feature 2, MUSIC -

Last album, doco to honour great man

The last album of Australia’s highest selling Indigenous musician, the late Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, will be released next month just ahead of a documentary about his remarkable life.

Both the album Djarimirri – or ‘Child of the Rainbow’ – and the film Gurrumul had been meant to be released in Dr Yunupingu’s lifetime, but his death in July, aged just 46, prompted family, friends and his record label to complete the projects in his absence.

Dr Yunupingu’s longtime friend and creative director at record label Skinnyfish Music, Michael Hohnen, told NIT the album was the result of four years’ work and was completed before Dr Yunupingu passed away in Darwin.

Mr Hohnen has also recently returned from Berlin where Gurrumul became a ‘must-see’ cinema event at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Dr Yunupingu signed off on the documentary, directed by Paul Williams, just three days before his death.

Mr Hohnen said finalising the album for release and watching the film had been emotional experiences.

“I was so close to him that I emotionally fell to pieces for quite a while after we lost him,” Mr Hohnen said. “He was such a strong part of my life.

“This year, having dealt with a lot of the family in the last six months … this year feels like a new beginning.

“I listen to a lot of this with a sense of pride and reflection.

“I feel we are injecting Yolngu culture back into the mainstream, which we’ve always tried to do, but unless mainstream people have a way of being able to attach themselves to it, you can’t.

“It’s like creative activism.”

Blind from birth, Dr Yunupingu emerged from the remote Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land to sell over half a million copies of his albums across the world, singing in his native Yolngu language.

He performed across the world for audiences including Queen Elizabeth and former US president Barack Obama and released the first Indigenous language single to reach the top five.

Mr Hohnen said Djarimirri is the most musically complex of all Dr Yunupingu’s work.

It was recorded in Sydney and New York and combines traditional Aboriginal music with classical western music played by orchestral musicians.

“He recorded a lot of the vocals three years ago before he went onto dialysis,” Mr Hohnen said.

“Even though his health had been diminishing for 10 years, he still had an incredibly powerful voice.”

In the lead-up to recording the album, the songs were performed with symphony orchestras in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

“The timing of traditional songs for Yolngu is not necessarily a western timing,” Mr Hohnen said. “But he would be able to think and hear both timings at once.

“It’s a grand work and it represents so much more than just him.”

Mr Hohnen said Dr Yunupingu loved big backing for his music.

“The more backing he had, the more he would love it,” Mr Hohnen said.

“The sound of the orchestral backing is what he had heard growing up on the albums of his favourite albums of western artists.

“You know, when an artist really made it, they would have an orchestra with them. That kind of was his thinking. When you were really good, you played with an orchestra.”

The album will be released on April 13 and Gurrumul will hit cinemas nationally on April 25.

  • Following Dr Yunupingu’s funeral in November, his family gave permission for his name and image to once again be used so that his legacy lives on.

Wendy Caccetta





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