Gurrumul doesn’t speak during his shows but he doesn’t need to. His quietly majestic music says more than words could ever hope to.
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was born on Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land, about 580 kilometres outside Darwin. He sings in his native Yolngu language and speaks very few words of English.
Born blind, he is said to be acutely shy and gets by without a guide dog or cane and has never learned Braille. His voice is equal parts intensely beautiful and intensely burdened. There is suffering and joy and fire and wisdom behind his shadowed eyes, all of which come spilling forth through his music.
The show at the Sydney Opera House on May 29 was part of the Vivid LIVE festival and fell during Reconciliation Week. It is an artfully-constructed multimedia showcase of Gurrumul’s life, music and homeland, woven together by commentary from his aunties and uncles on Elcho Island.
Backed by the sublime Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Gurrumul stays calm in the cacophony of strings and horns and percussion, which at times threaten to overpower the man and his music. A large-scale video projection takes us far away from the neon night of Sydney Harbour to a land of red dust, crocs and giant octopi.
Gurrumul accompanies his lullaby-esque tales of clan and kinship with acoustic guitar and a spellbinding sense of storytelling. It is music to soothe; music to heal. The child born “covered with rainbow”- as one Aunty describes – has a profound aura of peace, one that has taken him from private performances for Prince Charles to a prime-time appearance on The Voice Australia this week alongside Delta Goodrem, to winning over the likes of Elton John, Sting and Björk as fans.
In fact the goddessly Goodrem was there on the night and joined Gurrumul onstage for a duet of indigenous anthem “Bayini”, originally recorded with Sarah Blasko. The odd couple’s voices and vibratos interlock beautifully and the duet is perhaps the most captivating performance of all.
We were warned at the beginning of the evening by friend and bass player of 15 years, Michael Hohnen, that Gurrumul has not yet spoken at a show, and that tonight probably wouldn’t hold any miracles. But after a rousing rendition of “Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)” followed by an ecstatic standing ovation, the singer lets out a kookaburra-like laugh and a “thank you and good night!”.
Amidst the blinding lights of Vivid, it is Gurrumul’s light that burns the brightest.