The Monthly music wrap: April 2018

By Anwen Crawford
Gurrumul’s ‘Djarimirri’ makes history

A lot happened in April. Beyoncé broke the internet – again – with a headlining performance at the Coachella music festival. Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. As for Kanye West, well, perhaps the less said about his latest antics, the better.

In which case, we can turn our attention closer to home, and to an album that last week became the first ever in an Aboriginal language to top the ARIA Album Chart.

Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, released in mid April, was recorded over a period of years, and completed shortly before the late artist’s death last July. It blends 12 traditional chants in the Dhanju and Dhuwala languages, sung by Gurrumul, with arrangements played by members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The string players cycle through insistent, interlocking phrases, with the cellos in particular mimicking the pulsations of the yidaki (didgeridoo). According to producer Michael Hohnen – who was also Gurrumul’s closest musical collaborator – these bass lines were transcribed from yidaki playing, in consultation with Yolngu elders, and then adjusted for orchestral tuning. Brass instruments and percussion reinforce the string patterns, and on tracks like “Galiku (Flag)” and “Djilawurr (Scrubfowl)”, the harmonic and textural constraints result in a mood that is nevertheless resplendent, almost triumphal.

These orchestral arrangements draw heavily on the work of modern composers such as Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt. (Sometimes a little too heavily: “Marrayarr (Flag)”, with its descending, canon-like string melodies, will recall Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” to anyone who’s heard that piece.) Gurrumul’s voice, often multi-tracked, is one musical instrument among many, rather than being spotlighted in the way it was on earlier albums like Rrakala (2011).

The danger here is that specific Yolngu practices, of which Gurrumul was a custodian and exponent, risk losing their autonomous significance and meaning, becoming absorbed into the “Western” musical catalogue: assimilation by orchestra. I think that danger is skirted, though I can hardly be the arbiter of this, or pinpoint exactly why it’s so. It does have to do with the painstaking cultural consultation process that went into Djarimirri, and also with the seesawing momentum that is both an aspect of the music and a reflection of its makers’ intent. Gurrumul, Hohnen and composer Erkki Veltheim are all credited as co-composers and arrangers of Djarimirri, and the record is a testament to the place they found together, where two fundamentally different musical traditions, Yolngu and contemporary classical, become resonant with each other, however temporarily or unresolvedly.

It’s worth considering this achievement alongside the recent documentary film Gurrumul, directed by Paul Williams, the cinema release of which has coincided with the appearance of Djarimirri. The film, too, was completed while Gurrumul was still alive – he gave his final approval just three days before his death. It was held over for general release in order to comply with Yolngu mourning protocols. See it, if you can.

Williams was granted extraordinary access to Gurrumul, not only while he was recording and touring, but also during his times at home on Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island). Footage of Yolngu ceremonies, including initiations and funerals, is strikingly intimate without being exploitative, and serves to underline Gurrumul’s role in his own family and community. Through archival footage and interviews with Gurrumul, his family and friends, we also learn about his childhood on Galiwin’ku, and his early musical career as a member of both Yothu Yindi and the Saltwater Band.

Williams’ careful efforts to avoid treating Gurrumul as an exotic anomaly are not, unfortunately, shared by some of those who encounter Gurrumul in the course of his working life. Williams captures several instances where balanda (white) journalists and musicians treat him like some holy fool, with an awful mixture of condescension and paternalism. (If your opinion of Sting wasn’t already low, it might hit rock bottom after watching this film.) And when Gurrumul’s obligations at home conflict with his touring schedule, it’s striking how fast some industry types come down on the side of business, in spite of their sympathetic talk.

For all of these cross-cultural tensions, it’s the friendship between Gurrumul and Michael Hohnen that stands at the centre of the film. The two men refer to each other as brothers, and treat each other that way, too, affectionately and irreverently. Hohnen is also Gurrumul’s amanuensis in the balanda world, and he discharges that duty without piety. Williams treats this relationship for what it is: particular and unusual. But it is also clear, when turning back to Djarimirri, that the work of these two musicians demonstrates one way for Aboriginal music, in Aboriginal languages, to be played and heard in unaccustomed yet powerful contexts.

Also of note this month: New York hip-hop star Cardi B follows up last year’s smash “Bodak Yellow” with her equally bold debut album, Invasion of Privacy. Grouper, aka Liz Harris, returns with another collection of elusive, tremulous songs on Grid of Points. And Janelle Monáe follows in the footsteps of both Beyoncé and Prince with her funky studio recording-slash-visual album, Dirty Computer.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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