Remembered today as one of the most important figures in Australian music history, Yunupingu, blind from birth emerged from the remote Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land to sell over half a million copies of his albums across the world, singing in his native Yolngu language. His debut album cemented him as the Australian voice of a generation, hitting triple platinum in Australia, silver in the UK and charting in multiple other countries across the globe.
The highest selling Indigenous artist in history, Yunupingu released two subsequent top five studio albums Rrakala and The Gospel Album, achieved a swag of ARIA Awards, performed across the globe for audiences including Queen Elizabeth II and Barack Obama and released the first Indigenous language single to reach the top five, all the while continuing to call Elcho Island home.
Yunupingu also gave back to his community as the driving force behind the G. Yunupingu Foundation, creating opportunities for young people across the Northern Territory. His legacy as a musician and community leader will continue as his life’s work continues its positive impact on Elcho Island, The Northern Territory, Australia and the world.
Directed by Paul Williams and produced by Shannon Swan, GURRUMUL is a portrait of an artist on the brink of global reverence, and the struggles he and those closest to him faced in balancing that which mattered most to him and keeping the show on the road.
“In constructing this film I’ve been mindful of my own experiences when I began working in remote indigenous communities,” said Williams. “I want to leave them with the sense of awe that I felt when I came to understand just how deep the flowing waters of their culture ran. Gurrumul is the personification of a cross-over artist, likewise, the film must cross back and forth between his Yolngu and the broader whitefella worlds.”
Despite his success, Yunupingu lives a traditional indigenous life on Elcho Island, surrounded by Yolngu culture as part of the Gumatj clan, as far away from the trappings of fame and fortune as possible. In this world, Mark Grose (Yunupingu’s manager) and Michael Hohnen (Yunupingu’s musical collaborator) are outsiders.
After stumbling across the raw musical talent of Elcho Island in 1996, together they formed the SkinnyFish music label (based In Darwin) to help preserve the music they were hearing. They had no idea at the time they would discover a voice that would penetrate so far and wide, and were completely unprepared when it did.
“The film is about two very different worlds coming together to produce something amazing,” says Williams. “The tension in the film comes from balanda (whitefella) and Yolngu worlds being unable to totally fulfil each other’s expectation due to their pre-existing cultural commitments. The story is told from two cultural perspectives – balanda and Yolngu.”
In Yolngu lore the name, image and voice of the recently departed is retired from all public use. A very rare exception has been made by Gumatj and Gälpu clan leaders for GURRUMUL. Three days before Yunupingu’s death he approved this film. It remains unchanged since this time.
“This is one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices I’ve ever heard.” – Quincy Jones
GURRUMUL is distributed by Madman Films and screens nationally from 25 April 2018.
Image: Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (film still) – courtesy of Madman Films