Looking for quiet man of Arnhem Land
Gurrumul: His Life and Music
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’’.