A remarkable album from the breakthrough World Music solo artist of 2009.
Robin Denselow 2009-12-17
2009 was the year for World Music unexpected success stories. The band of the year was Staff Benda Bilili, the rousing Congolese guitar players who released the exhilarating album Tres Tres Fort. And as for the solo success of the year, it was, without question, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, a blind Aboriginal singer who comes from the remote territory of northeast Arnhem Land in Australia, and sings mostly in the dialects of the Gumatj clan.
Now, at the end of the year, his album Gurrumul is still firmly in place at the top of the World Music charts, although it was originally released back in February. The single Bapa even found its way onto the BBC Radio 2 playlist – which has only featured six other non-English language songs over the past decade.
Gurrumul has become a massive success in Britain simply because he possesses an exquisite, yearning and soulful voice and his sturdy, sad-edged songs are packed with such strong, quietly grand and epic melodies that many of them sound like instant standards. He may be Aboriginal, and his lyrics highly personal, but his easy-going, gently rolling music sounds as if he has been influenced by Western folk, gospel, soul and reggae. It’s a curious but highly effective mixture that has upset some World Music purists but has brought him a deserved following in the West.
He may be a newcomer for British audiences, but his is no overnight success story. Back in Australia he started out as a teenager, working first with the rock-influenced Yothu Yindi, and then the Saltwater Band. But for this debut solo he concentrated on acoustic styles, with the backing provided largely by his own guitar, but with double bass, additional acoustic guitar work and vocal harmonies filling out the sound. The album was originally recorded for a small indie label in Darwin, where it was first released in 2008, but it became an unexpected success right across Australia, where Gurrumul was praised by one major newspaper as “the greatest voice this continent has ever recorded”.
He is certainly the most distinctive Australian star of recent years, and though there are few changes of mood or emotion on Gurrumul, the strength of his gently soaring vocals and the power of songs like Wiyathul, Marrandil and the highly personal and emotional English-language song Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind) make this a remarkable album.