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The birth of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu's accidental gospel album. By Samuel J. Fell.

Gurrumul’s gospel truths

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu
Credit: Nicolas Walker

It took only four days to come to fruition. What began as a throwaway comment over a beer at the pub in Brunswick Heads on the New South Wales north coast ended with a standing ovation at a small hall in Mullumbimby, a few clicks inland, on a midwinter’s night.

The conversation, on a Saturday, was between me and Michael Hohnen, long-time manager, bassist and friend of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. The standing ovation, the following Wednesday, was for Gurrumul, coming at the end of an hour-long set Hohnen and I organised, publicised only via social media. It resulted in a sellout crowd travelling from further north than Brisbane, as far south as Grafton, from up in the hills and along the coast, all there to see the man Rolling Stone magazine dubbed, in 2011, “Australia’s most important voice”.

I remember the line stretching from the big, glass front doors of the Civic Memorial Hall, down the steps and along Dalley Street, past the fire station almost to the corner by the small post office. It was cold for the subtropics, and as the sun set over Mount Warning in the middle distance and the streetlights began to flicker on and stain the scene sepia, the line continued to grow.

The gig was an ethereal experience: 350 people in an old wooden hall. One woman, prior to the doors opening, told me with tears running down her cheeks that she’d never imagined she’d ever see Gurrumul in a venue as intimate as this. She said she’d heard about the show via Facebook that afternoon, and she and her husband had jumped in the car and driven three hours south to be here.

Once inside, people spread blankets on the floor but came to their feet as Gurrumul took the stage with his band, including Hohnen. They played for almost an hour, and the feeling was magical. People beamed, they swayed, they clapped and stamped their feet on the floor. They loved it, and so did Gurrumul.

He’s not one to talk to the audience during a performance; he seems consumed by the music. But if you’re close enough to the stage to see his face, you’ll see the smile that appears occasionally – sometimes as he starts a song, sometimes in the middle as he finishes a verse and just strums and listens to the musicians around him, usually when he snaps from his music-induced reverie and hears the crowd applaud.

“One of the great things about that whole gig was the community feeling,” Hohnen said later. “We walked out at the end of it and said, ‘We should do this everywhere in Australia.’

“I mean, it was cold and [Gurrumul] doesn’t really want to travel in the cold, but that [feeling] in a warm hall and everyone coming in with their blankets and sitting on the floor, it was such a beautiful community feeling.”

The crowd was also treated to two songs that only a handful of people had heard. Hohnen himself had only heard them two days previously, in the process of recording them. The songs signified another new chapter in the extraordinary career of a blind Indigenous artist who has captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world.

 

On the Monday night before the pop-up gig in Mullumbimby, I was standing outside Byron Bay’s Studios 301 with Gurrumul, both of us smoking a cigarette, not a word being spoken. It wasn’t awkward. I’d met him a number of times, and we had stood before in this exact spot, when I wrote about the making of his acclaimed second album, Rrakala, in 2011, also partly recorded here.

This time, though, felt different. Gurrumul was the same, quietly smoking, shuffling his feet in an effort to keep warm. It was more Hohnen and the rest of the Skinnyfish Music record label team projecting a different energy, a raw excitement, almost an incredulity at what was happening. For in the past four days, Gurrumul, Hohnen and multi-instrumentalist Ben Hauptmann had recorded nine tracks for what was fast becoming Gurrumul’s third studio effort, almost out of the blue.

They had all recently been deep within the process of putting together a different album, with Gurrumul backed by an orchestra. He had completed the majority of his parts for that one and was itching for something to do, and so they came to Byron.

The plan was to record some songs to test the waters, to see if anything came out of it, while waiting for the orchestral record to slowly form in production elsewhere.

Hohnen had let me know they’d be in my neck of the woods, telling me about their tentative plans for working up some new material. He mentioned it’d be a gospel album, but not as I might expect.

“Not American gospel, Methodist white-influenced,” he said. Intrigued, I found myself back at Studios 301, sitting in the corner of the control room, taking in all that was happening – the making of what became Gurrumul’s The Gospel Album.

Hohnen writes in the new album’s release notes: “The studio sessions were musical, improvisational and pure in their exploration of creating music, rather than recording in a premeditated way. Outcomes were unknown until we recorded them.”

In the studio that night, heated to a temperature as close to Gurrumul’s native Elcho Island as possible, things flowed. I wrote in my notebook that, perhaps because there was no album deadline, things seemed “relaxed and fun”. Hohnen’s wife and three children came in at dinner time, Gurrumul sat and chatted to family back home on his mobile. Hohnen, standing at the vintage mixing desk, told Gurrumul through the control mic, “That’s really good… rock, rock solid, like you.”

Between takes, Hohnen led Gurrumul back into the control room where he could sit in the green armchair to listen back to what they’d recorded. Despite the heat, he was dressed in a large black parka, and he crossed his left leg over his right and wriggled his foot in time with the music.

Hohnen would ask Gurrumul if he thought a different melody or guitar part might fit better. Usually, Gurrumul nodded, said “Yep”. He seemed happiest leaving it to others to fuss over the tweaks and production decisions, as though he was playing music and the others were “making” an album.

An idea for Gurrumul to play some electric bass meant a phone call made to a local muso, resulting in delivery of a Fender bass. Gurrumul was happy to play it from his green armchair, but a decision was made to have him back in the studio.

During takes, Gurrumul sat still, occasionally bobbing to the rhythm as he strummed his usual guitar, a right-handed acoustic, played upside down, as Hendrix did. Most of the takes seemed perfect, resulting in very little rejigging or rerecording. The music seemed to just tumble out of him, fuelling the general excitement as an unplanned album formed before our eyes.

Its sound took on some surprising guises. Hauptmann played a lot of mandolin, lending a distinct Americana flavour, not gospel at all. Some of Gurrumul’s vocal takes took on a calypso feel. At one point, Hohnen started using a bow on his upright bass, and Gurrumul, sitting a little in front of him, turned his head to hear better, nodding slowly as the deep sound filled the studio.

 

The Gospel Album landed on my desk, finally completed, a month or so ago. It has a simple cover – a black background with Gurrumul’s face seeming to emerge from the darkness. No liner notes – it’s a prerelease copy – just the sleeve and the CD.

Gurrumul’s voice is as pure on disc as it is in the flesh, and there are certain songs I remember him singing in the studio – “Garray Jesu (My Lord)” and “The Sweetest Name”, among others. As forecast by Hohnen, it’s not so much gospel in a theological sense as it is in spirit.

“All of the aunties and women that brought Gurrumul up, and a lot of the uncles and fathers too, they were brought up by missionaries,” Hohnen says. “So they love these songs. And so that’s part of what he’s grown up loving too, singing too. And I’m not sure if it’s necessarily an overtly religious album – it’s more songs that he loves and sentiments that are in a certain genre.”

The only song that people are likely to instantly recognise – and one of the only songs that really points to the album being in any way religious – is “Amazing Grace”, sung in one of the Yolngu languages. It’s the centrepiece of the album and for the most part features just Gurrumul’s voice, looped and overdubbed, harmonising with himself. Towards the end, the deep, warm thrum of the upright bass comes in, along with the chordal swirl of electric and acoustic guitars. It’s a haunting track, afforded extra power by being such a recognisable song, but now sung in an unfamiliar tongue.

From the studio to the impromptu gig, to listening to the finished album, it’s been almost an other-worldly experience spending some time with Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Here’s a man seemingly outside of the music industry, of making and selling albums, of winning awards, of playing for royalty – a man who makes music because it’s what he does. And when Gurrumul does it like he did in Mullumbimby and Byron Bay, in just a rush of sonic adrenalin, his subtle power floors you.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2015 as "Gospel truths". Subscribe here.

Samuel J. Fell
is a Byron Bay-based journalist and writer.