I can remember when the band Yothu Yindi first hit the airwaves in Australia many long years ago. The sound of the didgeridoo accompanying the Indigenous singers captivated me. The lead singer was a young man by the name of Gurrumul. Today I want to honour his memory and his music.
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was an Indigenous Australian musician. Didgeridoo, drums, keyboards, a right hand guitar played upside down left-handed were his instruments. But above all else he was known for the clarity of his singing voice. He sang stories of his land in Yolŋu languages such as Gälpu, Gumatj or Djambarrpuynu, and also in English. Solo artist and band member, he was the most commercially successful Aboriginal Australian musician.
He died young – aged 46 – of liver and kidney disease in July 2017. Nine months after his death in April of 2018, his fourth album – Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow – was released. It was four years in the making and has become the first in an Australian Indigenous language to top the music charts in Australia.
“He’s singing about himself, how he was brought to the world and he’s covered with rainbow,” she said.
“Djarri is a rainbow. He is presenting that message to the world — telling the world that he is yothu djarrimir: ‘I am a rainbow child, and I am covered with rainbow.'”
A self-taught multi-instrumentalist from Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island just off the Arnhem Land coast, he was blind from birth. He played the guitar upside down with his left hand. He had no use for picks. He simply kept his fingernails long.
Gurrumul became well known here in Australia and overseas, giving guest performances (eg Queen Elizabeth II and Barack Obama) and singing duets with other famous artists (eg Sting, Missy Higgins).
My impression of him was that of a humble man who seemed uncomfortable to be in the limelight.
‘What listeners to Gurrumul’s voice and music hear is not simply ‘beauty’ but something that is the sound of life itself being honoured.”