Aboriginal singer evokes tribal history in his songs

Gurrumul's music evokes the stories of his tribe and ancestors.
Gurrumul's music evokes the stories of his tribe and ancestors.PHOTO: PRUDENCE UPTON

For blind aboriginal world music singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, or Gurrumul, Singapore offers a taste of home.

Born on Elcho Island, 580km off the coast of Darwin in Northern Australia, he was excited about finding stingray on his last trip here in 2013, says his friend and fellow musician Michael Hohnen.

"He was very excited because that's something his family eats back home," says Hohnen.

The acutely shy Gurrumul, 45, does not give interviews and relies on Hohnen to be his eyes and voice.

Hohnen has known him for more than 20 years.

They communicate in Gurrumul's "version of English" and Gurrumul has taught him some phrases in Yolngum, one of Australia's indigenous languages.

They met during a music industry course that Hohnen, 49, was conducting on Elcho Island. He now plays double bass in Gurrumul's touring band, which includes a drummer, pianist and guitarist. They spend up to three months of the year on the road.


    WHERE: University Cultural Centre Theatre, National University of Singapore

    WHEN: Tomorrow, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $98 to $148 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

They will be performing tomorrow at the National University of Singapore Cultural Centre. This is Gurrumul's only show in South-east Asia for his current tour.

Gurrumul, who was born blind, released his eponymous solo album in 2008 and sings in a mixture of Yolngu and English while plucking a right hand-strung guitar, which he plays left-handed. His music evokes the stories of his tribe and ancestors.

Last month, he won his third Australian Recording Industry Association award for his new release The Gospel Album, in the Best World Music Album category.

Hohnen says: "The funny thing about going to see him live, apart from his voice which is incredible, is it feels like you are experiencing something unique."

Gurrumul does not interact with the audience or move much on stage, and Hohnen likens it to classical musicians who put 100 per cent into their performance and are not concerned with the audience.

Gurrumul, he adds, is concentrating on strumming, picking and singing, "and channelling that beautiful voice that he has".

Musician Sting, who has performed with Gurrumul, described his voice as that of "a higher being". Other musicians who have collaborated with Gurrumul include Elton John and Gary Barlow.

Hohnen says Gurrumul, who is working on his fourth album, represents an aspect of Australian culture that is centuries old.

A film is being made about him by director Paul Williams, docu- menting his journey from life on Elcho Island to becoming an award-winning musician. It is due for release next year.

In the trailer, Gurrumul's manager Mark Grose touches on the issues of health and community that aboriginal people face, saying: "Every project we do, we treat it as though it's the last project we'll ever do with him. It could end tomorrow."

While Hohnen admits it is a bit of a dramatic statement, it speaks of the realities facing Gurrumul's people, including a shorter life span due to poor health and nutrition.

"We have a responsibility of representing him and his family's cultural expression and values and painting them in the best light possible," he says.

"We know that he's a very, very special human being."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Aboriginal singer evokes tribal history in his songs'. Subscribe