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Geoffrey “Gurrumul” Yunipingu

Photo by Carlo Santone, courtesy Skinnyfish

You can likely count your favourite singers on one hand.

Not the ones you’re drawn to in a casual way – but the real time-stopping singers. Each one of them is on your list because they – alone – hold a certain spellbinding, beguiling power over you like few others can. You react to the sound of their voice, or you love the way their lyrics or choice of music matches your every mood and calms you – and you can’t wait for the next release from their musical journey to see where they’ll carry you off to next. Wherever they take you, you gladly follow. This singer is of that calibre – and when you get the chance to hear or see him perform, you’ll be looking for larger gloves.

When I first heard Gurrumul, I didn’t see him coming. I knew little about him –other than the fact that he was a blind, Australian Aboriginal from Arnhem Land in the country’s remote northeast, which hardly qualifies him as someone who’d shortly be pulling the rug out from under my North American feet.

What you may want to know is that this 40-year old currently rides the top of the World Music charts as “the breakthrough solo artist of 2009” on the strength of his first release, which has garnered rave reviews worldwide. The BBC has hailed Gurrumul as possessing “an exquisite, yearning and soulful voice and his sturdy, sad-edged songs are packed with such strong, quietly grand and epic melodies that many of them sound like instant standards.” I had reviewed him in Penguin Eggs, noting that he possessed “one of those otherworldly voices that is nothing short of breathtaking – each soft, gentle composition sending a chill down your spine. The good kind of chill”.

The Australian press have singled him out as “the greatest voice this continent has ever recorded”. The album has since gone double-platinum, earning him four ARIA Award nominations, including Male Artist of the Year and Album of the Year.

What you should know about him is this is no fluke bolt of lightning from the land Down Under. In his earlier years, Gurrumul played keyboards in Yothu Yindi’s more rock-oriented band (playing keyboards) followed by his short-lived band, Saltwater, before gaining recognition for his gentle, highly personal, acoustic approach – devoid of the typical traditional trappings of didgeridoos and aggressive rhythms.

More the singer-songwriter, Gurrumul’s deeply moving stance showcases his mesmerizing voice, accented by little more acoustic guitar, warm, double bass and soft background vocals. Like a loving caress, originals like “Wiyathul” and the stand-out “Gurrumul History (I was Born Blind)”, the dozen songs play back like one rejuvenating lullabye, Gurrumul’s high, arresting vocals, tapping into a higher consciousness to deliver something without peer. His lyrics are sung in the native tongues of the Gumatj clan, with some English, yet the appeal of his music and the feelings that fuel it are beyond universal.

It’s not often you’d ever get the opportunity to witness a power this special locally. And, given the rather isolated location of his home turf, you might not get the chance again. This is one of those voices you’ll never forget you witnessed live – so if you’re near a venue where Gurrumul will be playing, take this advance notice to not let this opportunity pass you by.

Very highly recommended.

Fans in the Toronto area can see Gurrumul at Toronto’s Enwave Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, June 24.

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