Gurrumul bio highlights impact of Aboriginal musicians

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.

Garrumul: His Life & Music
Robert Hillman
2013, $65

Dr M Yunupingu, former Yothu Yindi frontman and Gumatj clan member, passed away on June 2 at his home community of Yirrkala, in north-east Arnhem Land.

It is often the case that we learn more about somebody’s life after they die. As it happened, the week Yunupingu died, I had bought a copy of a beautiful new biography of his nephew, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, known more commonly as Gurrumul.

Reading the biography, and seeing the tributes flow for Yunupingu, I became acutely more aware of the role musicians such as Yothu Yindi have played in the struggle for recognition, appreciation and respect for Aboriginal people, their languages and cultures.

There is the obvious: Yothu Yindi's most famous song, “Treaty”, catapulted the demand for recognition to an international stage. As Robert Hillman writes in Gurrumul ― His Life and Music: “All these issues had been spoken of in a politely insistent way for a long time, but the Yothu Yindi people were different ― louder, ruder, more exuberant than anyone who’d come before them.”

But Aboriginal musicians reaching international fame and singing songs in their own language ― such as the uncle and nephew both ― has an impact on Aboriginal audiences that is perhaps not obvious to not-Aboriginal, English-speaking fans.

Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr, another relative and Yothu Yindi band member, says the band paved the way for Gurrumul’s acceptance by an international audience as a solo performer.

In Yothu Yindi, he played the drums and then the guitar and keyboards (all of which he taught himself). He was never the front man his uncle was, but was widely recognised as the musical strength of the band.

When he went solo, Ganambarr explained the impact his music (performed in a number of his native Yolngu languages, with smatterings of English) had on her: “When that first solo album of his came out, I cried.

[He sings in a way] that makes them appeal to a white audience. But the expressions he uses in those songs, they’re the expressions we use in traditional songs …

“People don’t have to know what the words mean. All that they listen to is the voice, and the impression the voice conveys. And when Yolngu listen to it, we understand every word, and the meaning of every word. It’s so powerful.”

Indeed, there is something very powerful and poignant about the international accolades being showered on a Gumatj man, singing in Galpu, Gumatj and Djambarrpuyngu ― three languages that, compared to other Australian Aboriginal languages are probably quite healthy, but are still considered critically endangered.

Hillman writes that Gurrumul’s songs don’t touch on politics much ― unlike his uncle, who, when he wasn’t singing “Treaty”, was advocating for bilingual education and became the Northern Territory’s first Aboriginal principal.

But there is something inherently political about an Aboriginal musician ― from the strong, proud people who famously sent the bark petition to Canberra 50 years ago ― taking his language and culture to Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, to Paris and London.

Writing of Gurrumul’s performance with Sting in France 2010, Hillman said: “The Gumatj language, the sacred repository of a culture and history older by far than that of France or any country in Europe, older than the entirety of Western civilisation, [was] about to be plaited with the younger, mongrel language of English.”

But mixed up with Hillman’s sublime observations of language and culture are light-hearted sketches of Gurrumul, down-to-earth, irreverent, utterly uninterested in fame.

The song he was meant to perform with Sting was “Every Breath you Take”, but “Gurrumul, relishing the swanky hotels booked for the tour … is having too much of a good time to commit himself to a whispery song with lyrics that deal ambiguously with love and longing”.

He did, in the end, do the duet, after a few frantic email exchanges between Paris and the far north Australian Elcho Island, where Gurrumul’s relatives translated Sting’s lyrics into first one, then another, of his languages, until they came up with something he was satisfied with.

Gurrumul grew up on Elcho Island, in the community of Galiwin’ku. In recent years there has been much media focus on the poor conditions in Aboriginal communities, but there is something to be said for Aboriginal’s people’s approach to what the rest of us think of as disability.

Gurrumul was born blind, but it didn’t hold him back: as a young boy, he would ride his bike down Elcho’s famously steep hill, with family members lining the road yelling: “Go left! Right! Watch the pot holes!”

His family took it as given that his lack of sight would be made up for with other skills, and were not surprised when he taught himself a variety of instruments at a young age. As a left-hander, Gurrumul famously plays the guitar upside-down, presumably because he had never seen it be played, so just took it as he found it and adapted it to suit himself.

His was a life steeped in an ancient language and tradition ― which comes out in his music and continues to move audiences around the world to tears, although they don’t understand a word he is saying.

“We come away from listening to Gurrumul with the word ‘beautiful’ on our lips”, Hillman writes, “but where that beauty comes from, its richness and complexity ― that’s the wonder…

“The languages of Indigenous Australians, once numbering in the hundred, have roots in even more ancient languages … What listeners to Gurrumul’s voice and music hear is not simply ‘beauty’ but something that is the sound of life itself being honoured.”

And surely that honour is deserved, given the tenacity with which Gurrumul’s languages have survived, against the odds.

The book takes the reader on a whirlwind rock star tour of hotels and concert halls across Australia, Europe and the United states, as experienced by a blind man from a remote community that is part of one of the oldest living cultures on Earth.

The story is often told from the point of view of his non-Yolngu band members and friends (as Gurrumul does not talk to journalists), who act as his some-time carers, some time cross-cultural guides.

At times verging on hilarity (he may be blind, but he adamantly refuses to wear white socks, leading to some last-minute panics), Hillman’s narrative is broken up with well-researched short essays on aspects of Yolngu language and culture, and stunning photography.

Poignantly, describing a time in 2010 when Gurrumul was dangerously ill, Hillman writes: “Any black Australian who becomes seriously ill in his late thirties has a very remote chance of reaching his late forties.

“A frightening number of black Australians ― both men and women ― lose their lives to renal failure, heart disease and liver disorders at about the age Gurrumul is now ― almost thirty-nine ― and many who are spared succumb ten or twenty years later.”

And so it was for Gurrumul’s uncle, fellow Gumatj, fellow trailblazer. Mr Yunupingu was 56 years old, and he died of kidney failure.

In her June 5 obituary on The Drum, Tracy Hutchinson wrote: “I doubt there has been a more profoundly moving induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame than Yothu Yindi's last year.

“And I doubt there is a more shameful indictment on us all that Mr Yunupingu died from a treatable illness in Australia in 2013. There are no cheap words to describe the magnitude of that.”

And, of course, Aboriginal people do not need words ― they are living it.

The grieving for this particular man will last a long time. But thanks to his work, and also to technology, Aboriginal people from Arnhem Land and across the country can still watch him, painted up in ways that only they fully understand , singing “Treaty” to the world.

Yunupingu's legacy is the voice and pride he gave to his people, and that legacy lives on in Gurrumul and others.