Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bringing indigenous Australia to the world - Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu

It has often struck me as a little bit odd that here in Australia we usually find our indigenous music tucked away in the World section of our CD shops, as if this music somehow comes from and belongs to somewhere far away – which I guess in a sense it does. It is music that belongs to a world that is vanishing fast and that, even for the people who still hold onto it, can sometimes seem distant and hard to get to.

But if the bridge between that world and this can be built by music, then Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu could well be its architect. His first album, Gurrumul, brings together the worlds of indigenous and westernised Australia with incredible love and respect for both, and the result is music that makes you believe that the two have really belonged together all along – or for at least as long as they have cohabited this continent.

The opening of the album’s first song “Wiyathul”, with its soft humming vocal line, has a kind of comfort and reassurance to it, setting the tone for these songs that are, for the most part, sad but fond reminiscences childhood, and of Gurrumul’s cultural connection to land and life.

Singing in several indigenous languages, as well as in English, with a voice of easy gentleness, musical and yet somehow still rooted in the red and dusty earth, Gurrumul is accompanied by nothing other an acoustic guitar and a double bass and, occasionally, by extra vocal harmonies.

And yet, while the music is delivered with unadorned simplicity, the songs themselves are built out of an absorbing and unusual combination of Western and indigenous elements – melodies that wander and wail, but always return to rest on their tonic roots; fluid, complex rhythms in the vocals that are underpinned by square and steady strumming on the guitar. It creates a complex and beautiful tapestry of cultures, woven tenderly and seamlessly together.

These songs all tell an intimate, personal story. “I was born blind”, for example, captures so much of the essence of this artist and his music: acceptance of the cards that fate deals, but determination to play the hand well, and to show everyone else around the table that it wasn’t such a bad hand after all. “I heard my mama, and my papa/crying their hearts in confusion/how can I walk? Straight and tall/in society please hold my hand/trying to bridge and build Yolnu culture/I’ve been to New York/I’ve been to LA/I’ve been to London/narranydja Gurrumul”. These are proud words that grow out of sadness and vulnerability. I still call Australia home pales in so many senses.

But the personal intimacy of these songs does not for a moment mean that they are not political as well. If ever the dictum that "the personal is political" had resonance it is here in these songs, as it is indeed in all of Australian indigenous culture, where the personal, the individual, is always part of the bigger world, inseparable from it.

And so, when Gurrumul laments the loss of his country in “Galupa” it is a lament as much for what white development has done to aboriginal heritage as it is for his personal loss of home. Here the two are one and the same.

These songs are beautiful to listen to – but don’t expect their message to be easy. The music weeps and accuses at the same time.

Gurrumul is a wonderful and groundbreaking achievement from this erstwhile member of Australia’s powerful aboriginal band, Yothu Yindi. Thank you Neal for the introduction and the gift!

1 comment:

  1. can you tell me what Wiyathul means? Could it mean "turkey"? Like in bush turkey.