The voice of an angel

NOT since I heard the music of a young Harry Chapin or an equally youthful James Taylor have I listened to a voice as clear and beautiful as that of the Aboriginal blind singer Gurrumul Yunupingu. He has been around for some time, as part of the well-known band Yothu Yindi, but it is only after he went solo that his name has become better known.

Gurrumul, who like many other Aborigines who rise to prominence, has now been christened with an English name, Geoffrey, has a voice that is haunting, that speaks directly to the soul, that makes one weep.

For anyone with even a slight knowledge of the history of dispossession that his people, and all the Australian Aboriginal tribes have endured ever since the white man stole their land, his voice also speaks to that part of his people’s history, without ever having to write lyrics either angry or accusatory.

His lyrics lose a lot when translated into English; on the surface they appear to be simple and, at times, even puzzling. But it is the music that counts, the music that endures, the voice that carries everything before him. His tones are at times strident, but mostly mellow, stirring and pure.

There is a plaintive quality about his music, creating a sense of sadness, loneliness, and at times there is the upward lilt that transports one to a realm of hope. But above all, the music is pure, untainted by technology and crosses the boundaries of many genres – blues, folk, rock and reggae – without ever sacrificing its own heritage.

After his first solo album, simply called Gurrumul, was released, he has attracted a remarkable amount of attention, played with Sting, taken a turn at a concert with Elton John, and is shortly due to tour the US. Exactly how he will fare in that land where fluff is more important than substance is uncertain.

He is a shy, retiring type even though he is a year short of 40, and the adulation of those he has admired – bands like the Eagles, Sir Cliff Richard and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits – probably would mean much more to him than the meaningless media merry-go-round which is geared towards extracting the soul from the soul musician.

His music is essentially simple; he plays a regular guitar left-handed as he could never obtain a left-handed instrurment when he was growing up. His mastery of the instrument is plain once one has listened to just a single one of his ballads.

The mix of a little English and his own Ylongu language which he uses is basic but powerful; the lyrics are unimportant, the voice is everything. Truly, these are tones from above, the voice of an angel.

Why the music has died

“In Mozart’s time, word of mouth built an audience. People found him and heard him play. Then someone came along and said, ‘We can sell this experience.’ Right there, you’ve got trouble. Music comes from the spirit, but where does the guy selling the music come from?” – Prince

THE music that you and I hear on radio, on TV, in the theatre is strictly controlled by the four big music companies – Sony Music, EMI, Warner and Universal.

These companies specify how often various songs should be played on public radio. They determine which artists should be promoted and which should take a backseat. And if you do not get one of them to sign you on, the chances of making it big are all but zero.

Musicians need advertising dollars, they need marketing, they need to travel and play gigs in order to become known. The big four pay these costs but recoup them more than adequately. If a musician has no chance of making money for the companies, he or she will not get a contract.

That’s why there is little or no innovation in the music industry these days. What is produced is like the food from McDonalds – all in the same style, tasteless crap. As with all other industries once consolidation takes place and huge monoliths start running the show, everything tastes or looks or sounds the same.

The period from the 1960s to the mid-1980s was a glorious one when there were creative bands galore like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Dire Straits, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, to name just five outfits. And there were Santana, Hendrix, Marley, Guthrie, Clapton, Sting, Baez, Frampton, Lightfoot, Croce, Taylor, Chapin, Winwood…

What equivalents does one find these days? Those that do produce music are plastic imitations of each other. Oasis and Coldplay are garbage. So too Lady GaGa, Beyonce, and their ilk. Buble is forced to sing songs from the 70s when he wants to create a hit album.

Commoditisation works for some things. Not for creative trades like music. The McDonaldisation of the music industry has put the lid on human ingenuity.