First Nations legend who ‘bridged two worlds’ joins Hall of Fame

A proud Yolngu artist with international acclaim, Gurrumul’s songs took Country and Culture far and wide.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following story may contain names and images of people who have died.

With a legacy that has ’changed the way people experience Indigenous music’, internationally celebrated Yolŋu singer songwriter Gurrumul has been announced as the 2022 National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMA) inductee.

Gurrumul joins a lineup of groundbreaking artists including ’Koori King of Country’ Kev Carmody (2021), Ngarrindjeri woman Ruby Hunter (2020), the late Archie Roach, as well as Gurrumul’s former band Youthu Yindi (2012).

Read: Vale the great songman Archie Roach

Born and raised on Elcho Island, the largest and most remote Aboriginal community in northeast Arnhem Land, Gurrumul’s passion for music was unhindered by his blindness.

Self taught in a number of instruments including drums, guitar and vocals, Gurumul joined Yothu Yindi in the late 1980s and lead the Saltwater Band from 1999.

In an earlier interview, Gurrumul’s niece Miriam Yirrininba Dhurrkay told the Sydney Morning Herald: ’He was special in so many ways, in Western and Yolngu worlds … He was writing these songs and the words just came into his mind and heart. Even though he couldn’t see the nature, he was born to feel the nature.’

Gurrumul’s individual career took off with the help of producer of SkinnyFish Records Michael Hohnen.

The Indigenous artist’s 2008 solo debut album, Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind), documented his story with songs in the languages of the Gumatj, Galpu and Djambarrpuynu clans.

The album achieved triple platinum sales in Australia and won ARIA awards for Best World Music Album, Best Independent Release and a Deadly for Album of the Year. It also topped the charts in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland upon its release in Europe.

Counting Will.I.Am, Elton John and Sting among his fans, Gurrumul performed for Queen Elizabeth II and US President Barack Obama, and in 2016 was awarded the NAIDOC Artist of the Year, accepted by his daughter Jasmine Yunupingu on his behalf as the artist battled with illness.

Gurrumul passed away on 25 July 2017 at the age of 46, caused by complications relating to the Hepatitis B, which he had carried since childhood.

Released in 2018, filmmaker Paul William’s documentary Gurrumul traces the life of the talented musician who, within less than a decade, became the highest-selling Indigenous musician in Australian history.

Co-produced by the Indigenous artist himself, Gurrumul features around 50 pieces of music specifically created or reworked for the documentary.

Described by his Aunty Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi as, ’carrying two worlds on his back’, Gurrumul bridged the gap between the Western and Yolngu worlds, introducing the world to Country and Culture through his music.

This year’s NIMA ceremony will honour the groundbreaking artist with a tribute performance from fellow Saltwater Band founder Manuel Dhurrkay on 6 August at Amphitheatre, Darwin Botanic Gardens.

Gurrumul’s induction will also be celebrated with an exhibit at Melbourne’s Australian Music Vault from 5 August with an essay penned by award-winning journalist and broadcaster Tracee Hutchison.

Hutchison wrote: ’[Gurrumul’s] legacy lives on in through his music and in the work of the Gurrumul Foundation, which provides opportunities to Indigenous youth, particularly in remote communities, to realise their full potential through art and cultural programs.

‘But it is, perhaps, the haunting and timeless sounds of “Wiyathul” from his debut album that sings on with such a deep yearning for place that will enshrine his extraordinary talent in history’s soundtrack for generations to come,’ she concluded.

Find more information on the 2022 NIMA Awards Ceremony.

Celina Lei is an Arts Writer at ArtsHub. She acquired her masters in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. Prior to joining ArtsHub, she was an editorial assistant at the Hong Kong based ArtAsiaPacific magazine and is an art host on independent Instagram platform Club Ambroise. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne, Victoria. Instagram: @lleizy_