He died cruelly early in 2017 at age 46, when he was on the brink of global fame, but his family makes an exception to usual rules and allows the media to continue using his name and image in recognition of what his music meant to people. I am grateful for this, because it was enormously important to me.
In 2012, when my father was locked deep in terminal illness, he wanted to spend his last few months of life at home and our family chose to make that happen. With minimal outside help we provided between us the care that was necessary but involved so much loss of privacy for Dad.
Dad loved Gurrumul’s first, self-titled album and my sister and I would routinely play it to him as we performed these daily caring rituals. The otherworldly beauty of Gurrumul took us out of ourselves, helped ease confrontation into intimacy, and returned to these acts of service a dignity that made those months easier for everyone to bear.
I tell this story to illustrate how deep inside you music can reach, and Gurrumul’s most of all.
Seven years later, I can’t yet listen again to that album, but thankfully, that did not stop me loving those that followed: Rrakala and The Gospel Album, through which Gurrumul’s styles continued to evolve, and finally the majestic Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), which exploded into something altogether new.
More than four years in the making and completed only weeks before Gurrumul died, Djarimirri used harmonised traditional Yolngu chants and songs alongside hypnotic orchestral arrangements, blending the highest forms of both his own and European culture.
The result was a hypnotic album from an artist at his creative peak; the first Indigenous language album to top the ARIA charts, debuting at number one.
Perth Festival artistic director Iain Grandage called it the single finest work of recorded art to emerge from Australia in the past decade, a “perfect marriage of two vastly different worlds”.
In Yolŋu culture, a buŋgul is a ceremony, a meeting place of dance, song and ritual. And Buŋgul, which opened on Friday and runs throughout Perth Festival’s opening weekend, goes way beyond a live performance of Gurrumul’s final work; it transformed Perth Concert Hall into a traditional ceremonial ground in a live audio-visual spectacular featuring the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.
Onstage, in a giant sandpit created to echo the beach they would be dancing on at home, these musicians, songmen and dancers from Elcho Island, North East Arnhem Land, performed the ancient songs and dances that were the genesis of Djarimirri, to a backdrop of stunning projected paintings and lanscapes that show where these pieces come from.
Directed by senior Yolŋu Don Wininba Ganambarr and Nigel Jamieson, the man behind 2019’s jawdropping Kings Park projection show Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, the show is conducted by Erkki Veltheim, who collaborated with Gurrumul and producer-musician Michael Hohnen on the orchestral arrangements for the album.
It forms the centrepiece of an entire first week of First Nations performances at the festival, showcasing the mystery, power and drama of an Australian way of life both ancient and alive.
The dancers were electrifying, the music transcendent, the visuals achingly beautiful. Maybe I am emotionally over-involved, but on Friday night, on the eve of what would have been my father’s birthday, this show took my breath away.
Buŋgul‘s premiere was recently called one of Sydney Festival’s ‘climactic’ shows. And if the standing ovations these performers got on Friday night were anything to go by, the Perth audience felt the same way. For me at least, it was the single unmissable event of Perth Festival 2020. Just as the world will never get another Gurrumul, you will simply never see a show quite like this again.
Dad would have just loved it.
Buŋgul runs Saturday, February 8 at 7pm and Sunday, February 9 at 6.30pm, Perth Concert Hall, (Dyeedyallalup), $39-$89, tickets here.
Perth Festival’s more than 250 shows are running throughout February. See the program here.
Emma Young covers breaking news with a focus on science and environment, health and social justice for WAtoday.