Gurrumul In The UK

2 July 2012 | 4:16 pm | Michael Hohnen

London, June 2012. Reflections on one of the most extraordinary weeks in Gurrumul's career by Michael Hohnen.


In early June 2012, Gurrumul and I set off for London by royal invitation from Her Majesty the Queen of England, commissioned by the BBC and supported by the Australian Government, to perform at her Diamond Jubilee.

It all began late last year after Gurrumul performed for the Queen at her official welcome ceremony in Parliament House, Canberra during the royal tour to Australia. As UK music legends Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gary Barlow were writing a specially commissioned song incorporating artists from around the Commonwealth to mark the occasion of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, a special request came direct from Buckingham Palace to include Gurrumul on the Australian leg of this project - it seems Gurrumul had a fan in the Palace.

Earlier in the year Gurrumul and I flew to the Blue Mountains to meet Gary Barlow who we assume at this point was not familiar with Gurrumul's music. Gary had pegged Gurrumul to play acoustic guitar on the song Sing - that was until he heard Gurrumul sing Bapa to him acoustically, sitting on the edge of a cliff in the Blue Mountains. Gary was quite literally swept away by his voice and the three lines of chorus Gurrumul had written and prepared for the song - sung in Yolgnu and translated as - "Sing Loud. Sing Strong. Sing Clear". An instant connection was made and after this day of recording together, Gurrumul and Gary formed a very strong musical bond. Gary included Gurrumul's voice and guitar on the track, making him the only male solo vocalist in the song.

The BBC sent a documentary crew to track Gary in his travels across the Commonwealth to record this song. The Australia section featuring Gurrumul and Gary's day in the Blue Mountains is a highlight of the feature doco - the BBC used this part as the official trailer, the Director mentioned it was his favourite part and even a cab driver in London (one of the millions of Brits who watched the documentary the evening before the Jubilee concert) told us he liked Gurrumul's part the best.

On arrival into London, it was obvious that the country were taking this Jubilee celebration very seriously. Blue white and red everything, everywhere and a four day weekend where people didn't leave the city - choosing to stay and join the festivities. In purchasing Gurrumul and my suits for the occasion (complete with our matching Gumatj yellow ties and cravats), last minute alterations were required. With 10 mins to go before London shut down to celebrate for 4 days we located a tailor who jumped to duty when he realised this suit was for a performer for the Queen. London loves her. London was in celebration.

And so too was Gurrumul - as he ended up cross legged in front of the TV in his hotel room listening to every part of the BBC broadcast, from the river pageant, to the drive through London for a lunch at Westminster Abbey, he became like a serial royalist. Of course he was most excited when the BBC repeated the concert the day after the event so he could hear it all properly.

As preparations for the jubilee reached a peak, Gurrumul was invited to perform live on BBC Breakfast TV together and he and I got to have a chat with the hosts on the infamous red sofa. Amazing coverage on prime TV in the UK, though it meant hiring a van big enough for Gurrumul's team my double bass to drive to Manchester (Media City, the new home for much of the BBC) and back. 8 hours of travel for 5 mins of TV! As it was the breakfast program, sound check was at 5am and on this occasion it was Gurrumul ringing me to check if I was awake and getting ready at 4am!

Before I was interviewed, the trailer to the BBC Documentary - Gary Barlow - On Her Majesty's Service - was aired on the show. This was the first time we had seen any of the footage and a great feeling of anticipation swept over us as we could tell this was going to be a very special documentary. The realisation of how big the next few days was going to be for Gurrumul - set in. I gave an interview on behalf of Gurrumul and the Yolgnu community as Gurrumul's voice swept through this sparkling new BBC studio and across the UK.

The Australian media in London were keen to capture the only Australian performer who had travelled to London for the Jubilee (with Kylie Minogue and Rolf Harris being the only other two almost-Aussies involved). Channel 10 captured Gurrumul in his full length winter coat (on a London summer day) walking near Kensington Palace, as I explained to camera the importance of the Royal family to Gurrumul's family and in particular their reverence for the Queen and Princess Diana. An American tourist recognised Gurrumul from the TV that morning and came over to say hello - this put a big smile on Gurrumul's face! One more TV appearance before Jubilee day - The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning - this time in the somewhat tired London studios - and Gurrumul sang Mala Rrakala and once again, wooed the UK.

Off to Buckingham Palace for the final dress rehearsal and sound check - this time, with all the stars. Tom Jones was refining his flamenco version of Delilah onstage as we put extra woollen layers on to step onto the impressive outside stage set up around the Victoria statue in front of the Palace. As Andrew Lloyd Webber's grand piano was wheeled on, so too were the African Slum Drummers' instruments, Gary Barlow's keyboard and Gurrumul's guitar. The seemingly hundreds of Military Wives took their place alongside the Ugandan children's choir led by Lydia (who opens the song). To loud cheer, Gary Barlow made his first appearance to the group since everyone had met him abroad - he went straight to Gurrumul and thanked him for making the effort to come over saying it meant so much to him. What an impressive and incredibly giving person Gary Barlow effortlessly proved to be.

Before launching into a few practices of the song and all the technical tweaking, Gary got on the PA and announced to us that their song had just hit number 1 in the UK. Perfect timing to announce this, eliciting an excited cheer from all the performers - yet another highlight moment and it was still Sunday and only the dress rehearsal!

Jubilee Concert Day

Prior to departing for the UK Gurrumul received an official request from the Governor General of Australia to meet during her visit to London for the Jubilee. As the Investiture Ceremony was to be held at the High Commissioner's Residence, having Gurrumul perform a song to open this ceremony was a fitting way to facilitate meeting the Governor.

Performing in his new suit, to an intimate audience of 25 people in the lounge room of Stoke Lodge, Gurrumul delivered a beautiful acoustic version of Bapa and Djilawur' - the two songs he chose to perform for the Queen in Canberra last November.  At the end of his songs, the Governor General gave the most heartfelt and stirring speech which referenced her personal connection to Elcho Island (meeting important female elders from Galiwinku who have had a strong influence in her own life) and the beauty and importance of Gurrumul's voice to his community and our country at large. There was not a dry eye in the house after this speech which even made Gurrumul clap.

By late afternoon of Jubilee Day the London sky finally lifted delivering a beautiful sunset, and off to Buckingham Palace we went.

Located adjacent to the palace and spilling into Green Park was the backstage area. It was jumping with anticipation and you didn't have to look far too find yet another sight to behold. Kylie's dancers practising spinning on their heads, Uganda donning their children bright red cloth and beads, Military Wives squealing every time an A-lister walked past, Robbie Williams having his photo with the Palace Guards, Grace Jones zipping by on a buggy, Kylie ducking and weaving about the corridors, new young pop sensations checking their look. It was a sensory overload as some of the world's finest musicians gathered in tents beside the Palace.

Stevie Wonder was happy to meet with Gurrumul - and when we got that news, Gurrumul literally jumped from his chair and walked faster than we have ever seen him walk to his dressing room. It was a bit crowded as Elton John and Paul McCartney had dropped in at the same time to say hi to Stevie - so we waited outside. There was a nice moment when Paul McCartney made a point of stopping to say hi to Gurrumul as he came out of Stevie's room. And later a golden moment when Elton came up to tell Gurrumul that he was a big fan and loved playing with him in Darwin.

Shy Gurrumul was as always, silent when he met Stevie Wonder - but Stevie chatted away and played some keyboard - navigating each other's hands to shake. We discovered that Stevie loves a photo - very happy to pose with Gurrumul and then asking us if we wanted photos too. What a man. We all left his dressing room as high and happy as can be.

The performance of Sing by Gary Barlow and the Commonwealth Band came on just after the Queen arrived and was seated in the royal box. Gary led Gurrumul on stage - dressed in his new suit with yellow tie and cravat looking as sharp and proud as can be. The big screens moved from images of the performance to a historical montage of the Queen on her travels through the Commonwealth, throughout her reign. Beautiful, stirring imagery backed by a very fitting song now sung to Her Majesty.

Time for the final chorus - and as Gary said on the documentary "here comes Gurrumul…" - singing his specially written part of the song loud and strong to the crowd and to the millions of TV viewers. I can also safely and not so modestly say that Gurrumul had most powerful and accomplished voice on the stage and with such a big group of performers together, this did not go unnoticed.

All artists gathered in the small tent behind the stage awaiting the finale with wall-to-wall A-list musicians from around the world trying not to knock each other over. The producer arranged the performers in a particular line order to go on stage - and who would have dreamed that Gurrumul's position was right beside the Queen.

With fireworks rocketing over Buckingham Palace - there, centre stage standing very near the Queen was Gurrumul, with me just behind her and close enough to whisper to Gurrumul exactly where (and how close) she was standing. Australia and the world watched the smiles of  Gurrumul and I vicariously feeling Prince Charles's touching speech to his mother and then singing  God Save The Queen with inclusive celebration.

At the conclusion of the concert the Queen went back stage to meet and thank the artists. Gary Barlow made sure that Gurrumul did not miss an introduction and I noted the Queen's reaction when Kylie Minogue introduced him to her as "Gurrumul - a special voice from Australia”. She replied- "yes I've already met this man, he played for me in Australia". Prince Charles was in the entourage and he made a special point of telling Gurrumul "next time you must sing one of your own songs".

The image of the Queen and Prince Charles on stage for the finale flanked by some of the world's top musicians and Gurrumul and I right behind her, was beamed to televisions around the world and across newspaper and print media everywhere. We awoke to London's Sunday Sun with this image on the cover, we had calls from friends and family in Australia saying they had seen it, we picked up magazines and papers bearing the image as we travelled onto the US and Canada. What a moment for Gurrumul and I.

And what a moment for Australia as Gurrumul's voice provides identity to all Australians, beauty and spirit to the whole world.

"Last year we were both asked to get involved with The Queen's Diamond Jubilee. One of the ideas was to write a brand new piece of music together to mark the occasion. After chatting, we were both excited and decided to have a go. Sing is the result. We are both very proud of it and have really enjoyed collaborating. We hope that Sing will be remembered as our small contribution to an extraordinary event celebrating an extraordinary woman."
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gary Barlow, 2012.