Celebrated Australian indigenous musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu has released an album of songs inspired by the Christian hymns of his childhood.
His third studio album, titled simply The Gospel Album, presents the soothing, harmonious gospel sounds of the traditional remote Northern Territory churches.
It features classic songs such as Amazing Grace, which includes a glimpse of Australian rock royalty Paul Kelly’s voice, and Jesu, sung in Gurrumul’s native languages, Yolŋu Matha.
Watch: ‘Jesu’, from ‘The Gospel Album’.
How Gurrumul’s Music Was Discovered
Gurrumul, who is famously very shy, does not give interviews.
However Hope Media’s Nick Bennett caught up with Gurrumul’s producer, collaborator, spokesperson and long-time friend Michael Hohnen in the lead-up to the album’s release.
Michael, a musician himself and former member of Australian band The Killjoys, heads up Skinnyfish Records which releases Gurrumul’s music.
He moved to Darwin after he met Yothu Yindi, the band of Gurrumul’s father.
“I loved Yothu Yindi and they were one of the reasons I headed to the Northern Territory to live,” he said.
“I met them one day in Melbourne and it was really intriguing meeting these strong, powerful guys, and not knowing anything about them, and about the underneath, almost secret knowledge of this country. I ended up packing up everything I was doing in Melbourne and went to live in Darwin and I’ve been there ever since, close to 20 years.”
Soon after his move, Michael was visiting Elcho Island, Gurrumul’s home, and met the man himself.
Best of friends: Gurrumul and Michael Hohnen.
“I was working for the university running a music course and I ended up on his island, there’s a lot of music comes out of that place,” he told NPR radio show All Things Considered.
“It’s quite confronting when you first meet Gurrumul. He relies on people to guide him. I met him and he’s quite physical with you and sat down and started playing and singing. We were immediately struck and recognised how special he was.”
It was the start of what is a brother-like friendship and recording partnership.
“He’s intuitive, he’s funny, he’s very shy and very reclusive in some ways,” Michael explained. “And I think part of that is a big safety mechanism for him and a survival technique. But he’s incredibly talented.”
Michael accompanies Gurrumul on the double bass in many of his performances.
The Inspiration Behind The Gospel Album
The Gospel Album is a window into Gurrumul’s childhood growing up on Elcho Island, and the church established there by the Methodists.
“He was taken to the church from when he was a little boy and he was in the junior choir and the senior choir there,” Michael explained to Hope Media.
“A lot of the hymns from that tradition were sung in that church and he learnt them on guitar and as a vocalist.
“Part of our responsibility, I feel, is to bring out his voice to the mainstream and that’s what his family really want. And this [gospel sound] is a big part of his character and his makeup and his voice.
“The aunties and the leading female characters in his life brought him up in that church and these are all of those hymns from that time and he just loves the music.”
To promote the album, Gurrumul has been touring and giving performances with local choirs.
This week he performed with the Inner West Voices at the Enmore Theatre.
Collaborating With Paul Kelly, Delta And Sting
Watch: Delta Goodrem, Gurrumul and Michael Hohnen perform ‘Bayini’ on ‘The Voice’.
The collaboration with Paul Kelly on the track Amazing Grace came about during the Northern Territories Barunga Festival, where both artists were performing.
“Gurrumul had just recorded Amazing Grace and we asked Paul if he wanted to sing on it,” Michael said.
“A week later he was in the studio in Melbourne with me, putting down a part for the album. And it was just in time.”
Gurrumul is no stranger to collaboration. He’s joined forces with the likes of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne rapper Briggs, Sting, Missy Higgins and Elton John, who he supported on his Australian tour.
In 2012 his song ‘Bayini’ was re-recorded with new English lyrics added by Sarah Blasko. It brought national attention to his album Rrakala, which went on to reach platinum sales in Australia. The song’s lyrics refer to many families of the Yolngu people sitting together on the beach, gazing out at the waves, sea and horizon, contemplating.
Delta Goodrem then joined Gurrumul in 2013 to perform Bayini on The Voice – in recognition of National Reconciliation Week.
The duet was released as a single, debuting at number 4 on the ARIA singles chart, becoming Gurrumul’s best-charting single, and one of Goodrem’s most successful as well.
More recently, Delta and Gurrumul recorded Silent Night together in celebration of Christmas 2014.
Michael said the collaborations are a testament to the artists’ incredible talent.
“When we were in Paris playing with Sting, you could feel this musicianship coming to the fore,” he said, “and the more time you spend with him, the more that musicianship comes out.”
He’s Performed For Royalty
World-renowned: Performing at the 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Gurrumul is a self-taught musician, accomplished on drums, keyboards, guitar, didgeridoo, and guitar. One of his musical quirks is that he plays a regular right-hand-strung guitar with his left hand.
But it’s his pure voice for which he’s most famous.
In 2008 Gurrumul he was nominated for four ARIA awards, winning Best World Music Album and Best Independent Release, and at the 2009 ARIAs, he won the Breakthrough Songwriter of the Year. He was also named Act Of The Year in the 2009 Indigenous Music Awards.
He’s performed for both Queen Elizabeth II and the Pope, and in 2009 was the subject of the Guy Maestri portrait that won the Archibald Prize.
How Gurrumul’s Blindness Affects His Life
Gurrumul has been blind since birth.
When he goes on tour, his partner sometimes comes along and acts as his guide, but when she doesn’t, it’s up to Michael to be his “eyes”.
“Geoffrey’s blind and relies on other people to lead him through every situation,” he explained, “from eating to travelling in taxis and planes, to backstage, anything that we do. I’m like his eyes. And he, unlike a lot of blind people, doesn’t strive for autonomy. He likes being led by someone else.”
Michael said Gurrumul has a very cautious nature.
“There’s a great line in his first record about him being blind and he says “please hold my hand”.
“I love that line because that’s what he does in life, he wants to experience life through other people as well. I think he just gets a lot more out of it than trying to suss out every situation by himself.
“He’s constantly comparing and checking himself and checking other people to make sure that whatever he’s hearing what people tell him, is actually true.
“Not being able to see is a big part of having to do that. He’s an intelligent, intuitive musician, and a great person and performer but he’s just wary.”
Gurrumul had an amusing encounter a few years ago when he met Barry Humphries’ character Dame Edna Everage during a photo shoot.
Michael explained that while Gurrumul has a great sense of humour, he “couldn’t quite work her out”.