Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2016

Gurrumul, His Life and Music (2013), by Robert Hillman

ILW 2016Gurrumul

The only way for you to experience a moment of the magic of the music I am listening to right now, is for you to listen to a YouTube video of the artist, Gurrumul, making his exquisite music.  But that will not be quite the same, for I am listening to the CD that comes with this gorgeous book by Robert Hillman, and every track seems more haunting than the last…  It is, the blurb tells me, an exclusive CD of remixed songs from his bestselling albums ′Gurrumul′ and ′Rrakala′ featuring rare remixes of the songs ′Bäpa′ and ′Gurrumul History (I was Born Blind)′ and ′Warwu′.  (The music was recorded by Skinnyfish Music, a Darwin-based company which records and promotes the work of Indigenous musicians.)

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupinguin Galiwin’ku is a Yolnu man.  He comes from Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island), off the coast of Arnhem Land, not far from Darwin.  Born blind in 1969, he plays drums, keyboards, guitar and didgeridoo, but it’s his singing that has made the world sit up and take notice.  He has a glorious voice, and he sings in the languages of his Yolnu clan: Galpu, Gumatj,and Djambarrpuynu, and in English.  He used to perform with Yothu Yindi, but then with Saltwater Band These days he performs solo.

A big, ‘coffee table’ book, this biography by Robert Hillman is a music lover’s delight.  It includes song lyrics composed by Gurrumul in English and several Yolnu languages – and it’s the inclusion of these indigenous-authored songs and poetry that qualifies this book for #ILW2016, though for copyright reasons I can’t quote them.  Gurrumul also includes interviews and photographs (full colour and B&W).  It’s a delight to read, for rarely have I come across prose which manages so well to capture the sound of a human voice:

The voice… has a surface that shimmers like the skin of the ocean, a suggestion of powerful currents underneath.  At times it fills out and floats like the clouds above the Arafura Sea.  Whatever the song calls for – this song, the next and the next – the voice can accommodate: poignance, vigour, introspection, tenderness, soaring celebration, playfulness, wonder and at times, a caressing sensuality.

And something else.  Listeners come away from a Gurrumul performance eager to speak of beauty.  But there are many beautiful voices, some at the top of the charts, some negotiating the nuances of a Schubert score.  What Gurrumul’s voice brings to his songs is a beauty wrought by a culture that has endured for millennia, holding fast to its integrity over two thousand generations.  (p.xvi)

Ancient narratives inhabit Gurrumul’s sacred songs, and

… the beauty of those songs, the beauty of Gurrumul’s singing is intimately related to the song-maps we know as ‘songlines’ that trace the path of travellers across the land, through the air, beneath the surface of the seas. (p.xix)

I would have to quote great slabs of this book for readers to understand the rich culture that Hillman explains with such clarity.  Inspired to find out more about Gurrumul by the persistence of an Afghan refugee who wanted to know this singer’s story, Hillman travelled around the world from one concert and recording session to another, and he writes this bio as a learner of Gurrumul’s culture.  Sometimes the reader recognises the author’s frustration when he doesn’t quite understand aspects of that culture because he is a white man with no Dreaming.  But learning what he could of Aboriginal culture as he went along, he travelled to Elcho Island, interviewed family and friends, musicians, colleagues and Gurrumul’s creative partner Michael Hohnen.   It is this intimacy which enables him to explain for example, how a song can readjust our ideas:

Gurrumul lifts his head and from his throat comes a torrent of song as broad as a river.  Michael, standing at the keyboard, marks the progress of this astonishing flow with the rich chords of melded strings and synthesiser.  Gurrumul is singing into the mic but he could as well be filling a cathedral with his voice; or some vast space with a broad blue sky above it.  Just at a glance, a crocodile mightn’t seem the sort of creature to conjure such a volume of emotion, such poignant yearning, but for Gurrumul the crocodile is related to the world in a wholly different way than it would be for, say, a student of reptile genera.  A crocodile has a spiritual home in creation and exerts its power through the flow of streams, through the currents in the air that surrounds it, through the mud of the riverbanks, and through the notes of the song that Gurrumul is now singing.  (p6)

Methodist hymns from the mission on Elcho Island influenced Gurrumul’s  style: it is from them that he learned to raise his voice to the rafters and it is the religious concept of hymns of praise that lies behind his songs honouring his traditional Yolnu way of life.  But he was also influenced by contemporary rock artists using strong melodies with a backbeat such as Dire Straits, Elvis Presley and his hero Stevie Wonder.  In his late teens Gurrumul was invited to join Yothu Yindi, and joined the band on its world-wide rock’n’roll adventure round the world.  He left the band after three years and returned home to Elcho Island, where the stars eventually aligned and he met Michael Hohnen from the beachside suburb of Beaumaris in Melbourne, up in the Territory running an outreach music program for indigenous people.  Saltwater Band was born, (hear a video clip here) and thanks to Michael’s persistence and determination, so was Skinnyfish Music. Yes, it does seem to be destiny…

This book is not exactly a hagiography but it’s not the kind of bio I usually read.  Hillman’s adulation for the man and his music and the creative team that made it all happen is front and centre.   So we don’t find out anything much about why Gurrumul left Yothu Yindi except that it seems to have been his family’s decision not his, or anything much about the kind of life led on Elcho Island by people who are not legendary musicians.  We don’t  learn much about his partner, his wife, or his daughter or his daughter’s mother.  We discover that school didn’t seem very relevant and that there was an early decision for him not to learn Braille – but unless I missed it, there is no discussion about Gurrumul’s literacy in any language and so we must assume that his poetry comes from the oral tradition and someone transcribes it.  This lack of education made me wonder about how his career (and his money) has been managed on his behalf.

In the chapter ‘The Poetry of Identity’ Hillman tells his readers that Gurrumul has been taught features of his culture according to age-related stages of learning and these include practical matters of survival.  His totem is revealed to him, and he has endured the rites of passage into manhood.  Some of this is frustratingly vague: I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d like to know how someone who has been blind since birth can negotiate the more perilous aspects of life in a remote community.  While Gurrumul’s dependence on his friends Michael, Mark and Penny for his career is acknowledged, it’s as if to give any hint of dependence in his indigenous life would destroy the mystique.

When Hillman interviews family, we’re not told if they are speaking Yolnu and a translator is involved.  Gurrumul himself says almost nothing because he is a very reticent man, perhaps for cultural reasons, perhaps for political reasons and perhaps because it’s his personality.

Gurrumul’s strategy when he’s cornered with a question he doesn’t want to answer is, well, not to answer it.  The same with requests that make him uncomfortable.  he keeps quiet, goes off into the Gurrumul zone. (p.198)

Perhaps, Hillman thinks, it’s because he’s self-conscious about speaking in English, a language that he hasn’t fully mastered.  An interview in Paris doesn’t produce a word from Gurrumul; Michael does all the talking for him.  A duet with Sting nearly falters because of language difficulties… but a duet with consummate professional Missy Higgins at the ARIA awards goes much better because she learns the words to Warwu in Gumatj.

There is a tendency to hyperbole, as when the planning of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and tours is likened to the planning of D-Day.  There are odd omissions such as the name of Australian’s then Governor-General Quentin Bryce, and there are scraps of intuition which masquerade as fact as when Hillman describes what he couldn’t possibly know, i.e. that what is unfolding in Gurrumul’s head as he listens to BBC presenters describing the pageantry of the Jubilee celebrations (in English, a language we’ve been told he doesn’t have mastery) satisfies him maybe more than any image could.

These are not criticisms, they are observations.  This is a bio that respects Gurrumul’s culture and his privacy.  That’s how it is.

Author: Robert Hillman
Title: Gurrumul, his life and music
Publisher: Harper Collins 2013
ISBN: 9780733331169
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Gurrumul: His Life and Music


  1. A terrific review! I’m glad you enjoyed the music. I saw Yothu Yindi a couple of times in their heyday – they really rocked. I think that YY’s late leader, Gurrumul’s uncle, was pretty switched on, in both Indigenous and White cultures, and would have made sure proper structures were in place for Gurrumul’s support. So many successful entertainers come out the other end with nothing. But you also get the impression that Gurrumul is not very impressed by the trappings of success.


    • Thanks, Bill:)
      Yes, he seems to evade the celebrity stuff as if it’s not even there. Though there are amusing little quirks. He’s fussy about his suits, he can be as demanding as a diva when he wants something hard-to-get when he’s on tour…
      The issue of “benevolent” management of indigenous people has been difficult ever since they started working, from board-and-keep wages on cattle stations to the Qld government ‘banking’ their money for them. I’m not suggesting for one moment that anything is amiss in this situation, there’s nothing in the book to hint at that. To the contrary, Michael is presented as a man of the utmost integrity.
      But I’ve read stuff about indigenous artists being exploited, and a man like Gurrumul is even more vulnerable. So yes, I hope that his more canny relations are taking good care of that side of things…


  2. This is an interesting review of Gurrumul, His Life and Music by Robert Hillman. I learned of Gurrumul in 2015. He has a beautiful singing voice and is gifted with playing the guitar. Like Aboriginal singer Archie Roach, Gurrumul has a calling to produce music that attests to their ancestral heritage and culture.


    • I’d love to hear him in person, but not in some horrible big concert venue. Somewhere like the Salon at the Recital Centre, that would be nice…


  3. Thanks for the great links to fabulous music and for an excellent review, Lisa


    • Thanks for dropping by, Glenice … BTW if you just leave the Youtube link running it rolls over into lots of other recordings of Gurrumul as well:)


  4. […] Gurrumul: His Life and Music, by Robert Hillman (with poetry and song by Gurrumul, a Yolnu man), see my review […]


  5. I have this book and the beautiful CD. Like you Lisa I am enthralled by his voice and music. It is a must have.


  6. Did you see that he won a NAIDOC award this week? They played just a little snippet of hi singing on the ABCTV report, and it was magical.


  7. Yes, I did and it reminds me that several years ago he was on the Australian Story. He was very shy and well protected by his family and minders.


    • That would have been good to see:)


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: