Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s upcoming concert with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will not only showcase his stunning emotive voice, it will also illuminate a part of Australia few people get to see.
Titled Gurrumul: His Life and Music – also the name of his recently released album – the show incorporates video clips featuring members of the Indigenous singer-songwriter’s family on Elcho Island, off the coast of north-east Arnhem Land.
“It gives the audience a rich insight and cultural perspective on the context from which Gurrumul writes,” says friend and long-time collaborator Michael Hohnen, creative director of Skinnyfish Music.
“The family really adds another dimension to this concert, and an aesthetic which is unable to be represented by someone like me … you can see the family, you can see the love, you can see how Gurrumul lives in a traditional Aboriginal community.
“It’s not just abstract random video going on the background – this is the opposite. It’s not too literal, but it paints a very good cultural picture.”
Gurrumul’s concert with the ASO will be at the Prince Alfred College Oval in Kent Town on February 16, with Kate Ceberano as special guest.
The family videos will serve as an introduction to some of the songs in the live performance; on other occasions they will blend into the music. The song “Djilawurr”, for example, ties in with a story illustrating the importance of the bird to Gurrumul’s clan, with members filmed performing the Djilawurr bird dance.
To accompany “Bapa”, a love song about fathers, there is footage of men nursing young children on Elcho.
“There’s this beautiful imagery of fathers cuddling their kids – it’s really touching,” Hohnen says.
“There’s so much in the media that’s negative and we [at Skinnyfish] just thrive on the positive.
“This project is really uplifting for me and Gurrumul and the audience.”
Hohnen says working with an orchestra adds a richness to the performance. The Adelaide audience will also be treated to three songs from a new Gurrumul album of what he describes as “more meditative, more traditional” music due for release next year.
Sometimes described as an “enigma”, Gurrumul, who was born blind, is known for being reserved with the media and in the public arena.
Hohnen says Yolngu people often adopt those with whom they work and give them a relationship, and in his case Gurrumul has assigned him the relationship of brother, with all the responsibility that entails – including doing interviews and narrating live performances.
“But it’s a collaborative musical relationship in that there’s the same amount of respect from both sides but we have our own worlds … it’s a very strong musical and social relationship.
“The trust we have in each other is very strong. I understand a lot of what he wants to do and doesn’t want to do.”
The pair met while Hohnen was conducting a music course on Elcho Island around 18 years ago. It was also on Elcho that Hohnen met Skinnyfish managing director Mark Grose and they decided to set up an independent record label for Indigenous musicians in the Northern Territory.
As a teenager, Gurrumul had sung and played with Yothu Yindi before starting his own band, but it was his solo eponymous debut album produced by Hohnen and released through Skinnyfish that brought him worldwide attention and multiple ARIA awards.
“When you are in his company, it feels like an honour – you’re with someone who does have something special that they’re giving,” Hohnen says.
“When I’m playing with him, I’m still often struck by something profound and special that you get with the one-off artists.”
He adds that while Gurrumul is able to channel a powerful feeling of nostalgia, he has also listened to thousands of mainstream artists – “The Eagles, whoever” – and is driven partly by a desire to be as good as his heroes.
The Eagles? Yes … and others as diverse as Gerry Rafferty, Mark Knopfler, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and Iron Maiden.
“He’s a real pop kid … he was born in the early ’70s, so also loves all that late ’90s one-hit-wonder stuff.”
Gurrumul: His Life and Music will be performed at Prince Alfred College Oval in Kent Town on February 16 with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and special guests Kate Ceberano and Dewayne Everettsmith.