Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu was born in1970 at Galiwinku on Elcho Island in the Arafura Sea off the northern coast of Arnhem land (Aust), he was a member of the Gumatj clan and the first of four sons born to Terry and Daisy, he was totally blind at birth. (A young Gurrumul below)
Gurrumul enjoyed a normal upbringing with his brothers and extended family, he never learnt braille, never used a white cane or a guide dog, his parents did not see him as handicapped, like his siblings he attended a Methodist mission school and church and sang in the choir. Songs which Gurrumul has made famous such as Wiyathul, Djarimirri, Galiku, and Wukun, are hymns of praise for the Yolgnu way of honouring life and are often thematically related to the Wesley brothers hymns of the Methodist church choir. The union of a Christian religion with the beliefs of the Gumatj clan did not seem irreconcilable to Gurrumul and his people.
His uncle David Djunga gave him a right-handed guitar with fishing line strings, Gurrumul is left-handed, so he turned the guitar upside down and played it left-handed, which is how he has played for the rest of his life, he also became proficient at drums, keyboards, and the didgeridoo.
As a youngster he was musically inspired by Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder, the local Soft Sands String Band, and later US country star Vince Gill, he preferred to sing in his native tongues – Galpu, Gumatj, and Djambarrpuygu. His voice effortlessly captured many moods- poignance, introspection, tenderness, soaring celebration, playfulness, wonder and at times a caressing sensuality, he can sing in English, but prefers to sing in his mother tongue.
In 1989 he became drummer for Yothu Yindi (above at rear), fellow band members were also mostly Yolgnu people, the band’s frontman was the charismatic Mandawuy Yunupingu, Gurrumul’s uncle, (above centre), the band members had adapted/adopted white man’s music and culture to connect with a broader market, Gurrumul segued from drums to guitar and keyboards within Yothu Yindi, he was a multi-instrumentalist.
Gurrumul co-composed the anthemic song Treaty with Mandawuy Yunupingu, Paul Kelly, Peter Garrett and others, and in 1992 their debut album Tribal Voice climbed to #4 nationally and occupied the charts for an incredible 72 weeks. But Gurrumul’s parents were concerned about the stress that their son was being exposed to as part of a famous band, he yielded to pressure from his family to return to Maliwinku, he was 21 years old, and he would be 25 when the next opportunity to compose and perform his music surfaced in 1996, when Michael Hohnen came into his life
Hohnen was a graduate of the Victorian Collee of the Arts and a capable double bass player, he had played with Melbourne indie band the Killjoys before deciding on a career as a music teacher with TAFE, he met Archie Roach in London in 1991, after Archie’s seminal album Charcoal Lane had been released and was inspired by the emerging indigenous musical themes and their associated cultural and political imperatives. He relocated to Darwin and took a position at St. John’s Catholic College, whose activities extended to Elcho Island where he first met Gurrumul (Hohnen and Gurrumul below), there he discovered a well- developed local music culture, Elcho is part of the island group about which Christine Anu sang in her 1995 version of the Neil Murray song My Island Home, Hohnen encouraged Gurrumul and others to form a band, and they did.
The group Saltwater (below) comprised – Gurrumul, Kevin Djaminina Gurrawiwi, Marcus Dhurrkay, Jason Dhamarrandji, and Andrew Dhamarrandji – they recorded a debut album in 1999 entitled Gapu Damurrug at Mark Grose’s Skinnyfish Records, it was a reggae-tinged outing which sold 10,000 copies, two more Saltwater albums proved popular and were nominated for awards but did not resonate within a wider music market. Hohnen saw the unique quality that Gurrumul possessed and encourage him to follow a solo career path.
Improvisation is a natural form of traditional yolgnu singing, derived from the oral tradition of story-telling, it is often expressed in manikay (traditional singing), a form that Gurrumul wanted to share with the world. The role that Hohnen would play in exercising the artistic judgement necessary to preserve a balance between capturing Gumalj words and culture in a way that connected with a non-indigenous marketplace, would prove to be pivotal in the future.
Hohnen prepared Gurrumul for his first solo album recording session, at the Audrey Studios in Coburg (Melb), Hohnen would produce and also play the double bass, he was joined by former Killjoy guitarist Craig Pilkington, and Gurrumul played acoustic guitar and keyboards.
Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind) was written by Gurrumul and his uncle David Djunga, the naturally humble and intuitive singer brought his spellbinding vocals to produce a mesmerising experience for the listener, who would most likely have no knowledge of his language. Never the less those who first heard this song knew that Gurrumul was singing of the beauty of his island, singing of sorrow, of longing, and of the joy that comes his way, of peace and suffering, of love and loss, and these are all highly accessible universal themes. There is a spiritual quality to his voice, a tenderness, a yearning, keening quality, the timbre and cadence are quite unique, the song also contains his only reference to a Christian god, “I was born blind, and I don’t know why/ God knows why, because he loves me so/ As I grew up, my spirit knew/ Then I learnt to read the world of destruction/ United we stand, divided we fall/ Together we’ll stand, in solidarity.”
It was also the only song on either of Gurrumul’s first two albums which had a political message, it is a mild one, a type of propaganda for humanity, united we stand, divided we fall, together we stand in solidarity. His uncle David wrote most of the lyrics and his Methodist beliefs are embedded in the them – faith, a loving Christian god, a fellowship of humanity, unity and solidarity.
Gurrumul prefers to use acoustic guitar on his recordings but at Michael Hohnen’s suggestion on this song, a Fender Stratocaster was used to achieve a sound not unlike a steel guitar, it provided a simple, sparse framework for the beautiful and emotion-laden vocals of Gurrumul, invested with such pathos and passion, that they unerringly connected with audiences around the world.
Gurrumul History was one of only two songs in English on his debut album, which was intended to attract a non-indigenous audience, and was one of Gurrumul’s most personal songs, and inevitably it ended his live concerts. Robert Hillman in his book Gurrumul – His Life and Music 2013 best described the importance of this song to Gurrumul “… the language of a blind black man, drawn up from the soil and stored in his heart.”
The songs on his debut album reflect a love of country (Wyathul, Galiku), a deep spiritual connection with the land (Djarimirri, Marrandil), the death of his father (Bapa), and the struggles associated with being born blind (Gurrumul History)
The album Gurrumul signalled the arrival of a unique talent, it sold over 200,000 copies, was #3 in Aust, #9 in Germany, #10 in Switzerland, #13 in Belgium and #48 in the UK, it was nominated for four ARIA awards in 2008, ultimately winning the ARIAs for Best World Music Album and Best Independent Release. In 2009 Gurrumul’s portrait by Guy Maestri won the premier prize for portraiture when it took out the Archibald Prize that year.(below)