After the unprecedented worldwide success of his 2008 self-titled debut, Indigenous Australian singer-songwriter Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu returned in 2011 as a household name in world music. Again featuring his singing in the Yolngu languages of his native Elcho Island, Rrakala is every bit as profound as its predecessor, evoking a deep sense of peace while making lasting connections to the land and Gurrumul’s Gumatj clan. “Djilawurr”, which he originally developed with his tandem ensemble Saltwater Band, has the purity of classic gospel, especially in the upswell of his pristine tenor. Shades of folk, reggae and even rock enter the album at various points, but again it’s Gurrumul’s uniquely pulse-slowing treatment of ancient subject matter—country, family, faith—that makes him such a spellbinding storyteller. Gurrumul has explained how the tranquil “Gopuru” describes him watching blue marlin jump and splash from the ocean as a child, and the strings-gilded ballad “Wulminda” recounts witnessing dark clouds gathering in the distance.
Nearly as singular as the first album’s “Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)”, a rare Gurrumul to feature English lyrics, is the crossover-ready standout “Bayini”. Beyond the stirring trills and sustain of the vocal performance, the emotional track recounts the arrival of non-Aboriginal visitors to Arnhem Land, and how these visits became enshrined in Yolngu oral history as a kind of mythological occurrence. Gurrumul went on to adapt the song with added English lyrics sung first by Sarah Blasko and later by Delta Goodrem, while he performed the album track “Warwu” with Missy Higgins at the 2011 ARIA Awards. Those high-profile duets both confirmed and furthered Gurrumul’s rising star, but never at the risk of diminishing the power of his music and singing. Gurrumul’s death in 2017 left us with only a handful of solo albums from him, but the cumulative power of them hasn’t faded.