In the four years since the passing of Dr. Gurrumul Yunupingu, the world’s ears have only bent closer towards the First Nations artist and Australian icon’s uniquely stirring music. To discuss the release of the first anthology of Gurumul’s works, The Gurrumul Story, we put some questions to the man’s collaborator, spokesperson and confidante, Michael Hohnen.
After the success of Gurrumul’s four studio albums – including the AMP-winning, posthumous Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), which went to #1 – how were the songs which comprise this collection chosen? Did the eventual tracklist stand out to you immediately, or was it a rocky and frustrating journey of whittling-down?
The journey in this collection is chronological. It’s difficult because all four studio albums were treated with their own direction and narrative. I realise that when people hear Gurrumul they hear his voice, but throughout the time of the four releases there were quite galvanising views on the directions that were taken. Ultimately, trying to tell a story across any artist’s career will show different elements shine at different moments, but as his musical career ended on such a high point with the orchestral recordings [with Djarimirri (Child Of The Rainbow)], it seems fitting to not do the same with The Gurrumul Story project.
There are undoubtedly many vocalists who would’ve loved to sing the second part in Bayini‘s new duet iteration; how did you decide on Sarah Blasko?
Sarah was living in London at a time that we visited. After the original Bayini song was released, we were introduced to a version that had an English verse written as the rest of the song, by Rrawun Maymurru, Gurrumul’s grandson. Having that perspective and having us in the same place at the same time made it a natural choice, as Bayini was a female character, and Sarah’s tonal quality and style also complemented the part.
The new, official clip for Wiyathul (Longing For Place) is incredible (especially after reading about the Wiyathul bird itself, and how its life is reflected in the performed totemic dance). Who directed the clip, and what can you tell us about the dancers?
The direction and cinematography was by a guy named Paul Shakeshaft, who has toured with Gurrumul’s family, and who helped create the Bunggul show. He flew to Elcho Island to shoot the clip. It was also directed by a Yolngu elder, Don Wininba.
The story is shot on the country that the traditional song comes from. This is country at the Northern top of Elcho Island. The dancers are very close relatives to Gurrumul: Nebbie Burarrwanga, David Yunupingu and Nelson Yunupingu. The story is of the lead dancer, danced by Nebbie, who is a Wiyathul or orange-footed scrub fowl, protecting its nest from two other, antagonistic scrub-fowls danced by David and Nelson. The dancers are all in a show called Bunggul that travels nationally, when COVID allows us. It is a major festival project that [presents] every one of the songs from the last album Djarimirri (Child Of The Rainbow) set to dance and vision with a live orchestra.
The deluxe CD edition includes a DVD which features music clips, and a 25-minute documentary. Does this doco utilise footage from 2017’s incredible Gurrumul film?
The 25-minute documentary is based on the full-length documentary about Gurrumul. It has less detail and narrative than the full-length, but tries to fully educate and provide a background to this release; who Gurrumul is, and how his story came about. I feel fortunate for us, but also for Gurrumul’s family and his fans, that he committed to this documenting of some of his life, because it felt like there [would] only be one of this type of person ever. A lot of Yolngu (his own family) say the same thing to me sometimes.
The DVD’s clips include the official video of Gurrumul and Paul Kelly’s version of Amazing Grace (from The Gospel Album). There is footage online of the two performing the track live in a television studio (with yourself in the rhythm section!). From your perspective, did the type of environment in which Gurumul was performing – like this TV studio for broadcast, versus a small venue, versus a large outdoor stage, versus a recording room – have any affect on Gurrumul’s comfort or playing?
Not usually. He grew up on an island where a lot of singing is outside, on the ground… around the fire, on the beach, or in the church. He was used to harsh environments. Whenever we performed, he always wanted the best of what was there. His ultimate was a really big PA system and competent tech people, to fully justify the effort he would put into performances – which from his perspective, was always the best he could possibly do.
One day I remember having to perform in The Egg, more formally known as the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), located in Beijing, China. It was at a world “folk” festival. We got on the stage and there was no microphone, no PA, no speakers, nothing. After some consternation we just went ahead and did it, because every other performer was doing the same thing. It is a beautiful concert hall, so the sound did carry through the auditorium. He did love Carnegie Hall in New York though!
It was generally understood by the public that Gurrumul saw his role as that of a singer, not as a proxy spokesperson for his elders – which is why he didn’t really give interviews. How did you understand your role throughout Gurrumul’s career, and how has it changed since his passing?
Reluctantly, I try to answer things as best I can. He would always defer to his uncle, or to me. I prefer when Yolngu people speak for Gurrumul. But Yolngu were rarely on the road with us, and that’s where a lot of musical experiences happen. His family are happy for me to speak, but we are now performing Bunggul live in theatres across the country,where they get to present the full stories. So I hope to take a lesser and lesser role as they take much of the legacy into the future for this special man and their culture.
The Gurrumul Story by Gurrumul is out September 10 via Decca/Universal.
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