The single most important thing to be said about the collaboration between Gurrumul, Michael Hohnen, Mark Grose and Skinnyfish Music is that it has produced superb music.
It’s a point worth making, even if it seems obvious, because the artistic accomplishment of the partnership is sometimes overwhelmed by the cultural and political implications of Gurrumul’s emergence. Any benefit the songs provide to our understanding of Indigenous culture; any deepening of our sympathy for the Indigenous cause is to be welcomed, but the music comes first.
What the two Gurrumul albums provide is a series of daring experiments that succeeded against the odds. The languages in which the songs are sung — Gälpu, Gumatj, Gupapuyu — should be alienating, but instead they enhance the impact of each song; the narratives should be baffling, but instead we seem to follow them with growing intimacy; the rhythms should reach our ears only to have us baulk, but instead we welcome them.
Even the beauty and fine temper of the Gurrumul voice could become cloying in certain songs, and yet we never tire of its subtlety. In other words, what we should be listening to is World Music at its most indulgent; instead, we hear something that conjures the mystery of a continent we thought we knew completely.
‘The second album, like the first, is determined to provide a largely non-Indigenous audience with the opportunity to embrace the music’
When Bruce Elder famously wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (11 April 2008) that Gurrumul’s voice was the finest Australia had ever produced, he might have qualified his claim by saying it was the finest vernacular voice. Or need he have bothered?
A voice highly trained for art music has some advantages over an untrained vernacular voice, and a lot of disadvantages. An art voice is of little benefit when it comes to dramatising what happens in the real world of living people; our lives, after all, are lived in the vernacular.
Sinatra’s voice worked with the vernacular, superbly, and so did Bob Dylan’s. The crucial question is: can the voice carry passion to its destination? And how many destinations can it reach? Gurrumul’s voice carries that freight of passion to almost every point on the emotional compass of his people. (It would have to be conceded that his temperament doesn’t take in much on the anger spectrum.)
The opening to ‘Wiyathul’, a wistful song of memories from the Gurrumul album, is a sigh set to music, and Gurrumul weaves that sigh all through the song. In ‘Djärimirri’, a song of gladness also from Gurrumul, Gurrumul manages to control the sentiment of quiet affirmation so that we are left with something as tender as a cradle song.
In other songs, he is capable of not only conjuring poignance, but of varying the poignance with a deft modulation of tone.
Extract taken from Gurrumul: His Life and Music by Robert Hillman (pages 308-311).
Published by ABC Books $65.00