Gurrumul Tops Charts, Happy For Mainstream Opportunity With Delta

5 June 2013 | 1:29 pm | Dan Condon

Can Gurrumul go from Delta Goodrem to Warren Ellis by way of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass?

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Thanks largely to a performance on the hit TV program The Voice, Gurrumul has hit the top spot on the iTunes singles charts this week with the rendition of his song Bayini (originally a duet with Sarah Blasko) performed on the program with Delta Goodrem and musicians of the Sydney Symphony.

Speaking with this morning, friend and long-time collaborator Michael Hohnen expressed his shock and joy that the music of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was getting such strong credence in the mainstream.

“It's always been a battle for us to try and get it into some kind of mainstream platform; I have to thank [Delta] for essentially giving Gurrumul that one opportunity in the mainstream. It's been almost impossible to get him any sort of mainstream exposure. Delta did an incredible job; probably outside of what she's known for doing. She took on the language thing… the industry support for him is just phenomenal.

“Gurrumul loves all the mainstream stuff; I've grown up as more of an indie boy and an alternative music head, but he just loves mainstream so that was absolute gold for him.

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“The producers must have noticed that it was Reconciliation week coming up, so they came to us and basically said would we like to do something for that week with one of the judges. I spoke about it with Gurrumul – he'd already dome the song with Sarah – and he said 'What about the girl?' so we wrote back to them and they were basically into it.

“Gurrumul and Delta spoke on the phone a couple of times and he told her the story about the Bayini spirit woman – it's part of the culture and language of North East Arnhem Land – she wore yellow and gold and bangles and bracelets. Gurrumul and Delta – it was a funny phone conversation to listen to – talked about her being able to wear that sort of stuff as the character and he was overjoyed by that.”

Album number three is well underway, with Hohnen looking to take Gurrumul's pop sensibilities and orchestrate them using inspiration from so-called minimal composers such as Phillip Glass, Steve Reich and Michael Nyman.

“The works are a new style,” Hohnen says. “I see Aboriginal music as very minimalist and powerful. It is one of the only true mediums of historical documentation of this country that is still alive and well. Last year Gurrumul and I spoke about going in a new direction, and the natural direction for me was to go more traditional. We recorded a set of works that are harmonised and beautiful, stark and powerful, and we are now orchestrating these.

“I have followed the model of the Michael Nymans, and Steve Reichs, the minimalist “pop-classical” composers of this world and started to work with an incredible Finnish/Australian composer arranger called Erkki Veltheim to come up with works that reference this style. It is important for me that we try to bring this music and stories to the fore so Gurrumul, Erkki and I are trying to make them as accessible, rich and beautiful as we can.

“The new works were embraced, including one called Gitar (about the contemporary instruments introduced to NE Arnhemland like piano, guitar, harmonica and violin). The idea is to complete orchestrations, then record them all, then release the album, but also put out these pieces of music to collaboration with contemporary artists who may want to work with that style to come up with something electronica, or heavy, or very raw.”

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While Hohnen doesn't anticipate the orchestration to be complete for another 12 months, he is already generating interest in the concept.

“When I was in New York recording with Gurrumul, I met with an amazing guy, Daniel Glass, who runs an incredible label called Glassnote,” he tells. “He loves Gurrumul, but he doesn't know what to do with him. I told him what we were doing in this new direction and he said that sounded like something that could really work for everyone.

“Being able to present these incredible songs, with Gurrumul's harmonies with orchestral arrangements in a way as an ambient classical album and then present them to guys who work in more of a contemporary music field to have a go at doing something. Whether it's a group like The Dirty Three who will take the songs and do something with them or whether it's an electronica artist who takes the sonic landscape and produces something new out of it, the music world is so open to anything now.”

Hohnen says that talks with artists have begun, but is adamant that nothing has been locked in as yet.

“I've spoken to a few people, but we're going to wait and see, once its finished, what the orchestral stuff sounds like. It's too early to put names out there in case nothing ever happens

“I've had some beautiful conversations with Warren [Ellis] from Dirty Three about Gurrumul and improvisation and music and stuff, but there's nothing there yet because I really need to hand over these bodies of work and see what people think.”

You can buy Gurrumul and Delta Goodrem's Bayini from iTunes now. Proceeds go to the Gurrumul Yunupingu Foundation.