Global Hit – Gurrumul

The World

A blind aboriginal singer has been making waves Down Under. He’s known as Gurrumul. Gurrumul’s self-titled debut album topped Australia’s independent music charts earlier this year. And he counts Elton John among his fans. In fact, Gurrumul opened for Sir Elton at a concert in Darwin, Australia last spring. From Sydney, Peter Hadfield has today’s Global Hit.

When Stuart Matchett came to work one morning in February, it was a day like any other. He walked into the A ustralian Broadcasting Corporation building in Sydney, where he works as a disc jockey for Dig Radio. And then, we’ll let him take up the story.

MATCHETT: “I came to work and as always six to ten CDs and one of them was the Gurrumul CD. So I put it on and this amazing voice came out.”

The blind singer with what’s been called ‘the voice of an angel’ is Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. What makes his story so remarkable is not just the voice. The music Australians heard on Matchett’s show that morning had been recorded in Darwin, on the country’s remote north coast. And Gurrumul himself lives even further away, on an island north of the swamps and rainforests of Arnhemland.

Bruce Elder is a music critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. He says Gurumul doesn’t fit the mould of traditional aboriginal music.

ELDER: “There are two very clear strands. If you listen to authentically traditional music, it tends to be, as with any oral tradition, tends to be short and repetitive. Beyond that, the largest area of traditional aboriginal music is clearly country music.”

Aboriginal singers who break with this tradition tend to sing songs with a political message, lamenting the loss of their ancestral land, or the fate of the so-called ‘stolen generation’ – aboriginal children taken from their parents and forced to live a European way of life. But Gurrumul, uniquely, sings in his native language – Yolngu Matha. And his songs aren’t about the sad fate of the aborigines or the hard life of the outback. They’re about what aborigines call the dreamtime. Stories that have been handed down through thousands of generations, about ancestors and origins and creation animals.

Gurumul’s producer at Skinnyfish Records in Darwin, is also a long-time friend and fellow musician, Michael Hohner.

HOHNER: “He has been brought up with his own understanding of the connection with the land. And the ancestors and the sprits and that spirituality is something that he doesn’t think of as spirituality, it’s a normal part of his totems and the ancestors and the land.”

One of Gurrumul’s most popular songs is called Djarrimirri.

The stories are the stories Gurumul learned as a child, growing up on Elcho is land where he now lives. It’s a way of life unimaginable to most Australian city dwellers, a nd even to many aborigines. Bruce Elder says Gurumul’s music gives a powerful message to other aborigines who’ve lost touch with their roots.

ELDER: “It just seems to me that with Gurrumul you say, hey — They live on Elcho Island. They haven’t learned English. They live a traditional way of life. It’s a reminder to all of those who are disenfranchised from that experience that here is something that is genuinely wonderful and beautiful, and I think in that sense he has the capacity to be a kind of role model of what could have been.”

Gurumul probably wouldn’t see himself in those terms. He’s been described as intently shy. Although he understands English, he speaks very little. When asked how Gurumul might cope with a place like New York if he ever went on tour, Michael Hohner replied: “Oh, he’s been to New York.” And indeed he has – when he was touring with an indigenous band called Yotha Yindi. The city clearly failed to impress.

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