The best place to listen to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is under the stars. The blind songwriter seemed to agree and sang with less reserve than usual as he and his band performed with the WA Symphony Orchestraat the King’s Park Botanical Gardens.
The concert profiled Gurrumul’s life and music using multi-media narration from his clan members in Northeast Arnhem. On a large screen we watched dances depicting the snake, wildcat and crocodile and heard stories about Macassan traders and the mythical woman Bayini. An uncle recounted Gurrumul’s childhood hobby of collecting tins so he could play the drums. Another elder described how Gurrumul was born in a rainbow and went into the world as a bridge for Yolnguculture.
Most songs were in Yolngu language and came from Gurrumul’s 2013 album recorded with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, plus a few arrangements by Erkki Veltheim of pieces from earlier albums. The orchestra (conducted by Iain Grandage) provided a haze of slowly moving chords around Gurrumul’s simple guitar-plucking. Vocal overdubbing for some songs gave an ethereal choral backing to his singing. The video footage made it possible to trace the origins of the sounds like the marimba echoing tapping sticks, or the low strings and brass setting a pulse like a didgeridoo.
Gurrumul was an unassuming, introverted presence, a quiet hub surrounded by the activity of the band, orchestra and film footage. His sweet gentle voice was magnetic; even the sea breeze faded to allow the dusky sheen and delicate vibrato of his voice to project into the natural amphitheatre.
Gurrumul was joined by Christine Anu (who had delivered a versatile and entertaining support act) for Bayini, a song that took iTunes by storm last year when Gurrumul performed it with Deltra Goodram on Channel 9’sThe Voice. Anu was introduced as an old friend who used to do Gurrumul’s nails, which he confirmed with an enthusiastic ‘yeah’, one of several interjections from the normally reserved singer which delighted the audience.
It’s hard to describe what makes Gurrumul’s songs so heart wrenchingly beautiful. Perhaps it was the footage of toddlers with tapping sticks mimicking their elders, or an old man chanting ecstatically with eyes closed, or the simple melodies unfolding so slowly it made your breathing slow down. Something in this man’s spirit connected – as he has all over the world – to the people and the land in Perth. His dignity and innocence are best epitomised in lyrics from Gurrumul History:
“I was born blind, I don’t know why
God knows why, He loves me so.”
This review copyright The West Australian newspaper March 2014