Early death of musician didn’t obscure legacy of racial harmony and bridge building
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was an aboriginal singer, guitarist and songwriter. During his short career, he made three albums of original music – Gurrumul (2008), Rrakala (2011) and The Gospel Album (2015). He was working on another record, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), at the time of his death in July 2017. His longtime producer, Michael Hohnen, finished the tracks and they will be released in the States on July 13, 2018. I spoke with Yunupingu and Hohnen shortly after Gurrumul was released in the US.
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is a blind Aboriginal singer/songwriter and guitarist from the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu people of Australia’s North East Arnhem Land. His first album as an acoustic artist, Gurrumul, was released in Australia in 2008 and went double platinum. It also won two ARIAs (the Australian Grammy) – Best World Music Album and Best Independent Release.
Aboriginal culture and music may be one of the last frontiers in the field of world music. Even in Australia, the music’s largely unknown outside of Aboriginal areas, despite the mainstream success of Aboriginal bands like Youthu Yindi, a rock band that had some global success in the 90s and Saltwater Band, which blends reggae, ska, dance rock and traditional Aboriginal influences. Before “going acoustic,” Yunupingu was a member of Youthu Yindi and still plays electric guitar and keyboards with Saltwater Band.
“I was 16 when I got invited to play with Youthu Yindi by the lead singer, Mandawuy Yunupingu (no relation,)” Yunupingu explained. “I was with them for about six years, but got tired of touring everywhere. We were not the first integrated band in Australia (there were non-Aboriginal members as well as Aborigines in the band,) but it was the first band that got mainstream recognition.
“When I left [Youthu] in 1996, I started Saltwater Band with the help of Manual Dhurrkay (Saltwater’s lead singer) and Michael Hohnen, who is now my manager. We [Yolngu people] love reggae music, especially Lucky Dube. [Saltwater Band] plays some traditional songs in a reggae style. Some of them are thought to be 10,000 years old, or maybe much older, especially the stories that go with them. We just finished mastering our third album, which will be released soon.”
Despite Yunupingu’s pop music success, his manager and producer Michael Hohnen felt that his music would be better served in an acoustic setting. “Making Gurrumul was close to a perfect experience,” Hohnen said. “Geoffrey knew that what we were going to do was important. He liked my idea of creating an album that was a collection of songs with subtle changes in mood, so you could play it as a body of work. He tracked it all in five days; many songs were flawless single takes. After a few months, we did some simple overdubs, including one day when his brothers visited. They did some backing vocals on ‘Djarrimirri’ in about 20 minutes. The (Yolngu) all work quickly as musicians. We mixed it in Darwin, with a brilliant sound engineer called Matthew Cunliffe, who achieved the floating, angelic kind of sound we wanted.”
Yunupingo’s music isn’t based on blues or rock, but its folk/pop feel makes it accessible to most listeners. At times, his guitar playing hints at Hawaii’s slack key style, with its ringing bell-like notes, measured tempos and rich overtones, but he’s not sure about the Hawaiian connection. “I think it’s more Pacific Islander, because some of their string band music came to our Island. Maybe they got that from Hawaii? My picking sounds different than anything else because I learned by listening to recorded guitar and imitating the sounds I heard. Because a lot of recorded guitar is so precise, I learned to do that too, by picking very carefully.”
Yunupingo sings in a high tenor that often slips into a chilling falsetto, more pop than traditional. “When I sing traditionally, I don’t sound like I do on my CD, except for a couple of noticeable things. The bridge I sing in ‘Gurrumul History’ and my melodic singing in ‘Wukun.’ Otherwise, I sing in a western pop way. Most of the songs are originals, except ‘Galiku’ and ‘Wukun,’ which have traditional elements.”
Yunupingo grew up on Elcho Island, where music was an important part of daily life. “My childhood was a cherished, loving, very happy time. I was brought up by my blood family, plus hundreds of people in my extended family. I have three brothers and three sisters and many cousins who, in my culture, are called sisters and brothers too. Music was my life growing up. Traditional songs and ceremony were dominant, but so was white gospel music, UK and US pop and folk music, which I loved. I started keyboards at three years old and guitar at six, when my uncle took me to church and showed me my first chords. I also play all western band instruments. I just pick them up and spend a lot of time feeling the notes out for myself, then I try to play like I have heard it before.
“I wanted to do an album with a mix of styles, but Michael thought an acoustic sound that could be listened to as a whole album would be best. I was surprised by how popular the album became. Everyone in my family loves it and is very proud.”