Michael Hohnen, manager, friend and musical collaborator of Gurrumul has been hard at work in the lead up to the release of the late singer/songwriter's final album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), as well as the nationwide opening of a documentary celebrating the beloved North-East Arnhem Land musician’s life.
“The film complements the album,” he says. “So much of the population now is into quick soundbites and media bytes and instant stuff and this is the opposite of that. The album and the film give a different perspective on his life, the intent and the process, rather than just pressing play and going ‘oh my God this is nothing like the G that we’ve known for 10 years’.”
Hohnen refers to the beloved colleague as ‘G’, a fond nickname used over many years. Gurrumul passed away in July, 2017, due to liver and kidney issues. With the release of Djarimirri and the film, his name is being used openly, which is unusual given Yolgnu grieving traditions, which normally forbid the use of the name of those who have deceased.
“The family have said that unless it’s Yolgnu speaking or saying it, they want his energy and his legacy out there, highly unusually,” Hohnen explains. “They’re also being practical about it, in that they say, ‘he’s famous and is actually one of the few positive representations of us in the media’. Their thinking is that because he already is famous, it’s very hard to undo that. In indigenous culture hundreds of years ago there were no pictures or internet, so it might be a changing of the times a bit…”
“Three different djungaya (clan leaders who take on decision-making roles after a person dies) have been involved in the post-death proceedings. After the final ceremony in November they’ve all sanctioned the same protocols.”
In the decade prior to his passing, the blind vocalist and multi-instrumentalist had taken the world by storm, singing in his native Yolgnu tongue in songs that seemingly brought heaven to earth. Equal parts ochre and orchestra, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) is a final and fitting musical statement. It debuted at #1 on the ARIA National Album Chart.
“We spent so much time trying to work on a musical piece that reflected him, and the greatness of him and that culture so much and pitching it in a way that people could take it in,” Hohnen says. “Traditional music is a difficult medium for non-Aboriginal people to take in, so I feel like there’s a lot of love and this may find an audience because it’s not a replication, in a way, of the first record. For us it was important that his journey went in a certain direction rather than stayed static.”
The main part of the album was recorded four years ago. Gurrumul’s health had started to decline, but music remained true and constant, with the opportunity to take it to new ground an important one.
“Traditional music was still such a force in his body and his soul that it seemed a natural direction to go in, to try and present his upbringing and his cultural and musical form as strongly as possible,” Hohnen says. We delved into that challenging task of reflecting Yolgnu culture in that orchestral setting.”
Djarimirri was completed just prior to Gurrumul’s death. Hohnen says that on a lighter note Gurrumul was chuffed to work with orchestral backing because that was normally for ‘famous’ people. On the other hand, he had likened hearing a symphony orchestra in textural terms such as silk or velvet. Such was the way in which he felt music.
Perth singer, Natalie Gillespie, was a member of Yothu Yindi in the late ‘90s/early 2000’s and has previously described to this writer the cheeky personality that Gurrumul had behind the scenes, far removed from the solemnity that the public had known him by. Hohnen concurs.
“The film captures the hysterical bits of laughter and humour and sarcasm and all sorts of things,” Hohnen says, “but the public persona was more peaceful and solemn and quiet. There were many sides to him, but I think part of it was that if he never spoke in public or never made any statements - which he didn’t, really, only to us, people and family who were close to him - then he was never committed to anything.
“It was like a safety net as well, ‘I’m never going to commit to anything that I’ll regret later’. I don’t know if that was from years being in Yothu Yindi and watching how Dr M had to deal with the media. I just think he saw the public world as a different place for him than the private world. In the private world he could be a much more normal person; in the public world he enjoyed being able to sing and perform. Whenever we wanted to know something heavy he wouldn’t answer, he’d say, ‘go ask my uncle’ (Djunga Djunga Yunupingu, who narrates the film, along with aunt, Gurruwiwi). There was always that deferral of responsibility to his uncle, or me, or someone else.”
Directed by Paul Williams, Gurrumul took out Perth Festival’s 2018 ‘Golden Deckchair’ as the people’s choice of the Lotterywest Films program. Along with Djarimirri it provides fine testament to a gifted musician and for Hohnen, a friend who will forever remain in his thoughts.
“Incredible,” Hohnen says of Gurrumul, warmly. “He was very perceptive and very wily. He was discriminate. I miss him terribly… such a great music partner and great friend.
“Deep down he was extremely gentle, a humorous and beautiful character whom I think that nearly everyone who ever met him, loved. And part of it was that he loved being loved. He wanted people to love his music. He didn’t want to do music that people wouldn’t love.”
Djarimirri (Child Of The Rainbow) is out now. Gurrumul is screening in WA at Luna Leederville and Luna On SX, check www.lunapalace.com.au for full details.