Essay: Discovering Gurrumul- His Final Album and Documentary

By August 5, 2018 No Comments


Within my circle of friends there’s been quite a buzz surrounding the freshly cut documentary on recently deceased Indigenous Australian singer Gurrumul. With such good word surrounding the film (and it’s trailer -I’m unabashed to say- leaving me all choked up in the cinema) a couple of us shlepped it to a viewing.

Truth be told, I knew quite little of Gurrumul and his music before the film. Querying a handful of friends it seems I’m not the only one late to the Gurrumul party tho. I’m still perplexed as to why I was so unaware of this extraordinary piece of the Australian music scene puzzle…


I thought the film to be an admirable portrayal of an incredible story. My single qualm may be the feature didn’t feel as successful in reaching the emotional potency of the trailer– although a few folks have confided they indeed shed a tear so take my word with a liquid grain of um, salty tear. Regardless, the film comes highly recommended for no reason beyond the unique perspective it offers re the plight of Aboriginal culture within “Modern Australia”. In some ways it’s required viewing for those interested Indigenous affairs. It also features a bunch of local Sydney legends you can point fingers at. Ah, hey Ben Hauptmann and Ben Ward.

I dug the film I promise but it was in fact a cut from the film’s soundtrack that has had the most lasting impression on me: a number lifted from the posthumous album ‘Djarimirri‘, released only a couple of weeks prior to the film. Man, that track was a complete doosh to the heart. I sought out the CD asap and it’s since been on high rotation.

Djarimirri‘ gets a good yarn during the film’s final phase of denouncement. It’s explained Gurrumul and partner-in-crime Michael have reconvened after some tumultuous times to assemble a new album. Various monologues reveal the audacious concept: to present the songlines of his mother and father’s clan with their traditional accompaniment arranged/appropriated for western chamber orchestra; a coalescing of two disparate musics and cultures…

On paper the album’s concept sounds akin to many cross-cultural projects where well meaning cultural amalgamations have fallen short due to the innate difficulty of preserving dual-cultural and artistic integrity (something I’ve addressed in *this* post).

But well, when the title track blasted across the film’s finale moments it was clear any trope-y traps had been successfully navigated. What I heard was pretty damn breathtaking.

Ok, ok, give me a crack at painting a bit of a sonic scene for yar. Repeated melodic cells from brass and strings began the track, creating a complex and mutating fabric of rhythm/counter rhythms-  a musical snapshot that conjured up textures worked conceived in new-music project Microfiche and not anything close to the popular music-sphere where the album’s likely to hang out in JB Hifi. The orchestra gradually thickened and built, finally tipping to a plateau, at which point Gurrumul – a voice I’d learnt over the course of the film to be as earnest as they come- enters staunchly in his native tongue. Both Gurrumul and band seem to remain suspended in this state of earnestness for a good while until some glistening pitched percussion and some well-written diatonic bass movement drives the song to another level of bliss.

It’s moving, grand, cinematic, rhapsodic, yet meditative. Oohh la la, you say. Check it out for yourself right here…

The immutability which I found so captivating was arranged with no small thought. Gurrumul’s Right-Hand-Man Michael Hohnen and Arranger Erkki Veltheim cited minimalism (the musical style/aesthetic) as a foundational germ in the album’s conception. On the linear notes you’ll find a number of canonic minimalist practitioners cited as inspiration.

Undoubtedly the album has strong minimalist tones- each song feeling formless and at times static- but that’s not to discount the reality that much Aboriginal music is minimalist in nature. Michael and Erkki would of course be the first to concede this so it seems finding this aesthetic label gave them the determination to complete such a subversive and potentially divisive album, if not also a tangible aesthetic link between the musical spheres they were attempting to marriage.

I want to say that at the core these songs are Yolngu songlines, but I’m not so sure just how much of the traditional songs remain in these renditions. In one interview I read Erkki credited them as his compositions (which seems fair when you hear the harmonic and orchestral elements). I also read Gurrumul improvised his vocals parts, inspired by the original tunes. I do know the didgeridoo lines from the original songlines have been left unabated, played as true as possible by the cello.

As well as composing/arranging etc. Erkki Veltheim (who before the film I knew of as an iconoclastic new-music violinist) transcribed the traditional parts, which I learnt during my readings was no small feat. During an interview with Andrew Ford on the ABC Radio National he mentioned how he was wigged out by how it seemed the didgeridoo and singing patterns were in different time signatures, yet always cadenced together. To a similar effect, there’s a funny lil montage during the film of the chamber group (full of SSO heavies) and Erkki (who also conducted the group) being made to re-record (with some frustration) the track what seemed like more than a dozen times as Gurrumul sings his preferred interpretation from the studio booth.

In possibly the same/not the same interview Erkki endearingly described the didgeridoo tradition as a ‘virtuosic tradition’. I was glad to hear that on National Radio. White Australia has an unsavoury knack of discounting Indigenous culture of sophistication in favour of preserving this reductionist idea of the “pure hunter-gather” (This is topical for me due to my housemate dancing Bangarra’s production of ‘Dark Emu’ inspired by the eponymously named book, which I’ve been told is a strong piece of subversive literature showcasing Indigenous organisation and infrastructure). I’m sure the word ‘virtuosic’ is not the first adjective conjured in the layman’s head when they think of the didgeridoo. But man, I remember David Wilfred playing his didgeridoo at the AAO Intensive in Tassie and both students and faculty speechless to describe in Western musical terms what he was doing rhythmically and structurally.

On radio Michael described these didgeridoo lines as (in his words) ‘unique Australian bass riffs’ that should be taught alongside the Western classical canon. How fucking awesome is that idea- that one day these (difficult) lines, born from the land we live on, will be played within Conservatory walls. As someone who teaches the Western Classical canon as a way of connecting students to an instrumental tradition, I would relish teaching indigenous riffs as a way of connecting students to a sense of place to which we play these instruments on. But really Michael’s core idea is more grand- one he has steadfastly championed throughout the film, interviews and linear notes: a recognition that Indigenous music is Australia’s classical music, or once again in his words: that these songs are part of the ‘great classical canon of Australia.’

Paraphrasing/misquoting Erkki: ‘I’ll prescribe to that’.

Unfortunately even in 2018 it seems like that is a way off- reflective of the state of Indigenous affairs in this country (which is a huge can of worms you should look to educate yourself online. Try starting at the ). Fortunately these recently released pieces of art are strong vehicles of dissemination for these ideas. The least we can do is to buy, listen/watch and most importantly spread the word.



Cover photo lifted from



Leave a Reply