Vivid Sydney: Gurrumul – His Life and Music at the Sydney Opera House

29 May 2013

Last night was my next Vivid Sydney show: Gurrumul.


I had only vaguely heard of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu when I saw his concert listed for Vivid. My better half suggested we go, so I got tickets and then learned more about him. Gurrumul is an Indigenous Australian musician who sings in the Yolngu language (he apparently knows very little English). He’s from an island off the coast of Arnhem Land. He was born blind. He sings the songs of his people, in their language, though sometimes performed in a Western folk-music way. He plays several instruments, but mostly guitar.

And he sings in a high, otherworldly voice that sends shivers down my spine.

Last night’s show was a world premiere: not only Gurrumul and his band, but with accompaniment by some of the Sydney Symphony. This created a lush, powerful swell behind the songs. Gurrumul’s beautiful singing came through every song, whether it was an Aboriginal chant, or an ancestral tale set to a folk-pop rhythm or a reggae tune. There were video segments of his family explaining what each song was about, which gave the audience context. His songs are not political; they’re expressions of his culture, so that context meant a lot.

Gurrumul reserved his voice entirely for his songs but for a quick thank you at the end. It was a very special show.

Here’s a small sample of a performance from a few years back, to give you a tiny idea of what he was like before he got big in 2008. It might be hard to imagine this with a symphony behind him, but it really worked.

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