On his debut album Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu – a talented, blind multi-instrumentalist from an indigenous Australian tribe – picks and strums his way through devastatingly beautiful tales of his people in his native language, set to contemporary acoustic arrangements that are both frail and sonically lush. The result is, in a word, transcendental.
Yunupingu’s songs are intertwined with his roots as a member of the Gumatj clan of northeast Arnhemland in Australia, and the deep, impossibly rich tradition of his people comes through in every heartfelt note. Though the vast majority of listeners won’t speak Yunupingu’s language – the entire album, save the single, is sung in his native tongue, Yolngu – his melodies and the genuine emotion in his voice are enough to shoulder the burden, making what could be an album with microcosmic limitations in appeal something far greater.
It’s no wonder Gurrumul has won several awards (ARIA Awards Best Independent Release; Deadly Awards Album of the Year, and Artist of the Year, to name a few) and been nominated for countless more. And it’s encouraging, but not surprising, that in November 2008, nine months after its initial Australian release, Gurrumul was declared platinum. The album is not only accessible to the non-native listener; it is, indeed, impossible to turn away from. Viewed as a whole, it is at once sprawling and epic, intimate and achingly fragile.
To make broad comparisons about the music would be unfair. The only thing that really classifies Gurrumul as a world music album is its language. Musically, Yunupingu’s arrangements tend to consist of little more than plucked acoustic guitar, upright bass and piano. It doesn’t sound too unlike early Jack Johnson stuff or the Jonathan Edwards classic Sunshine (Go Away Today), really. And his voice – both in timbre and emotional delivery – recall your warmest impressions of Tracy Chapman‘s first album. The combinations of form, content, and influence presented here genuinely defy categorisation, falling instead into the mythical world of the universally relatable.
On the single – and only English track on the album – Gurrumul (I Was Born Blind), Yunupingu opens with characteristic mournful tenor wailing over a bit of acoustic plucking. He sings, “I was born blind, and I don’t know why. God knows why, because he loved me so. As I grew up, my spirit knew that I am to rid the world of destruction,” before returning to his obviously more comfortable Yolngu.
Later, he asks, nearly pleadingly, “How can I walk straight and tall in any society? Please hold my hand.” But his is not a tale of woe or pity. Yunupingu sings the lyric “United we stand, divided we fall,” and it’s certainly a worn sentiment; but to hear it from him is almost to hear it for the first time. Bringing about unity and ridding the world of destruction almost sound possible in the delicate world Yunupingu has constructed in song.
Gurrumul is that rarest of albums that somehow manages to encompass everything meaningful popular music is capable of: instantly catchy melody, universal emotion, a genuine hard-fought tale of triumph, and a call to action. But can music really make the world a better place? The answer here is yes, it most certainly can, and to become immersed in Yunupingu’s sprawling, epic debut is to be reminded that hope is still alive and well.