I first listened to Gurrumul’s final album Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) on my way home from a writers' festival organised by the small Queensland town of Boonah where I ran a workshop earlier this month. Driving through country dry and sparse - trees, grass, granite peaks, a long straight road, farms, cows - I was far from the sea and sky and crocodiles of Gurrumul's Elcho Island home. But the songs were here too.
If I need to cry, I will often listen to Gurrumul's music. While other people hear that extraordinary voice differently - he puts over-tired babies to sleep apparently and makes some people stamp their feet and get up to dance - for me his was the voice of our shared humanity, and of profound grief.
Djarimirri is a progression from Gurrumul's earlier albums I didn't expect. It's not just that traditional Yolngu chants have been scored for orchestra for Djarimirri. The result is an experience of unbridled and powerful musical joy. It is not music to cry to, or perhaps it is, but it is also music to punch the air to. I found myself humming those chants afterwards, feeling good about the world.
The album was released with the documentary, Gurrumul, directed by Paul Damien Williams, which had been filmed over ten years. Both were held back when the artist passed away in 2017. The documentary stands alone as an artistic achievement, sumptuous, deft, with an achingly beautiful soundtrack and narration from Gurrumul’s aunt Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi and uncle Djunga Djunga Yunupingu. I've seen it twice. I'll see it a third time and I'm not sure that will be enough. There is so much to learn here.
The documentary opens with the title song from Djarimirri. “I am the rainbow child,” he sings of his life, “the child of the rainbow.” He doesn’t speak to camera – he was notoriously reluctant to be interviewed – although there are intimate moments captured with those close to him that speak of him. Often when he is listening to music or to the sounds of the world, he turns his head from side to side. His smile is rare, quizzical, his humour infectious, his public presence like a mountain, unmoving, vital. A parade of journalists, music show hosts, critics, even artists like Sting, are nothing more than noise on the screen around him.
The narrative arc here is the bridge between two worlds, Yolngu and Balanda, black and white, a bridge Gurrumul’s music has built, not without personal cost. In a tour of America – a smaller, more focused learning journey after the opportunity of a big-venue and festival extravaganza has not been taken up by Gurrumul, he's about to play a set at Amoeba Records in Berkeley. When he starts to sing, everyone in the store looks up – the usual crusty record collectors and music shop afficionados, all of them arrested in what they are doing to gather and listen.
Gurrumul retired from touring in 2015 and suffered poor health as a result of childhood illness. His health was not a topic for discussion in the documentary, at his insistence, and he and his family asked that their community be given dignity. For this reason, the film does not dwell on indigenous disadvantage. The result is a work of great beauty, although the facts are by no means painted over. They are there, even in Gurrumul's passing at just forty-six.
Watching the documentary before I listened to the album, I had some understanding of what the artist and his long-time friend and collaborator Michael Hohnen set out to do with Djarimirri and it really helped the listening experience. Like the writers I met at the festival in Boonah, they struggled to create something from themselves, something that would feel true. The trust between them – brothers, as Gurrumul’s family members tell us, Hohnen shaving his blind friend in one scene, Gurrumul playing and laughing with Hohnen’s three small children in another – was the foundation for the bridge Gurrumul was able to build.
Unlike the earlier albums where Gurrumul’s voice is backed by folk instruments, on Djarimirri that voice is the searing instrument leading classical music away from itself and towards the oldest music in the world, its roots deep into the earth and under the sea of Australia, from Elcho Island to Boonah. Classical music scores and instruments do their best to follow, led by composer Erkki Valdheim, although meaning might still be beyond our understanding. One of the documentary’s key scenes has Hohnen and Gurrumul in a recording studio with exhausted and frustrated orchestra players who try again, led by Valdheim, Gurrumul using his voice, through Hohnen, to show where the instruments should be, his vision clear.
The result is a triumph, music that can bring an acute awareness of life in all its preciousness "We have one life and one death," Susan Danghal Wurruwiwi tells us.
The Buddhist writer Pema Chodron says we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We can open our hearts. We always have this choice. Perhaps Gurrumul’s music is neither happy nor sad, neither grief nor joy. Perhaps it is the softness of the open heart. He sings of the animals, the water, the world he inhabits with an understanding I know enough to know is deeper than I can yet follow. As his father tells us in the documentary, Gurrumul sees with his heart.
In Boonah, people like me gathered to write, one who lost a son, another who lived through unthinkable trauma, still another wanting to make a story of her time for her children and grandchildren. They are making making making, offering their gifts.
I can't help but feel that Gurrumul should be on Elcho Island now, or in a little plane to Darwin. He should be touring. He should be making music. We lost him. And so we listen, we soften our hearts and we get better. His passing too is part of a cycle. His death has not yet happened when the documentary is completed. Approving the final version is one his last acts. “His book is nearly closed," his aunt tells us, foretelling.
If an artist had one offering left, a gift that could heal a broken world, Gurrumul has given it with Djarimirri. Hohnen and Valdheim and the orchestra players could be forgiven for feeling they have completed their life purpose, and Williams was enormously prescient, turning our gaze to this ancient culture that has so much to teach us. Gurrumul’s family have allowed the release of album and film. We owe them all our gratitude, for the gift from Gurrumul that has come through them is without peer.