[8 August 2014]
Photo: Adrian Cook
Australia’s Gurrumul (full name: Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu) is no stranger in world music circles, as it turns out. He graced the cover of Australia’s edition of Rolling Stone in 2011 and counts the following celebrities as fans: Sting, Elton John, Oprah Winfrey, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Stevie Wonder, Björk and will.i.am. He was flown to the White House to perform for none other than Barrack Obama. However, it is just now that his 2008 eponymous album is being released in the United States. And it turns out that Gurrumul has an interesting backstory. He is an indigenous Australian who has been blind since birth, as recounted on this album’s track “Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)”, and doesn’t read Braille, use a guide dog or need a white cane. He was born in 1970 on an island off the coast of Northern Australia (the publicist claims you need a special visa to travel there), and though he is blind, he has been blessed with an inordinate amount of musical talent. Aside from having a piercing, beautiful voice, he plays drums, keyboards, guitar (a right hand-strung guitar left-handed) and didgeridoo. The songs on Gurrumul are mostly in his native tongue of Yolngu, though some English is sprinkled in, despite having a limited grasp of the language.
Speaking of his tribal dialect, it is spoken by no more than 3,000 people, so you may be surprised to learn that Gurrumul went on to sell 500,000 copies worldwide despite the seemingly limited audience due to the language barrier. However, it is Gurrumul’s soothing voice and folksy strum that has seemingly captivated people. And listening to Gurrumul, it’s easy to see the appeal. Gurrumul’s voice floats like a lazy river, no matter what language he’s singing in, and sometimes it trills like a bird’s. There’s a real sense of heartbreak and yearning in his vocal range, and even when he hums, as he is wont to do, you can’t help but be enrapt. As for the music itself, it’s actually fairly straight-forward and not out in left field at all. If you recall Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album, that would give you a fairly accurate assessment in some respects of Gurrumul’s sound. I also hear a little of Mark Knopfler in his guitar playing, which isn’t surprising considering that Dire Straits’ music found its way into Gurrumul’s household while growing up.
Gurrumul unspools at a leisurely pace. It runs more than an hour, and half of the record’s 12 songs eclipse the five minute mark. This is a disc that invites you to sit down, have a cup of tea and just listen when you aren’t rushed or hurried or have anything in your time frame that would distract you from the simple pleasure of this music. True, 60 odd minutes of the same thing can be a bit tiring, but there are enough curveballs thrown into the mix to make this an exemplary release, such as the cello that rears its head on “Bapa”. It’s also something that this album even exists at all, as it is the tradition of Gurrumul’s tribe to work as a collective and individual expression is something of a rarity. As such, there isn’t really a standout song on this collection – it all fits together rather seamlessly, as though the songs were hand-picked to not overshadow each other. It all floats along, creating a breathtaking experience. There’s a woozy feel to the album that is hewn with a sad beauty, and listening to it is like looking at a pocket watch being swung back and forth.
For being born blind, Gurrumul has a vision and a passion for making his own brand of music. I’m not sure that Gurrumul will make him a superstar among the average, ordinary American – there isn’t really a track here that would become an oddball breakout hit along the lines of, say, Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, and that’s largely due to the fact that English is very sparsely sprinkled into these songs – sometimes Gurrumul will sing in his native language, and then insert a few lines of English before switching back to Yolngu. However, the language that Gurrumul speaks here is universal, and that is something of splendour. Gurrumul’s voice haunts and is balm to the wounds of day-to-day living. There’s something special and timeless about this release, and here’s hoping that it at least catches on on some kind of cult level at the very least. Gurrumul might not be to everyone’s tastes, but is hardly the sort of thing that is going to alienate. If you’re willing to take risks and chances, as I did, Gurrumul more than satisfies and may just cause you to rethink whatever position you might have on world music. Gurrumul is not just for those holding Ph.D’s in anthropology and have a grasp on indigenous cultures; this is real music made by a human being for other human beings and deserves to be shared by as many people as possible that are willing to travel the path to a little known portion of Australia’s society. It’s a path that Gurrumul so effortlessly leads the patient listener down with his homespun tales and a voice to be reckoned with.