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.