Case Study: Inspiring Stories Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu
One of Australia’s most successful international musicians, Gurrumul was born in Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island), off the coast of Arnhem Land, about 580 kilometres from Darwin. He is from the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu and his mother is from the Galpu nation.
Despite growing up on a remote island, being born blind, speaking only a limited amount of English and being acutely shy, he plays drums, keyboard, guitar and the didgeridoo and is known throughout the world for the clarity of his singing voice.
Although by no means standard, the music education Gurrumul received from his family and community from an early age allowed him to realise his talents and tell his stories to the world.
Michael Hohnen, Gurrrumul’s bass player, collaborator and friend, told us:
Gurrumul comes from a completely different education from me. I played cricket and footy ‘til I was 14 when I got thrown onto a double bass at Melbourne High and then to the VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) to my surprise and shock.
For his school education he went to Shepherdson College—the local school on Elcho Island—and for a short period down to Geelong to study Braille which he wasn’t interested in.
Gurrumul was educated by immersion, cultural immersion—from his aunties, parents and grandmothers, with love and lullabies; from his uncles, fathers and grandfathers through ceremony songs and storytelling, much of it through music. Throughout his childhood, he was built, given or bought tin cans, sticks, toy keyboards, piano accordions, nylon string guitars, and later, clap sticks (bilma) and didgeridoos (yidaki). He learned foot stomping calling and whooping, vocalisations of traditional songs and their different sounds, and so much more.
Like many cultures that have oral history, everything in education for Yolngu is in song, dance, storytelling, culture, ceremony, art and derived and inspired by nature, ancestral history and the spirit world and that is what probably brought out his unique expression in music and song.
He tells me on every tour, ‘Jasmine (his daughter) goes to school every day’, and I know he sees that this is going to be a key to her empowerment and future.
The University of Sydney awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music Gurrumul in 2012.
Gurrumul was educated by immersion, cultural immersion—from his aunties, parents and grandmothers, with love and lullabies; from his uncles, fathers and grandfathers through ceremony songs and storytelling, much of it through music.
– Michael Hohnen
Credit: This case study was prepared as part of ‘Music to Our Ears’ which was commissioned by The Caledonia Foundation and Shark Island Productions, prepared by Annie O’Rourke (89° Degrees East) and written by Dennis Glover and Fiona Hehir. Editing and additional content by Chris Bowen, Dr Richard Letts and Alex Masso (Music Australia)