Gurrumul’s posthumous album makes history topping the ARIA charts
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu's final album, released nine months after the acclaimed musician's death, has become the first in an Australian Indigenous language to top music charts in Australia.
The album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), was over four years in the making and had a lot riding on its release, with Skinnyfish Music producer Michael Hohnen admitting it was a financial and artistic risk. But it was one that paid off.
"It's such an unlikely record to go number one. No beats, no programming, no pop formulas. It's just kind of like the opposite of what you would expect but it's an incredibly honest record and something that we've spent so long making and been really passionate about," he said.
The album was seen as a final message, heralded for continuing Dr G's legacy as one of Australia's finest voices.
Djarimirri presents traditional songs and harmonised chants from Dr G Yunupingu's traditional Yolngu life, paired with orchestral arrangements by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Recorded across many sessions over many years, the album was a labour of love produced by Michael Hohnen with orchestral arrangements by Erkki Veltheim.
Hohnen, a long-time collaborator and friend of the late musician, said the album is a testament to Dr G, his family, all Yolngu and the greater Aboriginal population.
"The history he has made taking a true Australian language and heritage to number one proves the strength of the underlying cultural identity of this nation," Hohnen said.
"It's a really uplifting record and I know from all of his family that throughout Arnhem Land they've started to play this record and really own it, so in many ways that makes me very happy.
"Ten thousand Yolngu people live where their law has been extinguished and so it's like they're not legitimate and hopefully this legitimises their music and their culture as something as relevant and as powerful as any Western music form."
Honen hopes the album is judged as a work of art or a piece of literature.
"I hope it's taken into the deeper part of Australian culture and owned as part of that," he said.
"When music is special enough it speaks and hopefully this actually speaks from a cultural perspective of go and have a look at what is going on our doorstep and experience and love it."
Dr G was a self-taught multi-instrumentalist from Galiwin'ku on Elcho Island just off the Arnhem Land coast.
Blind from birth, he played the guitar upside down with his left hand. He had no use for picks, instead he simply kept his fingernails long.
By his mid-teens he had joined Indigenous rock group Yothu Yindi and a little while later Hohnen convinced him to pursue a solo career.
He released his first album in 2008, sung almost entirely in his Yolngu language and promptly picked up ARIA awards for best independent release and best world album.
An impromptu duet with Sting in Paris in 2009 gave him global notoriety and set the reluctant star on a course he did not anticipate and at times did not seem to want.
Two more albums followed over the coming years — selling more than 500,000 copies worldwide — as well as guest performances for the likes of Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.
He has been described by Rolling Stone Magazine as "Australia's most important voice" while Sting described him as possessing a "voice of a higher being".
The Arnhem Land musician died last year at the age of 46 after a long battle with kidney and liver disease, following childhood hepatitus B.
In a rare exception to Yolngu lore, but a testament to the importance of Dr G's work, clan leaders have allowed his name and image to be used in a recently released documentary, simply titled Gurrumul, that gives an insight into the late Indigenous musician's life.