Unlike David Bowie’s Blackstar, Gurrumul’s final album Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) –released today (Friday April 13.2018) through Skinnyfish – was not conceived as a farewell testimonial.
When work started on it four years ago, Gurrumul was still touring behind his debut album, which sold half a million copies around the world.
Although highly instinctive about his art, he knew there were two things he wanted to achieve with Djarimirri.
He didn’t want to make a repeat of the first record.
Secondly, he wanted to open the culture of his home community of Galiwin’ku and surrounding Arnhem Land to a more mainstream audience.
Says his long time collaborator and producer Michael Hohnen, “When we started work on the record, G was full of the joys of living and in a really good space.
“He waned to make a great record, a game changer which would reach a mainstream audience, a mixture of indigenous and western.
“We wanted a record that was nothing like the crap that’s coming out today that sounds like every other song you’ve heard. We want to make a grand statement, of esoteric language and communication style.
“His health was declining for a long time, but he was still powerful at making his music.
“There’s a point halfway through on one of the ballads on the record… I can’t think of a more powerful vocal, it was so incredible.”
Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) is an ambitious and utterly unique record.
It fuses indigenous and western music, coming to terms with their rhythmic differences and with instruments which have different tunings.
Hohnen explains, “One of the elements on this record that we worked so hard on was Yolngu songs don’t exist properly without proper didgeridoo parts.
“We spent a long time going back to the island (remote Tiwi Island where Gurrumul lived) to get the right didgeridoo parts that worked with these songs and transcribe the cellos “
Not only were there the complexities of making two cultures fit, but they had to deal with soundscapes of the movement of an octopus or the Aboriginal flag waving sleepily in the desert wind.
These were concepts chosen by the singer songwriter to best represent what made up his character.
Gurrumul and Hohnen never once sat down and discussed what the tracks were meant to convey.
From the moment they met they were so intuitively on the same page that there was very little need for conversation.
Many times, Hohnen says, they’d be thinking about the same thing during the sessions.
Gurrumul would put down his idea. If he didn’t like what he’d done, Hohnen would guess at what he wanted
“How’s that?” he’d say.
If Gurrumul disagreed, he’d either respond “yaka” (‘”no good’:) or wait in silence until inspiration came.
The process was never frustrating.
“Nothing aside from getting him out of a hotel onto the stage, was frustrating.
“We just enjoyed life and ourselves the whole time. It was the ultimate experience I will ever enjoy.”
To ensure the fusions of the world worked, they did seven or eight concerts with orchestras. Four of them were at the Sydney Opera House.
“I distinctly remember so many moments where the entire Opera House was dead still.
“I’m not sure if they were completely engaged or they didn’t want to breathe because some moments on these tracks are so quiet.
“But you could tell by the engagement that people were able to get their heads around what we were trying to do live.”
Hohner had told Skinnyfish Records founder Mark T. Grose he wanted the record out when Gurrumul was still alive.
Moves were being made but Grose rang one day from the hospital to say, “We’ve lost him.”
Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) will also be released in the UK in a few weeks and in the US in the northern summer.
It’s Gurrumul’s final chapter but there are some Djarimirri leftovers, piano and vocal tracks and remixes in the vault.
On Paul Williams’ Gurrumul documentary which is narrated by Gurrumul’s uncle, Djunga Djunga Yunupingu, and aunt, Gurruwiwi, we see the hard work that went into the record, and how it was important for Hohnen for the Yunupingu clan to hear the record and allow its release.
The Yunupingus represent generations of human rights, legal, musical and educational achievements.
Having played film festivals in Europe and Australia, it hits Australian cinemas on April 25.
In the documentary, Gurrumul would joyfully listen to his relatives talk about their “sorrow” when he was blind, and anticipated he’d be a homebody, a minimal achiever and passive.
Instead, his uncle admits, “He exceeded all our expectations.”
Gurrumul comes across as a man with a sharp sense of humour.
When Guy Maestri wins the Archibald Prize for his Gurrumul portrait, the singer sent a message to be read out at the ceremony: “I didn’t win this money, so please don’t call me asking for some of it.”
Or when Sting and he duet on French TV on ‘Every Breath You Take’, and Gurrumul cracks up at the fact he’s supposed to sing the line “I’ll be watching you”.
Just minutes before the British singer had embraced him and drew him to the bosom of the he army coat he was wearing and said to Gurrumul, “It’s such an honour to meet you, I’ve been listening to your album in the car this whole week.”