GEOFFREY Gurrumul Yunupingu was just seven-years-old when elders from his Yolngu clan put a guitar in his hands. He was left handed so they worked out that by turning the right handed guitar upside down and teaching him “in reverse” he could somehow make beautiful music.
Blind from birth, he soaked up ancient stories from clan elders around the campfire and when his friend and producer Michael Hohnen encouraged him to record without his group, Saltwater Band, the world met the high, soulful, fragile wail of a voice that is Gurrumul.
“He said to me later, when we were flying back from an overseas tour, ‘I actually didn’t think that [the solo album] would work but I did it anyway,” says Hohnen.
“All his life he had been in big bands but he was so proud of it [the solo album].”
Michael Hohnen is Gurrumul’s bass player and conducts interviews on Gurrumul’s behalf to “cushion him from the media”. It’s an unusual way to get to know the notoriously shy indigenous artist — but attempts by a range of journalists to have one-on-one chats with him have always failed.
“Once we were in Paris after a duet with Sting and it was live TV and he said nothing. He gave me the mic. It didn’t make for great live TV obviously,” says Hohnen. “Culturally it was really awkward and you saw that on camera.”
He was also skewered by the ABC’s 7.30 Report in recent years and was seen visibly withdrawing on camera when attempts were made to get to know him better.
Which makes his appearances at the Blue Mountains Music Festival of Folk, Roots and Blues on March 16 and 17, and the release in May of his biography by author Robert Hillman (who spent about a year with the singer), two highly anticipated events.
Festival organisers have been desperate to get Gurrumul on the bill for years.
“It wasn’t him making a decision to do the Blue Mountains Festival or not to do it,” says Hohnen. “We had had informal discussions but we often try to look at things and book things together with a tour so as not be too far away from his home.”
Home is Elcho Island in northeast Arnhem Land, 500 km east of Darwin in the Northern Territory. It’s where as a boy, with no special resources for the blind, he played hide and seek with his siblings, played a range of instruments and learnt to ride a bike — learning quickly to stay away from the cliff edges of the island.
“It’s extraordinary isn’t it,” says Hohnen of his friend of 16 years. “He was a special little force that everybody is proud of in that culture and everybody cares for.”
Gurrumul’s songs are almost all in Gurrumul’s own languages, dialects of the Yolngu people. They are not political songs, something his first breakthrough band Yothu Yindi was famous for, instead offering up stories of rituals and ceremonies of his island clan.
Hohnen, who is also the creative director of Gurrumul’s record label, Skinnyfish Music, a label out of the Northern Territory that specialises in indigenous artists, had hoped Gurrumul’s first record would sell 20,000 copies. It reached triple platinum — selling 210,000 albums. His second album has already sold 80,000 and counting.
So what can fans at the 18th music festival in the Blue Mountains expect? Hohnen isn’t sure, it depends on what Gurrumul feels like performing that day.
“Sometimes he might want to do something new, something even the band don’t really know, but he will do the favourites.
“Except he won’t do Warwu —he sang it with Missy Higgins and he doesn’t want to play it again in concert without her,” Hohnen says laughing. Higgins famously learnt the indigenous dialect for the song phonetically and Gurrumul loved their voices together when they performed at the 2011 ARIA Awards. Does Higgins know that the song is off the playlist now, I ask him. “No, I have to tell her,” he says.
Higgins and Sting are only a few of the celebrities that 41-year-old Gurrumul has met — add US President Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Cate Blanchett, Paul Kelly, Elton John and his idols Stevie Wonder and Cliff Richard to that list.
He hasn’t courted celebrity or critical acclaim but he has been feted around the world, regularly leaving audiences weeping.
Does Hohnen think Gurrumul’s blindness helped him interpret the world differently, heightening his musical talent?
“We’ve talked over the years about his blindness and the effect on his music. I’m sure there’s so much more talent in others areas of his brain and other senses (because of it) but he doesn’t have anything to compare it to.”
For the Mountains Aboriginal community, having Gurrumul come to play is a blessing.
“The beauty of his music is we are seeing the languages revived,” says Darug singer Jacinta Tobin, who will do the Welcome to Country at the festival.
“He is massaging the whole country with his music — the vibrations from the sound — that’s why so many people have fallen in love with it.”
Tobin hopes to be able to meet the artist but understands if he doesn’t want to.
“I understand he’s a shy fella so I wouldn’t push the point.”
For more information about the Blue Mountains Music Festival visit bmff.org.au.