Elcho Island is 560 kilometres from Darwin, off the north-east Arnhem Land coast. A strong musical community there has produced members of Yothu Yindi, the lead singer of the Warumpi Band, George Burarrwanga, the country/gospel band Soft Sands, the Chooky Dancers and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Gurrumul was born blind in 1970. He learnt to play a right-handed guitar left-handed and is proficient on a number of other instruments, including keyboards and drums. For some years he was a member, with some of his cousins, of Yothu Yindi, which, besides extending his musical experience, would have given him an introduction to the music business and touring. After leaving Yothu Yindi he formed the Saltwater Band in 1996, the same year he played one of his songs, ‘Djarimirri’, to Michael Hohnen, a fresh-faced Melbourne bassist who had come to Elcho Island to conduct a music course. Deeply impressed, Hohnen took ten years to coax Gurrumul to begin work on a solo album of his songs, played primarily to the stripped-back accompaniment of acoustic guitar and Hohnen’s upright bass. Gurrumul was released in 2008 on Skinnyfish Music, with expected sales optimistically set at 20,000 copies; 140,000 copies in Australia later – with ARIA awards, worldwide world music chart success, gushing high-level international press and a performance with Sting doing ‘Every Breath You Take’ on French TV in between – comes Rrakala.
On first exposure, Gurrumul draws forth a comparison with another recent breakout artist with a stand-alone voice and a compelling cycle of songs: Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, and their I am a Bird Now. It may seem a strange coupling – Indigenous, remote island man and transgender, New York underground art singer – but both men offer up songs sung in angelic voices that chronicle, in surprisingly similar ways, an intuitive, highly sensitive response to their surroundings. Both men seek redemption in nature: Gurrumul, singing mostly in the Yolngu language, mixes landscape, animal life and family into a spiritual reverie; Antony’s mythology sees nature and the feminisation of society as the only means of human survival. In both cases the result is an otherworldly record that seems instantly to exist on no other terms but its own. And so it was in the marketplace, where a honey-voiced Indigenous singer–songwriter eschewing direct political and social commentary broke through on word-of-mouth recommendation and stellar reviews.
Seen in relation to Rrakala, Gurrumul now seems a more traditional and straightforward singer–songwriter album. Here perhaps is the cream of the material from a long apprenticeship that ended in mastery of the songwriter’s craft. They are stirring songs, highly melodic and heart-wrenching, accompanied by the singer’s own finger-picked steel guitar. Hohnen’s bass is artful and supportive, at times more ‘felt’ than heard in the mix. Some electric guitar is often the only colouring added to a spartan recording plan that in essence says, “Here are 12 fantastic songs – enjoy.” And, in fact, little was needed in the way of instrumental flavour because the singing takes up so much room. Bruce Elder, the longstanding folk and roots music critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, called it “the greatest voice this continent has ever recorded”. It may be, but it is also more than a voice; it is ‘voices’ and the way they are employed that could in the end turn out to be a greater achievement than the voice itself. Often songs begin with Gurrumul singing in a bass-toned natural register; quickly a high harmony enters to offer melting sweetness and contrast, and then can come block-layered harmonies; add humming, scat sung noises and clicks to this, and the most intriguing and revolutionary aspect of the man’s art is the way he uses his voice.
In between the two solo albums came Malk, the third Saltwater Band album, and on it were three songs from Gurrumul, re-recorded. The Saltwater Band, also produced by Hohnen, play a ska/reggae-fied version of world music pop and their versions suggest the unpredictable pros and cons of electrifying a folk song. ‘Galiku’ and ‘Baywara’ are both quicker in tempo than the originals. The former benefits from – or at least can accommodate – the added instrumentation and swing, while the latter, with its heartbreaking opening line, ‘I heard my mother from the long distance making me cry’, loses a lot of intimacy and power in the new arrangement. Rrakala doesn’t follow any of the roads opened up by the Saltwater Band. Instead it is a companion to Gurrumul: another 12-song set, with clean, minimal production and Gurrumul’s singing at the centre. Yet for all the surface similarities, the differences between the two solo albums are deep: the grand uplifting melodies are fewer and the mood is sadder, while musically the new album is more adventurous, side two especially, which with its spare sounds and cyclical melodies tends to a style bordering on art music.
Like its predecessor, Rrakala opens with the album’s most instantly attractive melody, in this case ‘Gopuru’. ‘Mala Rrakala’ continues the mood, but where Gurrumul soared off at this point with ‘Bapa’ and ‘Gurrumul History (I was born blind)’, Rrakala starts a meditative journey, surfacing for the delightfully clipped ‘Ya Yawirriny’, and followed, with the entry of Gurrumul on piano for ‘Warwu’, by a five-song run that barely moves above ballad tempo. The trance-like atmosphere of this group of songs, and of Gurrumul’s music in general, comes from the melodic structures of his songs. Absent is the tight formula of much western pop, with its quick interlocking verses and choruses, and often a third ‘middle eight’ section introduced after the second chorus. Instead Gurrumul either writes one highly melodic chord sequence, tweaking it with his arrangement, or two or three such sections or blocks, and ingeniously shuffles them in and out of each other. The mood is always stately and deliberate; this music has its roots in the melodic end of folk, with its switching of major and minor chords, aided by touches of soul, gospel and, as Paul Kelly noted in the recent February issue of the Monthly, a ‘fado style’, heightened on Rrakala by flourishes from Gurrumul’s nylon-string guitar.
He’s a very talented musician. And it’s remarkable that while the singing and songs impress, the expert acoustic-guitar licks, the James Burton–style electric-guitar picking, the piano and the brushed drums are also all his work. It’s rare, too, for a singer–songwriter to be able to score their own music and personalise it to the extent that Gurrumul can. To go with the expansion of instrumentation on the new album there has been a shift in recording location from Melbourne’s Audrey Studios to Avatar Studios (formerly the Power Station) in New York. Gurrumul was beautifully recorded, but Avatar has imparted an added presence and spaciousness – and among the beneficiaries is the upright bass, which is now on its own and able to be appreciated as it links up and supports the guitar and voice. If the decision to record there is that of the album’s producer, Michael Hohnen, then it is one more bold and good decision to come from him. Gurrumul is the discovery, but in his shadow is the emergence of Hohnen as a first-class record producer. There’d be a lot of big studio names who would swamp these songs, or, despite realising restraint was required, still add too much. Each overdub from Hohnen seems considered, and every temptation resisted only makes these songs sound bigger.
‘Gu nilimurru nhina yarrarra’yun’ is a lyric line from ‘Warwu’ and an example of the ‘look’ of the Yolngu language. Sung by Gurrumul with rolled ‘r’s and a clipped tongue, the melodies at times evoke the drama of the Mediterranean folk song; there is even a sense when listening to him of hearing someone singing in Portuguese or Italian. A language loved and caressed in song can often be appreciated by non-speakers. That’s the power of Gurrumul. Yes, his songs are a mantra of home, family, ancestors, sunsets, mourning and crying – that’s what it says in the English translations of his lyrics. But through his art and the care he takes, he’s able to skip the ‘translation’ stage and go where only great musicians can go – straight to the heart.
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