Words and music

Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Robert Hillman

Cover of Gurrumul: his life and music

We’re on the 13th floor of a glass tower in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, a couple of kilometres as the crow flies from where white settlers first set foot on the Australian continent.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the Yolngu singer and composer, famous – these days – all over the world, is standing beside a long table on which 60 copies of a big, glossy book are stacked in piles of five. The portrait on the front cover of the book depicts Gurrumul himself in a meditative mood, the fingers of one hand pressed against his forehead. The title of the book, in block capitals, reads, "Gurrumul: His Life and Music."

Beneath the title, my own name appears, as author. Gurrumul is at work with an inkpad and the thumb of his left hand, leaving a clear print on the inside title page of each book. Since he’s blind, he requires some assistance in positioning the thumb print in just the right place. His blindness dates from the womb, and he has never learnt to write.

He says: “That’s good, yeah?” “Perfect, Gurrumul.” “Now how many?” “How many? 55.” “55?” “Yep.” “Woo!”

In another, much bigger room beyond tall glass doors, 70 people are chattering, laughing, sipping Veuve Clicquot, nibbling cured olives and crabmeat vol-au-vents. This is the launch party for the book that Gurrumul is signing with his thumb. I wander out into the crowd to chat with Nicola Woods, a publicist at ABC and Harper Collins, about the promotion schedule for Gurrumul. Nearly all publishers’ publicists are clever, deft women with a knack for keeping 50 upcoming events in play at a time. Nicola tells me that I will be required to yack my head off over the next month or so, spruiking the book on any number of radio stations. “And we’ve got News Link at the airports onboard,” she says. “Also those screens that roll over and replay different ads all day – you know them? And of course the Good Weekend excerpt, and the Sydney Morning Herald, and we might get the cover of The West Australian mag. And street art – posters we put up all over the place, like rock concert posters, that sort of thing. Robert, you’re going to be really, really busy. That’s okay?” I say, “Sure,” as any writer would, recalling heartbreaks of the past when a book may have failed to score one lousy interview. If Nicola had said “Robert, we want you to walk barefoot to Broome over broken glass for a five minute gig on community radio” I would still have said “Sure”.

I chat with all of the people who have worked on the book – Helen Littleton, the commissioning editor; the designer; photographers; the publisher herself; translators (the book includes the Yolngu lyrics of Gurrumul’s songs, also rendered in English); Nicola’s colleagues in publicity; marketing folk. Everyone is optimistic about sales and they need to be: a book like this constitutes an investment of some hundreds of thousands of dollars, and publishing any book at all in the current fraught market conditions of the industry represents a leap of faith.

Gurrumul himself – who is setting up in the midst of all the guests to perform a song – takes no interest whatsoever in sales. The book, though – yes, he likes the book. He can’t see it, but the heft of it commends it to him, and his great friend and adopted father, Mark Grose, has read him various chapters. Gurrumul realises that sales of the book benefit him personally, but the whole idea of merchandising, of shops filled with thousands of books, thousands of titles, seems, well, peculiar to him. What he better understands is music, the making of music, what he can achieve with his voice, with his guitar, with the Steinway he employs on certain songs.

Watching him prepare himself for the song he’s about to perform, I think back to the first time I saw him. That was 2008, in the ABC Victoria studios in Southbank. He was setting up on that occasion too, about to sing on the small stage in the foyer, maybe prerecording for a show that would go to air in the evening. His friend and collaborator Michael Hohnen was with him, leading him to a chair on the stage, handing him his guitar, each movement expressing gentleness. I was leaving the studios with my own friend and collaborator, Najaf Mazari, after an interview with Jon Faine – we’d been talking about The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif, the story of Najaf’s journey to Australia from his native Afghanistan. Najaf stopped and stared at Gurrumul – the first black Australian he’d ever seen. “Robert, Robert, who is this?” he whispered. At that time, I had only a sketchy idea of who Gurrumul was. I said: “I think it’s Gurrumul Yunupingu. He’s a singer.” I was not to know that I would write Gurrumul’s story further down the track – of course not; nor to know that I would travel to East Arnhem Land, to Gurrumul’s homeland, and make a thousand notes, talk to a hundred people, follow Gurrumul to one concert after another, watch him laying down tracks in a Manhattan studio, shake his hand, listen with a type of rapture to him singing the very song he is about to perform at this launch.

It’s “Bapa”, the song he’s about to sing; “Beloved father”. It honours Gurrumul’s own father, Terry, but in its tenderness and beauty it also honours the love of fathers everywhere for their children and of their children’s love for them. A hush settles on the crowd as Gurrumul’s voice swells; it’s an astonishing instrument, his voice, capable of conveying half a dozen varieties of heartache, a hundred versions of love and longing, but at other times it is full of exuberant celebration. Listening to Gurrumul, I’m more than ever aware of the limitations of this big, beautiful book we’re launching tonight. However much craft I may have put into the text, I have not surpassed in my portrait of him what this slow, gentle song conveys about the man. Two thousand generations of his people are distilled in his voice. My text can only act as a series of hints and suggestions. But I feel honoured to have given the chance to offer those hints, tender those suggestions.

About Robert Hillman

Robert Hillman’s memoir, The Boy in the Green Suit, won the 2005 National Biography Award. His collaborations with Najaf Mazari and Zarah Ghahramani have produced the highly-praised life stories, The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif, and My Life as a Traitor.

Robert will be running a workshop on Writing with Others at Writers Victoria in April 2017.