Gurrumul and our better angels

I went to Gurrumul’s Brisbane concert earlier this month, while sports fans and others debated whether it was racist to boo former Australian of the Year Adam Goodes.

I can plot my recent writing life with Gurrumul’s music. I listened to his first, self-titled album on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait finishing The Birth Wars. His second Rrakala came out while I was working on In Falling Snow in the mountains of Canada. His haunting voice and melodies of longing never fail to move me to tears when I need them. His music has influenced me more than anyone else’s.

I’m not alone. Born blind and raised on Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu has been described by Rolling Stone as Australia’s most important voice. The Gospel Album, his latest, pays homage to his mother and aunties who taught him to sing the Methodist hymns of his childhood. I didn’t grow up with these hymns exactly, other than Amazing Grace, but with songs not far from them musically. Here then is music, the language that joins us together, as songs of devotion, sung in Gurrumul’s language.

The capacity crowd at QPAC applauded loudly when Gurrumul was led onstage. He and the band played songs from the new album as well as old favourites. There were songs to sing along to, songs to cry to, and songs to make whoops and bird sounds in. A guy behind me made a convincing crow, which he followed up with a cockatoo, and then a very good rooster.

I love Gurrumul’s quiet presence, and the rooster brought a gentle smile from him, but two other things at the concert stood out. At each venue, local community choirs have accompanied the band. In Brisbane, the First Nations Choir was assembled by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander singer songwriter Ruth Ghee especially for the occasion. “To sing songs in language meant so much to us,” Ghee said. “We are still pinching ourselves.” As they sang along to those songs that would take any of us with a heart towards goodness, as their voices filled the hall, they began to move in time with the music. You could hear the sea in the haunting Bayini, sung as a duet with support Caiti Baker. Long-time collaborator and bassist Michael Hohnen provided an anchor and kindly commentary throughout. Together, they took us away.

The other thing that stood out was watching accomplished jazz guitarist, Ben Hauptmann, who sat facing Gurrumul on stage. He’s a wonderful player of course, but I also noticed his eyes were always on Gurrumul during breaks, going over when needed, tuning the singer’s guitar, getting his water. His devotion shone.

A couple of years ago, Gurrumul’s manager Mark Grose hailed a taxi from a Melbourne venue. When Gurrumul emerged from the venue, the taxi driver saw him, locked the doors and sped off. Grose said he could only assume this was racism.

When the last song finished, I don’t think I was the first upstanding, and in less than a minute, all of us in that clapping, yelling, whistling, hooting crowd were on our feet.  

“I was born blind,” he sings to those of us who weren't. “And I don’t know why. God knows why, because He loved me so.” His music calls to our better angels, the ones we need to continue to listen to if we are to go forward as a united nation.