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Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu – Gurrumul

2010-04-14 13:35
But because we tend to call music "World" music only if it's sung in a language we don't speak, it's rare that we know the reason for the artists’ melancholy. After choosing a Madagascan song to play for a special occasion once a few years ago - without checking out what the Malagasy lyrics meant - I learned the embarrassingly hard way not to make assumptions based on the mood I perceived. The occasion? A wedding. The song? "Haut Les Mains" by Jerry Marcoss - It's all about how everybody cheats. The video is hilarious.

The first impression given by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu's self-titled album is peaceful. The songs are lead by the reedy, gentles grace of Yunupingo's vocals, with plucked guitar accompanying. Gurrumul’s voice is like a slow Sunday sunset; full of longing, calming, with sobering sense of times past.

The songs are all very basic on the surface, and musically accessible in the same way that popular Americana such as Ryan Adams is accessible to indie music fans. Not to say it's watered down. You could say Gurrumul sounds like South Africa's Vusi Mahlasela.

The best known track on the album "Gurrumul History (I was born blind)" is both a meditation on his personal history, on what it meant for him to be born blind, on the unity of his people and of all humankind. Much of this is in English.

But for the most part, the actual meaning of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu's lyrics seems obscure. English translations are available here, but words alone are not a translation. Many of his analogies are deeply steeped in his culture, tradition, in which a yellow-footed scrub fowl can be an ancestor to a group of people. I learned that information, but I have no idea what that means. This is world music from the heart, not processed and cutesified for international ears.

Of course, whether you know the story behind the song, music does have a language that speaks to anyone who really cares to listen. Remember what I said earlier about the sunset? I looked up the lyrics of the track "Marrandil" only after writing that sentence. The first line translates as "Here I am, grieving / I'm crying because of this sunset." Who knew?

A friend once asked, "Why does all world music sound so sad?" Come to think of it, this may be a reason: World music is folk music, and folk music tells the stories of people's histories, often of great battles and great sadness.

What to read next: Kalahari


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