Intimate tribute to the man, the music and his legacy
GURRUMUL Yunupingu’s voice transcended language, cultural prejudice and his own crippling shyness.
As one of the elders in this gently searching documentary says, he made a bridge between traditional Yolngu culture and the rest of the world.
The simply titled Gurrumul expands upon the performer’s extraordinary contribution by offering some insights into the man and where he came from, as well as his spine-tingling musical legacy.
Gurrumul didn’t do interviews. He didn’t tour very often. And he sang almost entirely in language.
It’s a textbook case of what NOT to do if you want to become an international star, to paraphrase one of the music industry executives quoted in Paul Damien Williams’ film.
The gulf between Gurrumul’s priorities and those of the industry with which he was trying to coexist is best illustrated in an extremely tense sequence in which Skinnyfish Music’s besieged co-founders, Mark Grose and Michael Hohnen, field a barrage of calls from vituperative promoters after the artist blows off a prestigious US tour to attend an initiation ceremony in his Elcho Island community in far North East Arnhem Land.
It’s not easy, even for a disinterested whitefella, to untangle this complicated cultural clash.
But the strength of Williams’ documentary lies in its ability to portray Gurrumul’s choices as valid without resorting to a romanticised view of indigenous culture. That, presumably, is a result of the long-term commitment of all those involved.
The intimate archival and contemporary footage on Elcho Island — including family gatherings and ritual song and dance ceremonies — feels very precious. It’s also a powerful contrast to more prevalent images, in the media, of troubled and dysfunctional communities.
The overwhelming impression, here, is of a clan of people that is strong, vital, proud.
Gurrumul clammed up in interviews. The documentary opens with an awkward interaction with a TV journalist. The performer’s silence is so confronting, she admonishes him: “You are going to have to get used to this”. He proved her wrong. Behind the scenes, however, we discover a different Gurrumul — creatively driven, but also playful, funny and family oriented.
A fitting tribute to the man and his music.