April 2011

Essays

To the heart

By Robert Forster
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, 2011. © Sam Karanikos
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, 2011. © Sam Karanikos
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s ‘Rrakala’

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.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

In This Issue

Stephen Milne leads his St Kilda teammates in a recovery session, September 2008, Melbourne. © Stuart Mcevoy / Newspix / News Limited

Out of bounds

Sex and the AFL

Tony Blair campaigning his way to a landslide victory for Labour, April 1997. © Tom Stoddart / Getty Images

Chariots of fire

Tony Blair’s legacy

Assange arrives at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court with his lawyer Jennifer Robinson for his extradition hearing, 24 February 2011. © Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Crayfish Summer

Julian Assange, sex crime and feminism

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

George W Bush & John Newcombe


More in Music

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Photograph of Oren Ambarchi

While my guitar gently bleeps: Oren Ambarchi’s ‘Shebang’

Another mesmerising album from the itinerant Australian, in collaboration with some of the biggest names in experimental music

Photograph of Richard Dawson

Once upon a time in Helsinki: Richard Dawson & Circle’s ‘Henki’

The Geordie singer-songwriter joins forces with Finnish experimental rock band Circle and invents “flora-themed hypno-folk-metal”

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality