Born blind, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu brought the sound of Aboriginal Australia into people's homes and hearts more widely than anyone had done before. Ahead of a new documentary showing at the NZ International Film Festival, we hear from Gurrumul's producer and friend Michael Hohnen about the late musician's life and career.
Indigenous Australian musician Dr Gurrumul Yunupingu’s posthumous album Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) is the first album performed in an Australian indigenous language to go to number one on the Australian album charts. Gurrumul died in July 2017, before the album was released.
Trevor Reekie talks to Gurrumul’s manager, producer, spokesperson and friend – Michael Hohnen, about his experience working with him over the years and why the new album is a creative meeting place for black and white Australia.
Trevor: When a member of Australia’s indigenous community dies, it’s common practise to change their name and suppress their image. Gurrumul’s family has broken with that tradition by allowing his name to be used after his death in July. Are you able to tell us more about the tradition and that decision?
I've known Gurrumul and his family for 20 years and I've worked in Northern Australia in lots of different communities, including his. After his death in July there were a lot of different ceremonies that ended up with his funeral in November. His family came to me at the end of the funeral and said "We don't want his legacy to die. We don't want people to forget him. He represents us and everyone here is still playing his music." And so they drew up a media statement, basically explaining, thanking their media for their respect, 'cause the media was amazing in Australia after, in the period of the second half of last year. They said, essentially, they're releasing his name, which was against a lot of normal protocol.
It must have been heart-breaking for you in his final months – especially completing the album, but I believe, after he passed, some of his family guided you emotionally through the grieving process. That speaks volumes, and seems like a beautiful gift in itself.
It was. I don't think I really knew how to feel. I knew how to act and what protocols to follow, and there was a couple of family members who I'd never really met before, who kinda came to the fore, and we had a special ceremony a few days after he died where they came to me and basically told me and my family what was going on, and that it was okay.
Yolŋu are an extremely social group, where it's not an individualist living style; They live in and enjoy being part of a big, big group of people. I've felt that a lot in the second half of last year.
I know this is a personal question, Michael, but I wonder what you look back upon most when you think about your years of work and friendship together. What have you taken away from this beautiful relationship?
Probably just that I was lucky to be able to spend so much quality time and it's really something that you discover in life sometimes when you have a relationship with someone else where what you put in together benefits both of you and is enormously rewarding from a friendship and a partnership perspective.
I've never really thought about that question, but then to also achieve a bit of a breakthrough on a level in this country of a feeling of greater acceptance, or greater change, or of an interest in the culture that is here, and having an effect on that feeling, and the film does that, too. He and I, in our own little way, have been able to do a lot.
You've both toured a lot overseas, and including performing for Queen Elizabeth and, like you mentioned, Barack Obama, even the Pope. Was he ever overawed by the experience?
No. He certainly didn't hesitate to get on the plane when we went to play in the UK for the Diamond Jubilee. Travel was something that he always... He didn't love to travel, but he did love to play music. When we went to the Diamond Jubilee it was an amazing experience because I'm not a huge royalist, but the Yolŋu people in Northeast Arhem Land are, they really love the Queen, and they love royalty, which is strange. But we went to the Jubilee and his face was beaming back to Australia during that time, he knew all his family was watching, he knew that it was a really big moment.
A lot of his heroes were there, and we met a lot of them, 'cause she'd asked Elton John and Cliff Richard and Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, all those people to be part of that Jubilee. So it was a lot of familiarity, 'cause I think we ended up meeting the Queen three times in his performance life.
Some of his experiences overseas, when he came back to his own place, some of the debriefing sessions that he must have passed on to the other people within the tribe must have been incredible.
The funniest one was [the] Yolŋu [people] from the Northeast Arnhem Lands, they love Cliff Richard. They love his music, and so when we were overseas once we rang one of [Gurrumul’s] brothers, and all [he] wanted was for us to go and stand in front of Cliff Richard's house and take a photo, which I thought was hilarious, but then coming back and telling people those sort of stories was amazing.
There's a really funny story about the duet Gurrumul did with Sting in 2009 of the song ‘Every Breath You Take’. I read that every time you played the song to him, you always got the same response: a shrug of indifference. Can you tell us about the wonderful performance that followed?
Well, that was probably one of the most anxious moments of our lives, for me anyway. We'd been asked by the French television show to perform a duet. We were allowed to do one of our own songs, and then part of the format of the show was to do fairly high-profiled duets with different people. He would not learn the song, and I could not work out why, and it's just getting closer and closer to the day, and he still just wouldn't engage at all, and I played him different parts and different options and different ways we could do it, and just would not engage at all.
And then we went to the French television and met Sting, and he was lovely, really warm, welcoming, friendly, ‘I've been listening to your album all week,’ he told us. Then we got out into the room where there was eight to 10 huge cameras, and amazing production level, and Sting's band, and G just played guitar along and didn't sing at all, and the producers came back to us after the rehearsal and said, ‘This is going live in an hour, and he can't just play guitar.’ And they talked about dropping the song. I spoke to Sting, he said, ‘Don't worry about, it'll all.. Whatever he does I'll just go with him, and it'll all be fine.’
His uncle had sent through a translation as a recording, so we played him the translations and he worked out a few words to sing, and then he worked out a more words to sing, and then he worked out a form, and then he sang it back to us in the dressing room, and they said, ‘Right, you're on.’ And I think I mumbled something to Sting on the way back out about this formula that he'd worked out, and it all kinda fell together live on camera.
Everyone was in shock except G, I think, and Sting. Everyone was like, ‘I can't believe that that happened,’ and it all kinda came together, and he was fine about it in the end. He was quite chuffed, actually, that he'd broken through the adversity of all the issues that we saw existing.
Gurrumul was described in Rolling Stone Magazine as Australia's most important voice. Given his humble beginnings, it's a big story. Can you tell us about those beginnings on Elcho Island?
I travelled to Elcho Island working for the University, and I met him on day one of me being there. He was introduced by his family and some other young men who thought they would form a band with him, and they would use him as their trump card for their race to be one of the best bands in the Northern Territory up there.
I think he even stayed longer that day that we met him when everyone else went home and played music to us and even did a demo recording, and from that day I could see that he was special. I had no idea that my relationship with him would grow and form such an incredible output and achievement, but I just knew that when I did meet him that he was really special. We went on to work on three or four of his own band, and then three or four of his own solo albums.
I've talked to people like the gentleman and genius Toumani Diabaté, a man who has a very special presence. I don't know, but would you say that Gurrumul had a similar, almost spiritual charisma?
I spent a lot of time with him meeting other people, and so I wasn't so much judging my reaction, but when I would see people meet him, their demeanor would change. You know when you're in a social situation, you're meeting new people, you act a certain way. Well people who would act a certain way would actually change when they met him. I saw that across the board from the American president, when we met him through to everyday people from all walks of life. That's one thing I loved about him, that he would engage with anyone, and he would be able to almost charm anyone except media. He just had this special energy around him that I witnessed for 20 years.
I'm curious as to how Gurrumul's music resonated so strongly and so quickly. His debut album released in 2008 was certainly a triumph, but how did you guys actually break his music in Australia?
We tried to make an album that would just sit comfortably in people's lounge rooms. It wasn't an Aboriginal album, it was just a pure music album, and it used his songs and his language just set to simple, beautiful accompaniment. The intention, really, was to be like a... Trojan horse is the wrong word, but get into people's lives without actually people knowing that they were taking on something new and something foreign.
He loved when people loved his music, so we made an album that was incredibly sweet, and warm, and beautiful, and did not expect anything like the take-up that it had. I think it ended up selling, I dunno, half a million copies or something worldwide, that first record. It just went beyond our expectations, for sure.
The new album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), how did you two guys prepare for this album? Because it's a masterpiece, but it was recorded over four years, I believe.
I actually found the recordings the other day. The first ones that we did were January 2012, so it took longer than even I thought. This is what I would say his strongest and most original work, even though it's a mode of singing he's most familiar with. It's traditional chants, I wanted to make them accessible but also a challenging musical expression.
So there's a style of music and it's not used across the whole album, but there's a style of composition that started in America in the 60s, called Minimalist Classical, where it's really repetitive, and I chose that as the basis of mirroring his culture because Yolŋu culture is really repetitive. It's an oral culture, it's passed on through repetition, and one song ends up being a song cycle in a traditional setting, so I wanted to try to use that minimalist style, but then orchestrated in a way that broadened the harmonic implications that we normally hear from their music, and I got him to harmonise them all because it made them more accessible and more sweet.
There's cello lines that are replications of didgeridoo patterns, which accompany the songs, so Yolŋu will suddenly feel a lot more attachment to the songs as well, because people... There's only one real place in Australia where didgeridoo has specific patterns.
I'm glad you used such complimentary words about the album, because it was like our combined PhD in a way. It was a masterwork in terms of the amount of work and the body of work that we tried to put together.
The response here has been... It's gone to number one in the mainstream charts, which is amazing for Australia, and now we're going try and present it around the rest of the world. But it was the most rewarding thing for me.
There's an interesting quote in the new documentary on Gurrumul. Someone said everything he was doing was anti-success, which begs the question, how did Gurrumul actually process the concept of accomplishment?
I've got a theory that until he made his first album in 2008 everyone had told him how good he was, but he loved fact-checking, he loved cross-checking everything. I dunno, partly being blind, and partly the oral tradition, everyone's telling stories to everyone else all the time. When his first album came out and it was a success, I think that was some sort of tangible confirmation, 'cause he was hearing everyone play it.
It was everywhere. It was in white fellow culture, it was in black fellow culture, it was in every community. It was on PA's at concerts before bands would come on. It was in cafes. So I think that was probably his first big realization that, "Oh, I have made it." Whatever made it means. Maybe in the Western sense, or in both in this sense. And also, when he would go back home he would be always monitoring what his family would tell him. He's got a really, really large extended family.
That continued through when we would tour, and people would pull him up at the airport and tell him that they loved his stuff, or sometimes we were staying in the lounge somewhere in the airport, and I'd go off to bring food for him, come back, and he'd be grinning. I'd say, "Why are you so happy?" And he said, "Oh, someone just came up and told me how much they liked the record," or whatever. It was just over a long period of time. He never judged the record as good until other people would tell him it was good.
So he was obviously aware of his immense musical gift, but I wonder, did he ever talk about knowing where this gift came from?
No. His family always said that when he was young he was obsessed by music. They saw him as an important messenger, if you like, and I think he grew up with almost that role, so rather than a gift, I think he just delighted in the fact that he was skilled in that. I remember in the days of [his former band] Saltwater they used to call him ‘the Human Sampler’, 'cause he would hear stuff and be able to play it straight back. So I think it was just something that he grew up with, and he knew it was many of the many special skills that he had, and he would enjoy displaying it at times.