In­ti­mate trib­ute to the man, the mu­sic and his legacy

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - INSIDER -

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.


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