Lib at Large: Gurrumul, a blind aboriginal singer-songwriter, makes Marin debut

    • From the Marin IJ, by Paul Liberatore

      Ever heard of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu? If you can even pronounce his name, you’re way ahead of me. I only learned of him when I was told he’d be coming to Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley on Saturday on his first solo tour of the U.S, and that his show is one I didn’t want to miss.

      Blind since birth, Gurrumul is an aboriginal singer-songwriter from Elcho Island, a tiny sliver of land off the north coast of Australia. Robert Siegel did a feature on him on NPR’s “All Things Considered” last summer, when his eponymous album was released in this country after selling half a million copies in Australia, making him a major star down under. A cover story in the Australian issue of Rolling Stone called him the country’s “most important voice.”

      An international star, Gurrumul is virtually unknown in the U.S. He opened his American tour last week in New York to a sold-out audience at the Subculture club in Manhattan. In his New York Times review, Jon Pareles wrote, “There’s something preternaturally soothing about the voice of Gurrumul. It seems to arrive from a distance, high and serene, with a hint of reediness and a humble quaver, proffering melodies like lullabies.”

      In a video message about Gurrumul on his Facebook page, Quincy Jones said, “I know you’re going to get blown away as much as I was when I first heard him.” He said Gurrumul possesses “one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices I’ve ever heard.”

      During a concert in Paris, Sting sang a show-stopping duet of “Every Breath You Take” with him, and Elton John counts himself among his fans and admirers. He’s performed for President Obama and for Britain’s royal family. He’s sold a quarter of a million records in Europe.

      When I first watched one of his videos, I was startled not only by his angelic tenor, but by his whole package — the way he plays the guitar, left-handed and upside down with a harpist’s picking style, and by the haunting figure he presents on stage, his pupil-less eyes uncovered and otherworldly.

      “There’s a strange aura and energy that comes off Gurrumul that’s really difficult to describe,” said Michael Hohnen, his bass player, producer and constant companion.

      Gurrumul, who’s 43, speaks little English and is extremely shy, declining to give interviews., Hohnen, a fellow Australian who discovered him 20 years ago and is most responsible for introducing him to Western audiences, speaks for him.

      “None of this would have happened had I not built up a long friendship with him and encouraged him to do it,” Hohnen said. “It’s been so rewarding for me and him over the past five or six years, opening up his mind.”

      Gurrumul sings in his native Yolngu, a language that only about 10,000 people in the world understand. While his lyrics, about his ancestors, spirit and the natural world, are unintelligible to us, his songs and melodies are surprisingly accessible, an acoustic folk rock with Western chords and tunings.

      He sings one song on his album in English. Titled “Gurrumul History,” it begins, “I was born blind and I don’t know why.”

      Hohnen says Gurrumul identifies with “the soft balladry of Western pop music.” His iPod is filled with the likes of Elvis and the Eagles. When I did this interview over the phone, he and Hohnen had just flown into Nashville to take in a concert by country singer Vince Gill, one of his favorite singers.

      One of the songs on his album is the first one Hohnen heard him sing when he met this man that everyone in Australia was talking about two decades ago.

      “It’s all about him being the child of the rainbow,” Hohnen explained. “He’s being carried by that rainbow through life.”

      Gurrumul has been to the U.S. before. As a young man, he toured here as the keyboard player for the Australian rock band Yothu Yindi. But this is the first time the rainbow has carried him here as a headliner, an astonishing singer-songwriter who does not appear to remain unknown for long.

      “Gurrumul knows that America is the Western music capital of the world,” Hohnen said. “One of his dreams is to come and play here. It feels to him like a pilgrimage to a very important place.”