ever heard”.

Friday 22 January 1pm

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