Tonight Sydney Harbour is especially stunning, with the lights of Vivid Festival dispersed in droplets of fog. It’s urbanity at its most sumptuous but Gumatj man Gurrumul wants to take us far from it, to his home in remote east Arnhemland.
But how to bring us there? Gurrumul’s songs are about the stories, ancestors, animals and plants of his land and sea but they’re sung in Yolgnu, a language I’d hazard no-one here understands.
Going a surprising distance towards translation is Gurrumul’s voice – both immense and intimate; familiar and foreign – and his presence, distinguished by stillness. Taking us even further are close-ups of his remarkable face – the kind you could stare at for hours, which is presumably what artist Guy Maestri did before painting Gurrumul’s Archibald Prize-winning portrait in 2009.
But what really translates the experience and brings the Concert Hall to Gurrumul’s Elcho Island home en masse are videos from his community presented in a multimedia adaptation of biographer Robert Hillman’s book, Gurrumul: His Life And Music.
Neither distractingly artful nor documentary-dry, the footage has all the looseness and warmth of a home video, showing men, women, teens and toddlers of the Gumatj nation dancing, singing and sometimes just clowning around.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra flesh out tasteful re-arrangements of Gurrumul’s songs but never overpower him. When they threaten to do so, Gurrumul’s voice swells too, pitched at just the right volume to rise above the players, surmounting, even, a formidable horn section.
Because the famously shy singer speaks little English, his friend and bass player Michael Hohnen usually introduces his songs. Tonight, however, introductions come directly from Gurrumul’s “aunties and uncles”, interviewed individually on their land. They talk straight to camera, tasked with the difficult role of translating not just language but aspects of their culture that are presented with deceptive simplicity in Gurrumul’s lullaby-like songs.
A beautiful thing occurs. As they intently try to explain, and we intently try to understand, any gaps in comprehension that remain are closed by a mutual resolve to make the exchange work. An aunty tells us Gurrumul is special because he was born “covered with rainbow” and, as he begins singing, his voice just lightly caressed by violins, her words are proved true.