Gurrumul: Indigenous Music / Mainstream Media

If you’ve read my previous posts on Indigenous music, you’ll know that I favor loud guitars, am intrigued by Aboriginal adaptations of hip-hop, and admit to a seemingly incongruous affection for the Pigram Brothers. “The old folkie days” as Neil Young styled them are well and truly ancient history in my musical tastes. Maybe that explains why I’ve resisted the blandishments of friends in Darwin to check out the new album by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu for several months now. But this week, in the wake of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s profile and review of Gurrumul (“Aboriginal music gets an angelic new voice,” March 31, 2008), I decided I ought to find out what all the fuss was about.I was blown away. It’s been twenty years since Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut hit me this hard with just an acoustic guitar behind a voice, and maybe another twenty before that when Joni Mitchell first left me stunned by a similar subtlety. Frank Yamma’s early acoustic tunes failed to engage me; it wasn’t until I heard his collaborations with Piranpa that I began to appreciate his talents as a songwriter. (And I’ll confess it wasn’t until more recently that I knew that Yamma led the Ulpanyali Band, although their hit “History” is one of the rock ‘n’ roll standouts on the second volume of the CAAMA 25 Years collection.)

But back to Gurrumul. Although noting the singer’s connections to Yothu Yindi, the SMH article paints him as a relative newcomer, discovered and shepherded into the spotlight by producer Michael Hohnen. In fact, Gurrumul has been around for over a decade as songwriter, singer, and lead guitarist for the Saltwater Band, and three songs on the new solo album have appeared on that group’s earlier albums (“Gurrumul History” on Gapu Damurrung, along with “Bapa (Father)” and “Galupa” on Djarridjarri/Blue Flag).

Those songs were among the most lyrical pieces in the Saltwater Band’s catalog, to be sure. But the versions included on Gurrumul justify the “angelic” hype that’s being accorded to their author these days, especially when an understated cello enters the accompaniment on “Bapa.” The gentle guitar figures and the softness of Gurrumul’s voice, sometimes double-tracked to provide harmonies, had already quite relaxed me by the time the slow bowing of the deep voice of the strings urged me to let go completely and float along with the music. In contrast, the piano accompaniment on the Saltwater Band’s (still gentle and quiet) version sounds percussive and clangorous by comparison.

Liner notes on Djarridjarri state that “The songs by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu incorporate words and concepts, images and sensations which are celebrated in the ancestral songs of the Gumatj people.” Occasionally the musical phrasings echo these traditional songs, for example in the opening bars of Gurrumul‘s song “Galiku.” On other songs, like the closer “Wukun,” the Yolngu and Western idioms are so tightly interwoven than you could carry water in them. On many of the other tracks, you would be hard pressed to identify the singer as Aboriginal, were it not for the fact that the songs are sung in Gumatj. 

I find the SMH‘s claims that this album contains “authentically traditional Aboriginal music” a bit overblown, as wrong as the notion that such traditional music is “characterised mostly by simple and repetitive chanting” and has been of “little interest outside ceremonies and dances in Aboriginal communities.” (It’s the notion of “traditional” I’m uncomfortable with, not the “authentic.”) Still, I’d be overjoyed if Gurrumul convinced neophyte listeners that Aboriginal music had more to offer than clapsticks and yidaki

Almost as exciting as the discovery of this album was the fact that I was able to buy it on iTunes. Even better, I discovered that Apple has now firmly latched on to contemporary Indigenous music. A year ago there wasn’t much on offer beyond CAAMA’s 25 Years set. Now they appear to have picked up a great deal of the Skinnyfish Musiccatalog as well as other bands distributed by CAAMA

A quick check the other day revealed albums by all of the following artists (in alphabetical order): Christine Anu, Blekbela Mujik, Sammy Butcher, Coloured Stone, Jagit, Chris Jones, Daryl Kantawara, Lajamanu Teenage Band, Late Lazy Boys, Letterstick Band, Tom E Lewis, Ltyentye Apurte Band, Nabarlek, Nangu, North Tanami Band, Rising Wind Band, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, George Rrurrambu, Saltwater Band, Seaman Dan, Spin.FX, Stiff Gins, Tjupi Band, Warumpi Band, Baydon Williams, Warren H. Williams, Bart Willoughby, Wirrynga Band, Frank Yamma, Yilila, Yothu Yindi, and Yugul. 

Some of this music had been available earlier on the Australian iTunes store. But licensing restrictions don’t allow one to buy iTunes internationally. Now I’m happy to report that all of those are available in the USA, and spot checks showed every one I looked for also available in France, Germany, Spain, and the UK. 

Now, if you want to hear more than just the thirty-second snippets that iTunes offers, you can always try your luck on YouTube, and if it’s Gurrumul you’re interested in now, youare in luck. He’s posted six videos recently, including a couple of performances with the Saltwater Band, who are among the best represented Indigenous stars on YouTube. There are several performances captured by fans from their appearance at the 2007 Telstra Art Awards, although these seem to come and go over time: I once added several of them to my favorites, only to find them unavailable a few months later. Now many of those performances are back online. 

I’ve had similar troubles with a band whose music is very hard to track down these days, Bart Willoughby’s legendary No Fixed Address. There were some wonderful television clips up once, featuring a very, very young Chris Jones on rhythm guitar, but they’ve disappeared now, perhaps for reasons of copyright infringement. There are some old clips of Coloured Stone available, lots of Yothu Yindi and Warumpi Band (mixed with Midnight Oil), along with stalwarts Christine Anu and Archie Roach.

The other option is to check out Gurrumul’s MySpace page. Half a dozen songs from the album are available for listening here, along with everything else you can expect from MySpace. There’s a link to iTunes, and a roster of upcoming performances, from Sydney and Cairns to the Woodford Dreaming Festival and the Tilburg World Festival in the Netherlands. There’s also a ten-year old video of Gurrumul performing Yothu Yindi’s song “Dots on the Shells” in a lovely acoustic version with Mandawuy Yunupingu and Neil Finn. And of course, there are Gurrumul’s friends, whose links can start you on a long hyperadventure through the pages of the Saltwater Band, Nabarlek, T-Lynx, or David Blanasi. Which will, of course, lead you to dozens of other bands you might want to explore.

One final musical note for today. I just learned today that Midnight Oil has released a limited, twentieth-anniversary CD/DVD edition of Diesel and Dust. The brilliant news is that the DVD contains the concert documentary Black Fella/White Fella, the record of the band’s trip through the Central Desert and the Top End in the company of the Warumpi Band. Black Fella/White Fella has only been available in the past on videocassette, and for many years only if you were very persistent and tracked its second-hand availability on sites like or Alibris. The new edition is only available at the moment in the US as an import from Amazon, but here’s hoping that it will receive wide distribution soon. (There’s no indication of region coding for the DVD, but with region-free players available for about US$50, the hardware investment would be well worth it.) Both bands are in top form, and the sight of kids from Kintore to Wadeye bouncing in the firelight to this top-flight rock ‘n’ roll will make you believe, if just for a minute, that art might really be able to save the world. Or at least make it dance.

Postscript: A reader has written, rightly taking exception to a line in my review above, “that Aboriginal music had more to offer than clapsticks and yidaki.” He writes: “What ‘traditional’ means may require defining but when it means genres and styles used in corroborees and ceremonies then it is complex and fascinating.” 

Although I voiced my disagreement with the SMH‘s characterization of Yolngu ceremonial music as “simple and repetitive,” the thought that did not make the transition from my mind to the page was that, too often still, the yidaki represents the extent of Aboriginal music in the mainstream media. Aborgines approaching? Cue the didjeridu! 

I hope for a day when Anangu singing provides the soundtrack for sunrise at Uluru, when troopies bounce over corrugated roads to the rhythm of the North Tanami Band, when the sun sets into the Arafura Sea to the notes of Geoffrey Gurrumul’s guitar. (One of the joys of watching the television series The Circuit was hearing the Pigram Brothers so often as the camera panned across the Kimberley on its way back to Broome.)

My correspondent pointed me to Sally Treloyn’s 2006 thesis from the University of Sydney, Songs that pull: jadmi junba from the Kimberley region of northwest Australia as a good place to start reading more about traditional music. Another book readers may want to explore in Allan Marett’s Songs, Dreamings, and Ghosts: the wangga of North Australia (Wesleyan University Presss, 2005), which won the Stanner Prize in 2006. The classic musical ethnography of the desert is Richard Moyle’s Songs of the Pintupi: musical life in a central Australian society (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1979).

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