The Australian album you need to hear
GURRUMUL'S final studio album is like nothing you have ever heard.
Released nine months after his premature death at the age of 46, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu's Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) may be the most ambitious and unique Australian record made.
Just as Gurrumul straddled the two worlds of traditional and contemporary music, so Djarimirri blends the precious indigenous songs from his Gumatj and Galpu clans with intricate orchestral arrangements.
The 12 traditional chants or songs from north East Arnhem Land tell the stories of the crow, the octopus, freshwater, crocodile and sunset among other indigenous totems.
The album rocketed to No. 3 on the iTunes charts on its release on Friday, much to the relief of Gurrumul's longtime friend and collaborator Michael Hohnen.
It took more than four years of painstaking labour to record, from consultation with his elders to constructing the songs note by note as orchestral instruments were used to recreate didgeridoo patterns.
The effect is an otherworldly music to soundtrack Gurrumul's angelic and distinctive voice.
Complete just days before his death, Hohnen and Mark Grose, the head of Gurrumul's label Skinnyfish have spent months collaborating with the musician's family on the delicate business of releasing his work.
The family gave permission for his name, voice and image likeness to be used after his funeral last year to preserve his musical legacy.
"He made us proud and he would be proud. This music represents us," his cousin Johnathan Yunupingu said.
"We have a genuine chance to achieve an historical moment this week by the possibility of putting an album completely in language from our country in the #1 ARIA chart position which would create history forever, and create a significant story for G, his people of Galiwinku and Arnhem Land and across the entire country."
Hohnen said the unique blend of traditional songs and orchestral instrumentation was meant to "seduce the listener" even if they did not understand the language.
"When you hear these chants and songs in the bush in a traditional Yolngu setting, it can be hard for you and me to get our heads around; it's almost inaccessible to the western ear," Hohnen said.
"The goal was to present traditional songs, their repetitive nature and harmonies, in a reverent and beautiful way that unites our musical culture and his musical culture."
Hohnen said they borrowed about $80,000 just to start the project, hiring members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Sydney Symphony to play parts and notes which were difficult and unfamiliar to them.
Gurrumul was an exacting perfectionist in the studio, who would race back into the control room to listen to each take of his vocals or the orchestra.
"He would just say 'It's not finished yet, Michael' if he wasn't happy with it. That was his way of saying we had to keep going," Hohnen said.
"He wanted it to be right. There's 10,000 Yolngu speakers up there and one of the most important things for them is to not get any of it wrong, otherwise it gets passed along because their culture is an oral tradition. They are obsessed that things need to be done the right way."
Blind from birth, Gurrumul emerged as one of Australia's most distinct and gifted vocalists and songwriters, touring around the world and performing for President Barack Obama as well as collaborating with artists as diverse as Sting and Sarah Blasko, Briggs and Delta Goodrem.
A documentary called Gurrumul, which traces his life from birth to the making of his greatest album Djarimirri will be released on April 25.