The late Gurrumul Yunupingu’s posthumous album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), is unquestionably a major landmark in Australian music. Since it was released a year ago, barely nine months after his passing, it has been drawing considerable attention. That attention shows no sign of diminishing. Having already won four ARIA awards (for Best Male Artist, Best Independent Release, Best World Music Album and Best Cover Art) and three National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMAs) it recently took out the prestigious Australian Music Prize for creative excellence.
Where Djarimirri departs from Gurrumul’s previous work is how it crosses over adventurously into classical minimalism by employing a fully orchestrated score that provides a powerful partnership with his voice. Michael Hohnen is the musician we have to thank for this; he was double bassist in Gurrumul’s band and is creative producer at Skinnyfish Music, the Darwin-based label that recorded this album. Hohnen’s account about how they were inspired to combine two disparate musical traditions in Djarimirri is an interesting one.
“People are claiming it’s like nothing they’ve ever heard before,” he writes in The Guardian. “But it is. It’s just our attempt at a creative meeting place where both our cultures continually mirror each other and both win out. We hope anyone who listens to this album can gain more appreciation about this country and its peoples than they did before.”
“We have increasingly recognised the importance of this country’s original music and languages, and have tried to infuse this music into our contemporary mainstream culture. In isolation, traditional Aboriginal music can be inaccessible to the mainstream ear – it was from this realisation and inspiration that the album was conceived.”
Elsewhere Hohnen has explained that, had it not been for Gurrumul’s readiness to step into different styles, Djarimirri would probably have followed in the same footsteps of his previous, reggae-styled studio albums.
The result is a potent and wonderfully successful artistic synthesis. Minimalist influences enhance the spiritual strength of the dozen Manikay songs that make up this album. And as others have pointed out, the powerful sounds of throbbing cellos and brass immediately bring to mind the yidaki (or didgeridoo). Taking part in the recordings are the symphony orchestras of Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and West Australia, along with Brisbane’s Camerata Chamber Orchestra.
Not only is Djarimirri a pioneering fusion between Indigenous and Western orchestral traditions, however. Gurrumul’s vocals are arrestingly beautiful and stand as a remarkable testament to his accomplishments as an artist. He executes the album’s dozen Yolngu-language songs with emotional grit and great technical skill. Hear it if you have not already – it is terrific.
Subsequent to its release, the artist’s family gave permission for his name and image to be used in respect of this album.