17 July 2008


Sorry no longer seems to be the hardest word. In the same week that the Pope congratulated Australia for its “courageous decision” to apologise for the injustices done to Aboriginals (and then apologised for the paedophilia scandal), an album by an Aboriginal singer has topped the Australian independent music charts for the first time. This is a significant moment in Australia, where over the years the charts have been a whiter shade of pale.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is 38, blind, and grew up in poverty 600km from Darwin. He speaks only a few words of English, is extremely shy, and sings in his native language: Yolngu. He taught himself drums, keyboards, guitar and didgeridoo – all by ear, he doesn’t read Braille – and critics have been raving about his voice. It sounds like he is being groomed as the heir to the world-music-pop throne of Hawaii’s Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s critic Bruce Elder wrote that the first time he heard Yunupingu, “My immediate response was that here, as far as I was concerned, for the first time was an Aboriginal voice of absolutely transcendental beauty.” Yunupingu may be new to being a solo artist, but he spent many years with the well-known Yothu Yindi band before forming his own Salt Water Band (the coastal version of LRB?).

Paul Hester once told me about the time he recorded an Aboriginal band in his Melbourne home studio. He asked them where they came from. “Fitzroy,” said the band leader, naming the inner-city shabby-chic Melbourne suburb that was then being gentrified. Naah, c’mon, said Paul: where did you originally come from?

“Fitzroy,” the band leader said emphatically. “Listen mate, we’ve been here for 10,000 years.”

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