In Skinnyfish Music’s studio, a cavernous converted garage with instruments in every corner, Michael Hohnen’s phone is running hot. The posthumous release of Gurrumul’s final album was nearing, and Hohnen said he hoped it would be a fitting send-off for his longtime friend, wäwa (brother) and closest musical collaborator. He also hoped it would calm his nerves.
“I think the amount of time it’s taken and the seriousness of this album makes me really nervous, because it’s such a big statement and such a big commitment,” he said. “Financially, artistically — it’s not very safe.”
Left to his own devices, Hohnen said, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu would have made an Arnhem Land reggae album. Hohnen talked him around to trying new genres, and the singer liked to impress. Acting as a buffer for the rich music of north-east Arnhem Land and wider audiences, Hohnen has always worked with the singer to bring elements of traditional Yolngu songs — manikay — to a wider audience.
But Gurrumul’s final album takes larger strides in this direction than ever before. Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) is at once a continuation of Gurrumul’s musical work and a diversion from it, bringing manikay to life with orchestral accompaniments refined over years and years.
“He had a driving passion for people to like what he did,” Hohnen said of the late singer. “He also had an equal driving passion to be true to Yolngu song style. So starting from the first recordings, we were thinking that when we finish this record, it needs to have variation, Yolngu spirit, be somehow accessible, be a statement, and be beautiful and interesting to listen to.”
This is the story of how they balanced those two worlds.
An album like no other
Djarimirri has been many years in the making. A book about Gurrumul’s life — Gurrumul: His Life and Music — suggests recording began as early as June 2012.
Hohnen and Gurrumul laid vocal tracks in a Manhattan studio the pair favoured for its hermetic isolation from vibrant, distracting life in their communities. Other aspects of the album are much closer to home: The decision to sing entirely in language was tied to the declining health of the singer, who lived with hepatitis B from childhood.
“What I was noticing is he was more comfortable when he was singing things that were completely natural to him,” Hohnen said. “And so him singing in his first music style, his most inherent style, seemed to be the most natural path for us to take.”
Although some songs bear the same titles as earlier Gurrumul tracks, often named after aspects of Yolngu culture, Hohnen said they were similar in name only. Inspired by the repetitious patterns of some manikay, the producers who worked on the album harmonised the singer’s voice with itself, building them up until the effect was choral. “Repetition was really important for me because it mirrors all aspects that I’ve witnessed of Yolngu living styles,” Hohnen said.
From there, the duo took the album on the road, playing its songs at live shows with orchestral support and fine tuning them as they went. Asked if anything like this had been done before, Hohnen answered: “No. We took it probably more seriously than we’ve taken any other project that we ever did,” he said.
The final album harmonises traditional song with swelling orchestral arrangements and was recorded after songs were played with the Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, West Australian symphony orchestras and Queensland’s Camerata Chamber Orchestra.
Finally, the musicians returned to Galiwin’ku and recorded yidaki — or didgeridoo — played by Dhapan Yunupingu, which were in some cases transcribed into parts later played by cellos.
Singer’s own music played at funeral
In the lead-up to the album’s release, a procession of the singer’s relatives have passed through the Skinnyfish studio and listened to the album, sometimes pointing out cultural references Hohnen didn’t know were in the music.
Rirratjingu clan leader Witiyana Marika, who spoke on behalf of the singer’s family after his death, said when he and his wife joined Hohnen, they sat on the couch and wept. Mr Marika, who played with Gurrumul in Yothu Yindi’s early years, reflected upon the singer’s life as a natural-born musician who bridged the gap between Yolngu and non-Indigenous worlds in a significant way. “It was very, very moving,” he said. “We were there crying — myself, Michael and my wife. It’s just a big moment to join Yolngu songs into orchestras.”
The passing of Yolngu people traditionally enacts strict cultural protocols regarding the use of their name and image. In December, Gurrumul’s family took the unusual step of giving permission for his name and image to be used. The album will mean his voice and name continue to be seen and heard, as well as his image when a documentary about the singer’s life is released later this month.
Hohnen said the singer’s family had continued to encourage the release of the album so his legacy could live on. “There was a couple of Yolngu who have guided me emotionally through the grieving process, which really felt very special,” he recalled. “And then when the funeral finally happened out at Elcho, the Yolngu were playing some of this album, even though I hadn’t given it to anybody. I think they had dodgy copies they’d somehow got from G. They said to us: ‘No-one’s stopping us playing this music’. ”We want you to continue with his music.'”