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EXCLUSIVE: Australian Artists On Gurrumul's Impact - 'His Music Is Immortal'

12 April 2018 | 1:24 pm | Steve Bell

"He was afforded the opportunity to represent his people to the world and that's why we say his name, so the world doesn't forget."

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Less than a year after the sad passing of revered Northern Territory musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu his ambitious final musical statement arrives alongside a documentary telling his inspiring life story. Friends and collaborators BriggsJohn ButlerSarah BlaskoCaiti Baker and Delta Goodrem give Steve Bell their takes on the man behind the myth.

A note regarding the use of Gurrumul's name and image: The passing of any Yolngu person is usually accompanied by strict traditional protocols which preclude the use of the deceased’s name. The immediate family of Gurrumul have been clear throughout the grieving process that the contribution he made and continues to make to Australian and Yolngu cultural life should not be forgotten. The family have given permission that following the final funeral ceremony, his name and image may once again be used publicly to ensure that his legacy will continue to inspire both his people and Australians more broadly.

In mid-2017 Australia lost what was widely recognised as one of our most important ever voices when Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu passed away in a Darwin hospital at the age of just 46, finally succumbing to complications stemming from longstanding liver and kidney disease.

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Born blind in a remote community on Elcho Island - off the coast of Northern Territory's Arnhem Land - Gurrumul spent his early years immersed in music of all persuasions and then, in adulthood, embarked on a mission to take the traditional music of his people to the world.

Having cut his teeth in both Yothu Yindi and Saltwater Band, Gurrumul's solo career kicked off in 2008 when his eponymous debut album - performed in a mixture of his native Yolngu tongue and English - took the world by storm. This unique, ground-breaking collection went triple platinum, took home two ARIA awards and announced Gurrumul as a global force to be reckoned with.

For the next decade he took stories of his land, family and people to the wider world, introducing his culture and customs to whole new audiences who were inspired by both his amazing journey and his angelic, otherworldly voice. Yet Gurrumul was a shy man who carried himself with a quiet dignity and mostly shunned interviews, so even as his profile skyrocketed we never really learned too much about him as a person, save what could be gleaned from his beautiful music.

Image via Gurrumul Film

Now two near-concurrent releases will attempt to delve into Gurrumul's history and let us understand a little more about the man himself. Paul Williams' stunning documentary Gurrumul offers a wonderful depiction of a fascinating life, slowly painting a portrait of a man stuck between cultures and their often-contradictory requirements and expectations.

Gurrumul's posthumous fourth album Djarimirri (Child Of The Rainbow), on the other hand, is a four-year labour of love that strives to bring these disparate worlds together. It presents traditional Yolngu songs and harmonised chants placed within hypnotic western orchestral arrangements, not only fusing cultures together but also shining a light onto the creator's life and deep-rooted connection to his people.

"I think he's the whole package," reflects contemporary and collaborator John Butler (image by James Minchin III) . "If you could break it down with some cultural and economic analyser there was a whole thing going on there, he's the whole package. He's a very soft-spoken, intelligent, deep-thinking man who sang like an angel, he was blind, he played the guitar upside-down, he sang in language - there's so many visceral hooks. Was it his voice? Was it how he looked? Was it his culture? Was it his language? Was it his songs? He was awesome, a full package of delights.

"I guess what struck me most of all was that he was good at what he did, and he had a very angelic voice, and it was a nice culmination of all these different attributes from Indigenous to western and so on - which is great - but I was just really stoked how the Australian zeitgeist attached to it, and totally identified with it and was utterly struck by it."

Sarah Blasko was another musician who worked closely with Gurrumul, recording a duet of his track Bayini in 2012 and often joining him on stage to perform the song in concert.

"It's kind of amazing because, in a way, I feel that we really just communicated through the music and that was always such a spiritual experience," she recalls. "I don't think I've ever performed with someone with so much purity in his voice and absolutely no pretensions. The pop world or mainstream can be pretty vacuous at times, with people putting on personas and affectations, but Gurrumul's music is so much about his spirituality and his family, and going from this other world to communicating with him through his music, I found it very overwhelming and I found it very emotional, almost embarrassingly so. It was just something very special to perform with him."

Delta Goodrem also formed a strong bond with Gurrumul after duetting with him on Bayini, this time for a 2013 episode of The Voice where the pair were backed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (the live recording of which went on to become the highest-selling Indigenous language single of all time).

“Working with Gurrumul felt otherworldly,” she tells. “To be able to sing with this incredible man; I will always treasure. We really connected musically, both in the place that we sing from and it was very real to both of us what we were saying through song.

“I love this great land and beautiful country and to be able to sing with Gurrumul to represent our culture is really important. I feel so honoured to have had the opportunity to share his talents with all of Australia. Music lives on forever and Gurrumul’s soul with his music is immortal.”

Northern Territory musician Caiti Baker also often crossed paths with Gurrumul, and got to see a slightly different side of the singer when he'd come to Darwin from Elcho Island to record and hang out.

"He loved playing over all music - he just loved music," she smiles. "He'd get up on stage with me at gigs that I'd do around town and just humbly sit in the back, and plug his electric guitar in. I'd call him 'Willie Yunupingu from the south' and he'd transform into this amazing blues guitarist.

"I guess it was just normal times, that's just who he was when he was around us all. And we were all aware of him being increasingly unwell, but we didn't expect to lose him yet... You just don't want to, so you don't think it.

"But getting to perform with him on stage was just amazing: his voice and his presence is unsurpassed, but also his musicality and his musicianship are brilliantly flawless. He just loves music, there's no pretention and no ego, none of that at all."

Another musician with whom Gurrumul struck up a powerful rapport was Victorian rapper Briggs. Despite coming from different musical worlds, the pair found common ground straight away, Gurrumul guesting on tracks for both Briggs' solo efforts and his acclaimed collaboration AB Original.

"We both enjoyed music and where we ended up musically was beside the point," the Shepparton-bred MC explains. "I think we both just enjoyed good music, and the main common denominator for it all was humour: we both laughed at the same stuff and were into jokes and messing about. That was always the main core of our friendship: the fact that we were just laughing at everything.

"When we connected it was like connecting the north and south, it was about bringing our two stories together and our two sounds together, and changing the expectations that people had about both of us and what we were capable of - and musically what we stood for and what our values were - and bringing that to the forefront of our collaborations. That was an important moment: to be able to mix the remote with the rural and the city as well."

Without exception, these artists who'd gotten to know Gurrumul - the man as well as the musician - are delighted that these projects will help keep his name and legacy alive for future generations.

"He was a beautiful man and his music touched so many people," Blasko offers. "I think that his spirituality was intrinsically entwined in his music and who he was, and that's a pretty powerful thing because there's a lot of music that's disconnected from the place that it comes from, or spirituality in general. A lot of music out there is disconnected and soulless, and doesn't really mean much; that's why music like his will always be important."

"He was afforded the opportunity to represent his people to the world," says Baker solemnly, "and that's why we say his name, so the world doesn't forget."

Djarimirri (Child Of The Rainbow) and Gurrumul are released this month.