An Indigenous Australian from the Gumatj clan, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was already a veteran multi-instrumentalist before releasing his 2008 solo debut as Gurrumul. Born blind, he had learned guitar from a young age, wielding a right-handed guitar upside down to play it left-handed—a practice he maintained throughout his life. After joining the part-Indigenous ensemble Yothu Yindi at age 18 and playing on their landmark 1991 album Tribal Voice, Yunupingu later founded the similarly genre-blending Saltwater Band.
More than his talent with guitar, keyboards, and other instruments, it’s Yunupingu’s one-of-a-kind singing that stopped listeners in their tracks. Communicating a deep sense of tenderness and tranquility, his songs deliver the Yolŋu language of his native Elcho Island (off the northeast coast of Australia) with such clarity that listeners who couldn’t speak the language or understand the exact meaning of his lyrics could nevertheless be moved. His clear, resonant tenor conveys deep emotion, rippling with both joy and sadness.
Gurrumul introduced not just that voice, but a striking cross-section of influences that include the favored hymns and Western pop music of Yunupingu’s childhood as well as traditional Indigenous music and culture. Working with collaborator and spokesperson Michael Hohnen, who produced the album, Yunupingu brought his people’s language to a global audience thanks to the sheer grace and purity of his singing. The album went on to win two ARIA Awards and eventually reached triple-platinum sales status in Australia, with Yunupingu soon singing for US presidents and British royalty alike.
It’s easy to hear why the album had such an impact: It doesn’t sound like anything else. Though the influences of folk and gospel certainly come through, the arrangements feel undeniably new. Singing with great reverence about land and spirit, Yunupingu is a comforting presence: Even across the nearly eight and a half immersive minutes of “Galiku,” one hardly notices the actual passage of time. Gently shaded with backing singers, “Djȁrimirri”(“child of the rainbow”) invokes the gospel sound he would explore at length on 2015’s The Gospel Album (including a rendition of “Amazing Grace” with Paul Kelly), while “Marwurrumburr” adds hooks and R&B-style harmonies to his fluttering vocals.
Only one song features English lyrics: the heartfelt origin story “Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind),” which cites traveling to New York, London, and LA, “trying to bridge and build Yolŋu culture.” Beyond the overt call for solidarity in the chorus, he reflects on the world: “I was born blind, and I don't know why/God knows why, because he love me so.” The song’s Yolŋu lyrics are equally powerful, ringing out with universal emotion.
Following long battles with liver and kidney damage, Yunupingu died in 2017 at age 46. By then he had completed four solo studio albums, including the posthumous release Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), and a live album with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The impact of his profound hybrid of modern Australian and Indigenous music and culture cannot be overstated.