Gurrumul Yunupingu’s final album released with documentary a year after death
In Yolngu lore the name, image and voice of the recently departed is retired from all public use.
Yet such is the importance of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s work — and the desire to preserve his legacy — that clan leaders have made a rare exception in his case.
Now, nine months after the famed Indigenous musician’s death, the world will be treated to a rare insight into his life with the release of a new documentary, simply titled Gurrumul.
Gurrumul documentary trailer
For his producer and long-time friend Michael Hohnen, the project is something of a luxury.
“It gives everyone insight that no-one really had before,” he said.
The film is by necessity a tale of two worlds.
That of Elcho Island and the Indigenous community Gurrumul grew up in, and the world of showbusiness that took him to Paris and the US and beyond.
A cultural phenomenon
Gurrumul’s music saw him achieve critical and popular acclaim and elevated him to a lofty status in Australian musical culture, but his beginnings were unconventional.
He was born blind and got his first guitar at age six. Being left-handed he adopted an unusual playing style, holding the guitar upside down.
By his mid-teens he had joined Indigenous rock group Yothu Yindi and a little while later Hohnen convinced him to pursue a solo career.
He released his first album in 2008, sung almost entirely in his Yolngu language and promptly picked up ARIA awards for best independent release and best world album.
An impromptu duet with Sting in Paris in 2009 gave him global notoriety and set the reluctant star on a course he didn’t anticipate and at times didn’t seem to want.
Two more albums followed over the coming years — selling more than 500,000 copies worldwide — as well as guest performances for the likes of Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.
He was described by Rolling Stone Magazine as “Australia’s most important voice” while Sting described him as possessing a “voice of a higher being”.
“He had this aura about him when you first met him,” Hohnen reflects.
“You didn’t know who had walked into the room, there was a special energy.”
Yet as the documentary makes clear, there was an at time uneasy relationship between the fame and the man.
Gurrumul was a reserved person and it wasn’t unheard for him to sit in on his own interview without saying a word, allowing Hohnen to speak entirely for him.
He would shun tours to instead return to his home on Elcho Island, believing he had more to learn from the people there than those in the “balanda” (white man) world.
In 2011 he became seriously ill and his condition worsened until he died last July of kidney and liver disease, aged only 46.
Gurrumul’s legacy and final album
This week Gurrumul’s final album will be released.
Titled Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) it’s a collection of traditional songs and harmonised chants in his traditional Yolngu life that have been mixed with orchestral sounds.
It was four years in the making and was finalised just weeks before his death.
“We kept going for as long as he could and he wanted to,” Hohnen said.
“He resisted dialysis for a long time.
“So there was this imperative in the back of your mind, but also he was so into having fun that it was more like: be a musician, have fun, indulge and try and make as much incredible music as we could.”
For Hohnen, Gurrumul’s legacy is evident in the Yolngu culture and the reverence he is held in.
Only recently Hohnen was talking to a singer from Arnhem Land who told him: “We’ve lost our king.”
“His legacy is how strong the culture is,” Hohnen said.
“It’s an asset to this whole country, and something that I think, maybe after this next album, maybe after the film, people will actually be more able to embrace it.”
It’s hard to underplay the importance his family and friends place on legacy.
If allowing the use of Gurrumul’s name, image and voice didn’t prove it, then the testimony of those in his community might.
Elcho Island resident Ted Gondarra said he hoped those who watched the documentary would be “filled with pride”.
“Too often Aboriginal Australians feel their culture is hijacked by another agenda, a balanda [whitefella]agenda, and distorted beyond recognition,” he said.
“We Yolngu live by our own unique balance of life, culture and land and we care for our country and our people.”
Documentary director Paul Williams knew the responsibility he was taking on when he started the project, which received Gurrumul’s blessing just three days before his death and has remained unchanged since.
“The depth and breadth of Gurrumul’s culture needs to be revealed to our audience incrementally, with increasing sophistication as their sensitivities to its nuances develop,” he said.
“I want to leave them with the sense of awe that I felt when I came to understand just how deep the flowing waters of their culture ran.
“Ultimately the film is about two very different worlds coming together to produce something amazing.”
For Hohnen, the release of the album and the documentary present a bittersweet moment.
“That was his ultimate dream, to be happy, to do music, and to pursue culture.”
Tune in to ABC Classic FM at 8pm AEST on Saturday, April 14 to hear Gurrumul’s final album in full, presented by Michael Hohnen.