On May 28 2013, on a live final of The Voice, Delta Goodrem and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu performed Bayini, a traditional Gumalji song which Gurrumul sang in his native Yolngu language and Delta duetted in both English and Gurrumul’s Yolngu. It was a moving experience as two remarkable voices, the majestic vibrato of Gurrumul, and the crystalline soprano of Goodrem, harmonized in a way that lent true reverence and meaning to Reconciliation Week, and left us with a musical legacy of a man who would leave us too soon in 2017.
Gurrumul had originally recorded this song as part of his second album Rrakala at the Powerhouse Studio, now known as Avatar in New York in 2011, it was a famous studio where such legendary rock acts as the Rolling Stones, Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, and David Bowie had recorded, the album was released in 2011 and like his debut album charted #3 nationally.
The standout single was Bayini, written by Gurrumul and one of his relations Raywun Maymumu, it is a song of communion, related to the rites of the Gumalj expressed in “Mala Rrakala”. Gathered as if in a congregation, the Gumalj sit on the beach and lift their gaze to the horizon, honoring the Ancestral Women – the Bayini of the title – who came over the sea in the Dreamtime to enfold the land in their power.
The original album version by Gurrumul was a simple acoustic arrangement with no English language lyrics, and yet given the provenance of the song and its connection with the female ancestral spirit character of Gurrumul’s clan, it was no surprise then that two of the most impressive versions of this song would be duets between Gurrumul and firstly Sarah Blasko in 2012 and then Delta Goodrem a year later. Below – Gurrumul and Sarah Blasko
Sarah Blasko collaborated with Gurrumul to write additional verses in English, and they performed the duet in London, Gurrumul singing in Yolgnu and Blasko in English, so that this spiritual love song became a haunting duet between two gifted performers. This was followed by an altogether grander version of the expanded song by Gurrumul with Delta Goodrem which included not only Gurrumul’s musical director Michael Hohnen on double bass and Gurrumul himself on acoustic guitar but musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, enriching the sound with strings, guitars and keyboard. This performance of the song was debuted on Season 2 of The Voice Australia and when it climbed to #4 on the charts, it became the biggest-selling song by an indigenous musician to reach the top 5 in Australia, and Rrakala was also awarded the ARIA award for Best Independent Roots Album for 2011.
Gurrumul’s unique vocal treatment of this song is best described by Robert Hillman in his 2013 book Gurrumul His Life and Music “Gurrumul’s voice climbs in this song as if reaching towards the Bayini, while the harmonies he sings remain murmurously subdued, suggesting the tenderness of the welcome extended to the women … A grand folk hymn about the ancestral female spirit Bayini, who still watches over Bawaka, a region of the Arnhem Land.”
Gurrumul’s world generally moved slowly, but as his fame grew the demands on his time increased, Quincy Jones, legendary American record producer described his voice as “one of the most unusual and emotional voices that I have ever heard… it’s unbelievable”, Jon Pareles music critic for the New York Times described it thus “ Gurrumul gave every melody an inner glow “and described his voice as “preternaturally soothing .. . it seems to arrive from a distance, high and serene, with a hint of reediness and a humble quaver, proffering melodies like lullabies.”
The 2015 Gospel Album was Gurrumul’s third studio release, and like all previous solo albums by him it climbed to #3 nationally and was awarded the ARIA for Best World Music Album in 2015, however Gurrumul was fighting liver and kidney diseases which would ultimately take his life in 2017, he was only 46, his parents Daisy and Terry had already pre-deceased him several years before.
The posthumously- released album Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), which had been curated and produced by Michael Hohnen, became Gurrumul’s first national #1 hit and won ARIA awards for Best Male Artist, Best Independent Release, Best World Music Album, and Best Cover Art, and album sales of over half a million copies made him the biggest-selling Aboriginal artist in Australian recording history, and he was the recipient of no less than nine ARIA awards. In 2014 Gurrumul would join Delta Goodrem in a rendition of Silent Night on her Spirit of Christmas album in 2014, again it would be an emotional merging of two unique voices.