Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
Monday 16 November 2009
The Empire's normally heaving, sweaty mosh-pit was furnished with seats for this particular concert, lending the venue a more low-key atmosphere, but one that seemed appropriate for the unostentatious Aboriginal singer-songwriter Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Supported by a string quartet, second acoustic guitarist Francis Diatschenko and double bass player Michael Hohnen, Gurrumul, who was born blind, was led to his seat carrying his right-handed guitar, which he plays upside down.
His friend and manager, Hohnen, also acts as his spokesperson. "Gurrumul refuses to talk, so he makes me do it," he explained with a smile. "You could at least say hello." We get no response from this shy, self-composed artist; on-stage banter, you sense, isn't his thing.
Perhaps with this in mind, giant video projections added a welcome visual dimension to the performance. Footage and pictures from Gurrumul's Elcho Island homeland, in the remotest reaches of Arnhem Land, helped put the songs – sung in a variety of indigenous languages – into context. More than simply subtitles, Gurrumul's words conjured up metaphors and images of the landscape, the wildlife and the indigenous people of Australia's Northern Territory.
Songs from his eponymous solo album, released this summer in the UK on the Dramatico label, emphasise the importance of ancestry, country, and land. There is a song about an orange-footed scrub fowl. A song (the Radio 2 playlisted "Bapa") in homage to his father. There are sunsets and storm clouds; cats and saltwater crocodiles – all embodiments of Gurrumul's ancestors and conveyed via the oral history that is such a fundamental aspect of Gurrumul's world.
But the overwhelming factor is Gurrumul's voice: timeless, nostalgic and haunting – unwavering in its delicate beauty, and a soothing balm on the captivated audience.
His final song, "Gurrumul History – I was Born Blind" was accompanied by images of Gurrumul's incredible year – the awards, the tours, the international acclaim. As the song ended, the crowd stood in appreciation of this young musician who is bringing Aboriginal music and culture into the limelight.
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