When Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was growing up blind on Elcho Island, off the northernmost tip of Arnhem Land, it was music that flooded through him and shaped his first picture of the world: music, patterns in sound — the rhythm of the waves, the hum of voices in the background, murmuring, speaking, singing in the Galpu and Gumatj dialects of his people’s Yolngu Matha language.
There were sung tales and traditional chants, with clapsticks beating constantly to keep the time, but there were other kinds of songs as well: Christian songs, gospel music — tunes from far away that were embedded in his surrounds. Every day in his first years of childhood his beloved aunts Dorothy, Anne and Susan would hold him in their arms, and sing, and rock him gently, and their words would wash over him, words from the Methodist mission choir at Galiwin’ku community: “Then sings my soul, my saviour God to thee, how great thou art.”
Such were his initial pathways into life. Soon his parents gave him a little accordion, then a guitar came to him from his uncle. Gurrumul was left-handed: he learned to play it upside down, as he still does today. He heard performances by the island’s first gospel music ensemble, Soft Sands.
His aunt Susan remembers what came next: “We took him to church, to chapel. He loved that. He was in the choir. First in the junior choir, then in the senior choir.” He learned how to sing, and that music always stayed with him: song parts that required the voice to travel into distant registers of sound and emotion, old standards such asAmazing Grace, and To Be a Pilgrim.
These tunes are still remembered and sung across remote Aboriginal Australia wherever Christian missions were once in place. They are part of the shared cultural bedrock of the elusive indigenous nation that lives on in the shadows of the mainstream.
Indeed, it is a striking paradox that the worship songs of the Christian Church, brought to this continent a little more than two centuries ago, now resonate most strongly in the remote bush, among the continent’s first peoples, rather than in its settled cities and gleaming capitals.
These sounds helped form Gurrumul, but there was little trace of them in the first Elcho group he played with, the ska and reggae-influenced Saltwater Band, fronted by his childhood friend Manuel Dhurrkay. Nor were they present in the best-known songs of the Arnhem Land supergroup he joined at the outset of his professional life in music, Yothu Yindi, led by his clan relative Mandawuy Yunupingu.
In the days when Yothu Yindi was famous across the country and brought its hybrid, yidaki-inflected rock music to the world, Gurrumul was known chiefly as a virtuoso, a young prodigy who played multiple instruments: guitar, percussion, keyboards.
When the way was clear at last for him to make his own way in music, what came out was something different, intensely personal and intensely traditional. His first album opened up a world of sound and feeling conveyed by his pure voice, almost unsupported by instrumental sound.
Gurrumul’s collaborator of the past decade and brother spirit in musical endeavours, the classically trained Michael Hohnen, was careful to craft a sound space for that recording on the scale of a cathedral, where the words sung in Yolngu Matha seemed to float and drift free, the notes hovering, lingering, carrying emotion as much as tone or melody.
This was a new tradition of music for most Australians. It was a version of the Yolngu songs of Arnhem Land, but filtered through the mind and senses of Gurrumul: a sense of hearing so sharp that every faint sound cut through strongly, a sense of musical structure that required of every phrase and every note a rightness and a poise.
Not even the true believers at record label Skinnyfish quite expected Gurrumul’s first album, released seven years ago, to propel him into the stardom, or for that success to be repeated with his second studio recording, Rrakala . Nor did they expect the devotion his persona seemed to inspire among Australians, as well as in European audiences on his first solo international tours. He was the blind seer, the wounded angel, the child of indigenous tradition, singing the words of the old continent: songlines, tales of totemic birds and animals, rhythms from the saltwater tropical shore.
What will the audiences who love this Gurrumul feel when they encounter for the first time the songs and sound world of The Gospel Album, set for release on July 31? It’s an album full of heartfelt Christian songs — at once a refined performance that lifts vernacular choir singing to an elevated plane and a simply crafted, easy set of tunes, tunes to get into, songs with drive and a hint of beat, and the occasional Nashville guitar twang.
Gurrumul in the Bible belt? Not exactly: something more subtle is being explored here, along with the music, rich as it is in its rhythms of uplift and its choruses of redemptive fire. In these performances, mostly of well-known standards, Gurrumul is not merely presenting a new aspect of his musical background to a wider audience; he is traversing a chapter of the mission history of the frontier in northern Arnhem Land.
Christian influence became entrenched on Elcho Island in the late 1940s with the coming of the Methodist mission under superintendent Harold Shepherdson, known to all the Yolngu on the island as “Bapa (Father) Sheppy”.
Elcho, in its mission times, was a largely self-sufficient operation, an isolated space where two cultures were thrown together. There was a new school and a church, a fishing industry and a market garden; there was cypress logging, even a timber mill. There was work aplenty, and also prayer. From the outset, Shepherdson tried to build a compact with the local men.
As it happened, Elcho had a long tradition of dealing with outsiders: the Macassan fishing fleets that had been coming to its shores for centuries, and other, more shadowy incomers before. Many of the song-cycles and clan dances of the island focused on these interactions. What could be more logical for the island’s leaders than to try to reach some understanding with the mission?
Thus was born the Adjustment Movement — an extraordinary frontier episode when senior clan figures decided to reveal their most sacred, secret emblems to the missionaries and display them in a special enclosure at the centre of the settlement, in full view of Yolngu women and children.
By this act, the men hoped to bring about a new relationship between Christian and traditional religion, to rebalance their world.
The first anthropologists to come on the scene, Ronald and Catherine Berndt, saw the Movement as a bid to correct the injustice of the missionary intrusion.
One of the key figures involved in the decision, Warramiri clan chief David Burrumarra, left behind a detailed account of the event, which makes plain its status as the initial gesture in a diplomatic negotiation between the Yolngu and Western outsiders: an attempt to bind the two realms together and create something hybrid, fresh and new.
Religion was to be the bridge. Revelation of secrets would lead to respect, understanding and accord. It was the first step on a road that would lead to bark petitions, appeals for a treaty and the present campaign for constitutional recognition. Even today, belief, both traditional and Christian, is a strong, all-dominating force on Elcho. The morning star dance ceremonies are still performed on its beaches; the Easter Sunday services in the little Galiwin’ku church last for several hours and are full of ecstatic choral song.
The two religions may not have fused, but both are present at once in the minds of many Yolngu, among them several of the figures in Gurrumul’s close family.
Hence the words of TheGospel Album’s key song, Gurrumul’s own composition,Jesu, a soft and lilting evocation of the saviour nailed to the cross and dying on Mount Calvary: “Your blood flowed like pure water, sunset blood” — and this last phrase is sung repeatedly, but each time with different Galpu language words, exploring the richness of ideas around sun, red blood, death, the rise and fall of sun and stars and rebirth. Can we probe a little further, here? Warrarraya, Nyirnyirunda, Madpangarr, Wukulirri — these words signify, in sequence, the redness of the sunset, the sound of the sea and the hazy sunset colours spreading, the mighty spirit.
“In the end,” reports Michael Christie, doyen of Yolngu language studies, “the religious terminology of Gurrumul’s world is so redolent of smells and colours and sensations on the cheek that they really defy translation.” We can at least say one thing for sure: the depth of the world of symbols lurking in the songs and music on Gurrumul’s first two albums is present on the surface at this point — the crucifixion and the associated image of a reborn creation become elements in the many-layered system of modern Yolngu faith.
The soundtrack of that faith’s Christian component is what follows on the recording’s later tracks.
It is a gospel songbook, full of light and joy and the nearness of God’s presence. The backing lulls the ear, and heart. Strings, piano, a voice humming softly — each tune in turn receives its full musical amplification; Gurrumul’s voice does more than sing them, he explores them, he teases out their furthest spaces.
It is unlikely that Jimmy Swaggart’s There is a River, first performed decades ago in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has ever been sung with the gentleness Gurrumul brings to its words, and his simple, spellbinding version of Amazing Grace fills the familiar anthem with fresh, vivid life.
These songs not only recast in new guise the congregational music of an old, established religion, they also illuminate a tradition most Australians have never come across — the singalong music of remote Aboriginal settlements, communities that descend from mission origins. Here on the album is Gurrumul’s rendition ofJesus is the Sweetest Name I Know, Let Us Come Near to God, and I Have a Saviour Today — all in Galpu or Gumatj, with the translations ascribed to various Yolngu men of high degree.
But those same tunes are also known and sung even today in the languages of the Western Desert: they have become the resounding lingua franca of the remote bush. You could find them being performed at communal song sessions in places as far-flung as Kintore, Warburton or the communities of the Pitjantjatjara lands.
Above all else, these are songs that travel well. Many come from the US, which Gurrumul has just toured, playing not only in the great west and east coast cities but in Chicago and New Orleans, even visiting Nashville to cross paths with his hero, country singer-songwriter Vince Gill.
A gospel message: a musical compendium: joy, delight, rapture. The songs are like a hand outstretched, the voice not just singing but inviting, leading the listener to an inner sanctum, as if whispering: “Let me show you the sounds that shaped me, and the contours of my dark and light-filled world.”
The Gospel Album will be released on July 31. Gurrumul’s national tour starts in Sydney on July 29 and continues to Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra and Perth.