‘We underestimated Gurrumul’: an unlikely career on the edge of two worlds

A new documentary and posthumous album dispel the myths surrounding a beloved Australian Indigenous artist

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu did exactly what you’d do if you didn’t want to be successful – but he succeeded anyway.

It’s an observation wryly made midway through a new documentary on the life and career of the late singer, a blind Gumatj man from Arnhem Land in Australia’s remote north.One of the most famous Indigenous performers in modern Australian history, he left much behind when he died last year – musically, personally and culturally. As his aunt Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi narrates: “When you talk about Gurrumul, it’s a big story.”

Shot entirely while he was alive, Gurrumul – unable to see – was given an audio file of each edit to keep track of its progress and maintain control. He gave his approval for the final version just three days before he died.

“He would just love hearing all of the voices in there and all the memories from his days in different bands, and what people were saying about him,” says Michael Hohnen, cofounder of the Skinnyfish music label and Gurrumul’s longtime friend and musical partner.

“I think there was a big education for him as well with that film, of hearing the respect, and what his uncle would say about him,” Hohnen says, his voice catching.

“That killed me, near the end of the film, when his uncle says that he exceeded all our expectations.”

Directed by Paul Williams, Gurrumul’s uncle, Djunga Djunga Yunupingu, and aunt, Gurruwiwi are the only narrators of the film, but it also features his parents and friends. They talk of their surprise and sorrow when they realised Gurrumul was blind, and their fears he would always have to stay close to home.

“We used to think Gurrumul wouldn’t go far, would never show his independence,” says Yunupingu. “We underestimated him.”

Hohnen, who was the singer’s guide and spokesman, talks to the Guardian in the Skinnyfish Music offices in suburban Darwin. The studio is a converted garage, littered with the signs of the musical and cultural worlds it works in.

There’s a dozen yidaki – elsewhere known as didgeridoos – in a plastic bin sitting in the corner, some painted in traditional designs, some wrapped in silver gaffa tape. The wall above a shelf of Skinnyfish CDs is lined with art from the Tiwi Islands and a portrait of Gurrumul. An oversized NT flag is draped over a shelf and a couple of swags are thrown on top of a storage cupboard, ready for the next trip to the outback.

Hohnen is in the midst of promoting the documentary, and preparing for the imminent release of Gurrumul’s posthumous album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), which was four years in the making. He’s also taking steps to ensure the Yolngu family and community are happy for the releases to go ahead.

He sits in the centre of the studio in front of a computer screen and two large speakers and flicks through the songs, which were recorded in Sydney and bring western classical elements to traditional Yolngu music. One baroque-style track has overlapping melodies that mirror the communal expression of Yolngu ceremonial songs.

Honhen points out the cello mimicking rhythms of the yidaki, and says the Yolngu who came to the studio would immediately recognise and know the corresponding dance.

The album is an ambitious project which continues Gurrumul’s habit of marrying together the two worlds he lived in. The final product is polished and seems effortless – but the film reveals otherwise.

In fact, the documentary is the closest any journalism has come to explaining the challenge of living in two cultures which both demanded so much from Gurrumul.

At the same time it dispels the myth that surrounded him, something his friend and musical collaborator Briggs once frustratedly described as “this idea that he’s some kind of mystical person that lives in the outer Dreamtime somewhere and appears every six months to do a show in Sydney”.

Gurrumul was not an enigma, the film reveals, but rather a man with a strong sense of humour, deep ties to his homelands, and little taste for the limelight as he travelled around Europe, the US and Australia. It also paints a portrait of the close relationship between the artist and Hohnen.

Michael Hohnen with Australian musician Gurrumul, in a still from the documentary.
Michael Hohnen with Gurrumul, in a still from the documentary. Photograph: Madman

The documentary opens with one of Gurrumul’s earliest and only media interviews, a filmed sit-down with the ABC’s flagship current affairs show. It is a deteriorating, awkwardly silent affair that ends with Hohnen lowering his head to the desk in front of him.

Things go up and down from there.

Hohnen and Gurrumul laugh as announcers and TV hosts mispronounce his name, and cackle as Guy Maestri wins the Archibald prize for his portrait of Gurrumul and reads aloud a message from the singer: “I didn’t win this money, so please don’t call me asking for some of it.”

And when he’s invited to sing a duet with Sting on a French TV show, it nearly ends in disaster. There is no cultural or social context for Gurrumul to understand or translate Every Breath You Take into Yolngu Matha – to say nothing of the glaring irony of asking him to sing the line “I’ll be watching you”.

But the European tour is a success and they sign with a US promoter, promising unlimited opportunities.

And then Gurrumul pulls back.

It’s a heartbreaking moment in the film. On the day the team is to embark on the US tour, Gurrumul doesn’t show up to Darwin airport. He can’t be found and the tour collapses.

“It’s beyond homesickness,” Hohnen tells a promoter in explanation.

“It’s a clash of cultures, it’s a clash of world views,” says Skinnyfish Music director and cofounder, Mark Grose.

Indigenous Australian musician Gurrumul Yunupingu, in a still from the documentary about his life by Paul Williams
Gurrumul Yunupingu in a still from the documentary about his life by Paul Williams. Photograph: Madman

Gurrumul’s home community of Galiwin’ku and the surrounding Arnhem Land is Aboriginal territory and a deeply traditional place of multiple clans and tribes. It is one of the strongest examples of the world’s oldest continuous culture, and Gurrumul, a Yunupingu from the Gumatj clan, held increasingly important responsibilities.

His family, while supportive of his success in the lead-up to the US tour, had flagged their apprehension about his expansion into the Balanda – or white person’s – world; they were happy for him to be the bridge between two cultures, but worry that he could not maintain his cultural ties. For his part, Gurrumul didn’t want to miss learning dhawu – the traditional stories that he’s expected to care for.

Skinnyfish lost a lot of money on that tour, but their relationship with the artist held – and four years later, they were recording again.

“We try and work in a mainstream music industry but within their [Indigenous] system of how we relate to everyone,” Hohnen tells Guardian Australia.

“It’s a really bad business model in lots of ways, but you have to give in to that world. I think that’s the only way you move forward. So I think that two worlds thing, that crunch that happens there, is an amazing bit in the film.”

In 2014 they finally returned to the US, playing smaller shows with less pressure, but during this tour Gurrumul’s father died, just a few years after his mother.

Gurrumul went home for the funeral and ceremonial “sorry business”, and to take on the cultural responsibilities that were now his. Deeply embedded in the documentary project, he brought the camera crew along to his father’s funeral.

Gurrumul performs during a media call for the Sydney festival First Night.
Gurrumul performs during a media call for the Sydney festival First Night. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

There are public aspects of Gurrumul’s short life that aren’t explored by the documentary – his long-running health issues, and the high levels of poverty in remote Indigenous communities such as Galiwin’ku.

This was deliberate, Hohnen says. Gurrumul agreed to the film as long as his health was not a part of it; and his uncle, Yunupingu, asked that life in their community be shown with dignity.

The film features two funerals – one for each of Gurrumul’s parents – and perhaps as a final mark of respect, it doesn’t go for a third. It ends with Gurrumul performing a new song at the Sydney Opera House.

The concert is the culmination of an ambitious and difficult project, with the musicians he’s working with frustrated and exhausted by the process of developing songs in a language they didn’t fully know.

For once, the Balanda world is struggling with its incorporation into Yolngu, rather than the other way round.

“The music kind of suits that being on the edge of two worlds and the feeling of how it’s not completely comfortable,” says Hohnen.

“I always said he balanced the two worlds better than most people. I still think that.”

• Gurrumul, the documentary, is released 25 April through Madman. The album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), is released on 13 April through Skinnyfish


Helen Davidson

The GuardianTramp

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