Look­ing for quiet man of Arn­hem Land

Gur­ru­mul: His Life and Mu­sic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Iain Shed­den

By Robert Hill­man ABC Books, 329pp, $65 (HB)

IT’S June 2012 and Gur­ru­mul has just per­formed for the Queen at her di­a­mond ju­bilee cel­e­bra­tions in Lon­don. Back­stage, other artists on the con­cert bill take turns to pay their re­spects to him; peo­ple such as Ste­vie Won­der, Paul McCart­ney and El­ton John, singers who have been on the celebrity A-list since long be­fore it was called that.

All the while Gur­ru­mul says noth­ing but smiles proudly for the pho­to­graphs taken with them, es­pe­cially for the one with Cliff Richard, whose records he has been a fan of for most of his life.

It would be dif­fi­cult to pick the defin­ing mo­ment in the ca­reer of Ge­of­frey Gur­ru­mul Yunupingu, Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful Abo­rig­i­nal mu­sic ex­port, but rub­bing shoul­ders with the royal fam­ily and his pop idols within a few hours in the Bri­tish cap­i­tal would surely count as a con­tender.

This wasn’t the first en­counter be­tween the Queen and the singer from El­cho Is­land in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory. As she pointed out when she was in­tro­duced at the ju­bilee: ‘‘ I’ve al­ready met this man. He played for me in Aus­tralia.’’ And so he did, in 2011, as well as per­form­ing a few weeks ear­lier for US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama dur­ing his Aus­tralian visit, and for Princess Mary of Den­mark.

Since re­leas­ing his self-ti­tled de­but al­bum in 2008, Gur­ru­mul, as he has be­come known, has risen from lo­cal cu­rios­ity to global phe­nom­e­non, an in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment on so many lev­els. An in­dige­nous per­former singing about his cul­ture in his na­tive Yol­ngu lan­guage is not the stuff of pop le­gend in Aus­tralia, never mind in the rest of the world.

Yet the haunting, spir­i­tual and in­tensely af­fect­ing sweet voice of Gur­ru­mul has cut to the hearts of mil­lions of fans in the space of five years, through record­ings and per­for­mances that have taken him from Dar­win to New York, from Lon­don to Paris, from his hum­ble home on El­cho Is­land to the great stages of the world.

It’s no easy task, tak­ing on the au­thor­ship of the of­fi­cially sanc­tioned bi­og­ra­phy of an artist whose shy­ness pre­vents him from talk­ing, as is the case here. Rarely has Gur­ru­mul opened his mouth in the pres­ence of a jour­nal­ist since his jour­ney be­gan.

That the artist has been blind since birth raises an­other chal­lenge to the bi­og­ra­pher: how to con­vey the man­ner in which his sub­ject per­ceives the world around him. Fi­nally, how to bring Gur­ru­mul’s re­mark­able story — and his­tory — to life through the ex­plo­ration of cul­tural roots stretch­ing back tens of thou­sands of years; lines of dreams, her­itage, spir­i­tu­al­ity and na­ture — key com­po­nents of the artist’s mu­sic — that few out­side of his lo­cal com­mu­nity in East Arn­hem Land could be­gin to com­pre­hend?

Melbourne writer Robert Hill­man’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy The Boy in the Green Suit won the National Bi­og­ra­phy Award in 2005 and his col­lab­o­ra­tions with Afghan refugee Na­jaf Mazari ( The Rug­maker of Mazar-e-Sharif and The Honey Thief) were also well re­ceived. Hill­man has a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in what he de­scribes as ‘‘ the marginalised peo­ple of the Aus­tralian com­mu­nity’’.

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