mon 16/05/2022

Wizard of Oz goes deluxe | reviews, news & interviews

Wizard of Oz goes deluxe

Wizard of Oz goes deluxe

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is an unlikely star. A 39-year-old blind singer and multi-instrumentalist from Elcho Island, a remote indigenous community off the coast of Australia’s Northern Territory, Gurrumul’s eponymous solo album was Britain’s best selling world music album of 2009.

Now, in what has become standard practice for million-selling pop monsters like Lady Gaga's The Fame and Amy Winehouse's Back to Black but is surely a first for a record of sparse Aboriginal spirituals, a year after its initial release the album is to be reissued in expanded 'deluxe' form.

It’s easy to hear why Gurrumul has caught on. Featuring just spare guitar and an achingly pure voice, it's a bewitching record, opening a door into a world that has experienced only minimal cultural assimilation. “Elcho Island doesn’t feel like Australia,” says Gurrumul’s friend and producer Michael Hohnen, who also translates Gurrumul's reluctant trickle of words during our conversation. “When they go out hunting they call the dolphins to follow them. It’s an incredibly uplifting and inspiring place, but it’s best not to romanticise it. For them, it’s just a fact of life.”

The island’s 2000 residents have makeshift homes, a few cars and boats, but traditions have largely been preserved. Ceremonies like Mardayin re-enact ancient Yolgnu myths over several weeks; using his native tongue, in his songs Gurrumul distills their essence. “They’re stories about history, about ancestors, about the creator spirit,” he says. “There’s no message for other people, I’m not a spokesperson for indigenous Australians. It’s just a window into my life and culture. We have a different way of seeing things.”

Blind from birth, since his teens Gurrumul has played drums, guitar and keyboards in popular Aboriginal groups Yothu Yindi and Saltwater Band, but always in a background role. “He was getting buried in really big productions,” says Hohnen. “His power, strength and beauty as a singer hadn’t been heard, so we produced a record that brought out that quality.” The album has been successful not because it’s an indigenous record, but because “people think it’s beautiful and he’s got a beautiful voice. It’s crossed over into mainstream suburban homes.”

He has played at Latitude, been Radio 2 playlisted and appeared on Later With Jools Holland, but it’s hard to say how much further Gurrumul wants his music to travel. Intensely shy, it requires significant “mode-shifting” on his part to adapt to the non-indigenous world, while the concept of solo stardom barely registers. The conventional yardsticks of sales figures, fame and fortune are similarly intangible: the money he earns is instantly spread around the community - several thousand dollars can disappear in a weekend – while his most trusted measure of success is the amount of affirming noise he hears at a concert.

Above all, the traditions that feed Gurrumul’s music will always takes priority. “I appreciate how much people like me and my voice and music, but I have a very strong culture and I won’t lose that,” he says. “I always go to ceremony. Sometimes they wait for me to come back from tour, but I won’t tour very much. I don’t make many compromises.” Which is, of course, the very definition of success.

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