GURRUMUL PROFILED (2011): Songs of the sacred world

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Gurrumul: Djarimirri
GURRUMUL PROFILED (2011): Songs of the sacred world

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu – known to his people as Gudjuk and in the wider world as simply Gurrumul – is an overnight sensation which has been about two decades in the making.

The blind, self-taught, singer-songwriter from an Aboriginal community on the small and remote Elcho -- an island off the north coast of Australia near Darwin (population 2300) -- has toured Europe to enormous acclaim, his debut album Gurrumul (reviewed here) went gold in Australia, and his new one Rrakala (see here) went straight to the top of the Australian charts.

He has performed before the Pope and the Queen, in concert halls and at huge Womad festivals, and most often has hushed audiences with a voice which his friend/mentor/producer and bass player Michael Hohnen says possesses “a fragile beauty”.

And Gurrumul – who plays guitar upside down – is an Aboriginal artist who doesn't have a digeridoo within coo-ee of his music, and he doesn't – as so many Aboriginal musicians do – play reggae or country music.

He just sings his songs which are deeply imbued in the spirituality of his people in a voice which is immediately engaging, and usually over a simple backdrop.

“I love the fact that people can buy the album and not think, 'This is an Aboriginal record'," says Hohnen from his office at Skinnyfish Music in Darwin. “I try not to talk about [the Aboriginal aspect] because I know how much culture he has in him and it is very deep if you look at the lyrics.

“But I love that people buy the record and enjoy it because it just sounds beautiful. And then there are these layers you can discover later.”

Discovering more about Gurrumul himself is harder. He doesn't give interviews and rarely speaks in English, so Hohnen has been his spokesman.

“He's shy and he's not confident with his English in public, but it's a lot more than that. His uncle talks of him being ashamed of his blindness. What I read into that, having spent a lot of time thinking about and experiencing it, is that Gurrumul never sees how people react to what he says. He feels it, but never sees it.

michaelhohnen_420x0“He's also grown up with consummate [English] speakers and people whose roles are to be the leaders and speakers. His role has never been that in either Aboriginal or English-speaking society. His role is to be a song person to take their music and songs out there  . . . and not go and talk about, 'How you feel and how the government is treating us'.

“I'm comfortable about my position now," says Hohnen "because I speak about him and how I see how he fits in to everything, rather than speaking for him.

"I don't ever pretend to answer questions which are for him.

“He knows a lot of English words but would struggle in any discussion that starts to become slightly intellectual, but that's only because of the language. Because they way we think is completely different from the way the Yolnu [people] think.”

Hohnen knows this world as well as any and has spent 15 years working with Gurrumul, a full decade of that before Gurrumul's breathtaking debut album. But Hohnen's background is also in the mainstream pop world.

He spent his younger years in Melbourne, played in bands in Australia and Europe (notably the Killjoys who were “big in the indie pop scene and did reasonably well in UK and Europe where we did some recording”) and also had some experience in classical music and jazz.

But increasingly he became disillusioned: “I love Western music and pop but I hit this point where it all started to be the same in its sentiment. It was middle-class white – which is what I felt – and a lot of the bands I was involved in were like a social experiment which ended up as a band . . . quite self-indulgent and not that meaningful.”

He met some Aboriginal musicians, moved to Darwin where -- through the university's TAFT programme -- he ran vocational training courses on the music industry which took him to remote places like Elcho.

The community there had produced a number of musicians, some of whom were in the Warumpi Band and Yothu Yindi, and there had been regular requests from the island for assistance in music programmes.

It was there in '96 Hohnen met Gurrumul who had spent seven years in Yothu Yindi until '94 and was now back home.

“He was not a pro-active member [of Yothu Yindi] but because of his talents was very engaged on a musical level. He wrote the piano riff on Treaty which was a really big hit in Australia and he's all over their Tribal Voice album.”

Hohnen didn't know of Gurrumul's reputation at this point, but some of his Elcho peers presented him to Hohnen one day saying they thought he [Hohnen] might like him.

“I thought he was far more talented than the other guys, but I was educated at the Victorian College of the Arts and coming from a place like that of high standards of musicianship, I didn't immediately see it. I remember him doing some things after hours and I heard the way he sang and multi-tracked the guitars. And he was blind. It all added up to something significant.

gurrumul_wideweb__470x306_0“He does have an aura or some special energy and people feel that straight away, and it doesn't matter if you are a spiritual person or not even interested in that. Most people who meet him are immediately struck and engaged by him.

"So there was a bit of that going on too.”

Out of Hohnen's time on the island the Saltwater Band was formed – a 10-piece which included Gurrumul – but it became increasingly obvious who the real talent was: the blind guy who would sing, multi-track all the parts and arrange the music.

“With the Saltwater Band, I wasn't there as an A&R person looking for talent, I just helped them on their first and second records. But on the second I started to wonder, 'Why don't more people know about him?' “

Hohnen suggested to Gurrumul that maybe they try just some acoustic recordings.

“He'd had a couple of big apprenticeships with Yothu Yindi and Saltwater, so it wasn't like he was new to the game.”

And because Hohnen had been around the local people and Gurrumul's family for a decade, a trust had built up. When he said thing would happen they usually did, which is not always the way in Aboriginal people's dealing with white fellas.

“There are a lot of [white] people coming through communities here who come and go. But Mark [Grose] and I who started the Skinnyfish label, we're still here and not part of that transient population of white fellas.

“Mark lives at Elcho Island now so has day-to-day contact with Gurrumul and his family and the musicians around him. So the trust was enough for Gurrumul to say he would try something with me. So we did a couple of acoustic things in Darwin and everyone was highly responsive.”

Hohnen says having heard the Jose Gonzalez album Veneer and how simple it was – “nylon string guitar, double tracked vocals, just simple and universal and touching, even though people didn't understand everything he was saying” – gave him encouragement.

He and Gurrumul relocated to Melbourne to record and tried out a number of different songs and styles, some more uptempo “just to open everything up so people could hear his voice”.

thumb_first_albumSkinnyfish also presented the debut album in a handsome package with a booklet . . . and in a cover which also almost mimicked Miles Davis' striking Tutu cover by photographer Irving Penn?

“Well, you got the Miles Davis reference,” he laughs, “because I did want that kind of striking image but didn't want to copy Tutu.

"Well done. I have done a lot of interviews about Gurrumul and thought that could have come up, but you are the first to get it.

tn_miles_davis_tutu_lato_a“I got a photographer and we looked at Tutu and I said I wanted that energy, but Gurrumul is a very different person. Miles is very in your face and he is not. So that is what we went for.”

Hohnen says as a small label Skinnyfish were not geared up for mainstream success and nor was that ever their aim: “We're not commercial in a sense, we were set up to support artists and realise the visions of musicians -- and not a lot of those visions are commercial. They are about story-telling, community and are experiential. But when I made the [Gurrumul] record I thought it was special.”

The company also hired a PR person -- a first for them -- and over six to eight months the momentum grew behind the album. By the time Gurrumul was invited to play at the '08 Aria awards in Australia the album had gone gold.

“He's very grounded and we are very realistic. It wasn't like, 'Great, let's start partying'. I've been involved with lots of bands and the first bit of success . . . it's a non-stop party until they run out of money.

“This was more like, 'Okay, we have to manufacture more, we have to think about this properly'. But it also changed Gurrumul's life, and our lives.”

Hohnen says, as is common among successful Aboriginal artists of all persuasions, much of Gurrumul's money goes back into his community and is “disseminated”.

“He's not very materialistic and that's not a big factor in terms of changing anything. A lot of people don't believe him when he says he hasn't got money, but what I have witnessed is he tries to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

Broke_Credit_Card_Logo_Parody_Shirt_Black_Front_Closeup“I bought him a t-shirt the other day which a take on the Mastercard symbol but it says 'Broke' and he loves that.”

Not that getting the album away in Europe was easy.

While the world music magazine Songlines put Gurrumul on the cover, Hohnen notes there is “a world music police out there in some places”.

“There's this world music scene that exists, especially in Europe, and it kind of dictates what world music is, and concentrates on French-African bands. That scene has ignored Gurrumul. One [magazine] wrote back saying he was not Aboriginal enough.”

No didgeridoo, perhaps?

Hohnen also says many of the world music festivals are based around jamming bands so an artist like Gurrumul who sits and plays guitar quietly doesn't fit in that situation either. Although they have played some of these festivals, sound bleeding from other stages works against Gurrumul and this special music which Gurrumul's mother describes as “sacred”.

199392_10150112266914543_31504204542_6499844_6835872_n“I think she's referring to publicly sacred, something that is incredibly important to them and is the essence of who they are. Because in their culture there is sacred and almost secret, a ceremony which exists only within that culture.

“He is singing about something that embodies him and her, and the essence of their identity. It is important and personal and all about identity.”

This is why in the new Rrakala album there are some notes explaining the songs and their cultural context.

“However unless you have a treatise or some big booklet, you don't get very far into the meanings of the words. But I did ask some of the guys working with him to summarise the songs in a paragraph – which gives you a completely different interpretation of the songs from the direct translation,” he laughs.

“When people like Gurrumul talk about themselves they talk about who they are and their relationship with everyone else. And if you keep asking the talk will go into their relationship with trees and animals in their world.

Gurrumul_Dreaming“So they are part of the bigger picture from the word 'Go' and the whole structure of life."

And of that other real world he inhabits, that of culture and commerce and record sales, Gurrumul remains amusingly detached.

Hohnen says he sees it his duty to keep his friend informed, but often when he's reading him some article or interview to him Gurrumul will interrupt and ask about something mundane. He's not really listening.

“In a sense he doesn't know how successful he is. He's got a good feeling because people tell him. But he doesn't know about the charts or sales.

“I'm constantly banging on about what is happening in the charts and he still asks what that means.

"Like he'll say, 'Number three? Out of how many?' "

Interested in more on Aboriginal art and culture? Then try here and here. And this is also important.

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Your Comments

Jamie - May 27, 2011

A really nice article Graham, thank you.

Through your review I bought and loved the first album and gave a cluster of them away as Christmas presents.

I had often wondered how such a modest retiring man had achieved the success and breadth of exposure that he has. I hadn't heard about the relationship between him and Michael Hohnen.

What a cool story! I love this man Michael! How exciting for both of them that they met, and that Michael had the dedication and belief to hang in there and see the project through.

So often the stories of people like Michael must go unsung, so to speak. The role they play in bringing remarkable, humble, introverted musicians to a wide audience deserves shouting out from the roof tops! Bono doesn't need a Michael Hohnen, but the extraordinary Gurrumul, and so many others like him, do.

Cool story, well told. I feel inspired!

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