Gurrumul – The Beat Goes On

[Published in Good Weekend magazine, April 14 2018]

 

 

In July last year, filmmaker Paul Williams, sound engineer Pip Atherstone-Reid and Skinnyfish Music’s creative director Michael Hohnen were ensconced in an editing room at Windmill Studios in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. On multiple screens in front of them were the edits of Williams’s documentary, Gurrumul. Five years in the making, it traced the life of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the Yolngu singer from Elcho Island 500km off the coast of Darwin who had, in the previous decade, taken the music world by storm.

Hohnen was on the phone with Gurrumul, his longtime friend and musical partner, and the biggest star in the Skinnyfish stable, a Darwin-based record label founded and co-owned by Hohnen. From a Darwin beach, Gurrumul chatted with Hohnen and Williams as they played him back one of the final musical pieces to be included in the documentary. Accompanying a scene towards the end of the film that depicts the funeral of his father, the score features Gurrumul singing, the sound bleeding into the strains of a French horn.

“Yep, spot on,” Gurrumul told the three in Melbourne. “Spot on.”

This was the final OK from Gurrumul, who as a co-producer had been active in most aspects of the film, and along with Hohnen and Melbourne-based composer Erkki Veltheim, had created, or reworked, about 50 original pieces of music specifically for the documentary.

What made this situation unusual though, was how it finished up. Instead of his usual “see you later”, Gurrumul ended the phone call by saying goodbye, something he’d not done before. “It happened in a way, that Michael then said to me, ‘Was that a bit strange?’,” Williams remembers. He pauses and sighs. “He’d finished his contribution, that side of things was over, and yeah… that was the last time I spoke to him.”

Three days later, on July 25, 2017, Gurrumul died in Royal Darwin Hospital. Aged only 46, he’d succumbed to organ failure relating to the hepatitis B he’d had since childhood. His condition had worsened in recent years, to the extent that Skinnyfish had retired the singer from touring in late 2015. “It was like he was becoming a shadow of his former self,” Hohnen recalls of the time. “He was extremely ill.”

Williams, who had known the singer for a number of years before beginning work on the documentary, seems a little haunted, like he thinks perhaps Gurrumul knew his time had come. “It was a strange way [for him] to sign off a conversation,” he says. “It was really only in retrospect, when we looked back, that we said, maybe that was goodbye.”

***

At the time of his death, Gurrumul was the highest selling indigenous musician in Australian history, a title he still holds. His eponymous 2008 solo debut was certified three times platinum in Australia, and appeared in top 20 album charts in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland upon its European release the following year. His second album, Rrakala (2011), made some small inroads into the American market, a notoriously tough market to crack, an attempt ultimately thwarted by his premature death.

His third release, The Gospel Album (2015), cemented what those close to him had known for years but others were only just beginning to realise – that this unassuming indigenous Australian, who was born blind and taught himself to play the guitar upside down, wasn’t merely an angelic voiced flash-in-the pan.

Yesterday, April 13Gurrumul posthumously added one final album to his canon. Djarimirri (Child Of The Rainbow) has been more than six years in the making and involves the singer, in Hohnen’s words, delving “deeper into the cultural elements of his music”. Preceding the release of Williams’s documentary by a couple of weeks (the film will be released on April 25), Djarimirri stands as the singer’s final gift to the world, one last reminder that his rise to fame was more than deserved.

***

While his rise may have seemed meteoric, Gurrumul paid his dues, a slow build that began with culture-bridging group Yothu Yindi in the 1990s. He played a number of instruments and contributed backing vocals to four of the band’s six albums, most notably its breakthrough 1991 release, Tribal Voice, and with Manuel Dhurrkay, fronted Saltwater Band, releasing three records with this group in the decade from 1999. By the time Skinnyfish came to release the eponymous Gurrumul in 2008, the man and his music were match fit.

Gurrumul toured the world before he was Gurrumul,” notes hip hop artist Adam Briggs, with whom Gurrumul collaborated in 2014 on the song ‘The Hunt’, from Briggs’s second full-length solo album, Sheplife. To Briggs’s mind, Gurrumul’s popularity was testament to his hard work, his musicality and his talent. “People forget he was in Yothu Yindi and Saltwater… so by the time he was Gurrumul, he was ready.”

Legendary producer Quincy Jones has noted of the singer, “this is one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices that I’ve ever heard”. It wasn’t just Jones – Sting, will.i.am, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Australians Peter Garrett and Paul Kelly all count among the singer’s admirers. In garnering fans like these, Gurrumul sold out venues the world over, won awards, and confounded critics with his wide-ranging success within the western world.

“He was special in so many ways, in western and Yolngu worlds,” his niece, Miriam Yirrininba Dhurrkay, tells me. “He was writing these songs and … the words just come into his mind and heart, and even though he couldn’t see the nature, he was born to, you know, feel the nature.” To see without seeing. “Yeah. He had a special place to see, which was his heart.”

It was his heart that eventually gave out, having battled on through the liver and kidney failure relating to the existing hepatitis B. Dialysis was deemed the only option in combating his condition, but Gurrumul, who’d been admitted to the ICU department at Royal Darwin Hospital seven times in the year leading up to his death, was refusing treatment.

“Dialysis was not something that he enjoyed,” Hohnen says. “He basically, in the end, I believe, chose to not go on dialysis, not stay on it. And you don’t really have any options – it’s dialysis or nothing.”

***

Djarimirri is, essentially, an album that showcases ancient Yolngu chants, setting them against an orchestral background in order to make them sonically palatable to the western ear. Gurrumul was no stranger to orchestral work, having released in 2013 an entire live album accompanied by the Sydney Symphony. Where Djarimirri is different though, is in its minimalist orchestral traditions; Hohnen cites the likes of Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, Arvo Part and Phillip Glass as influences.

These Yolngu songs, some estimated at more than 4000 years old, were traditionally backed by the didgeridoo, or yidaki, repetitive rhythms that gave the lyrics a foundation from which to build. The trick with Djarimirri, was in replicating these sonic patterns on western instruments, while still leaving them recognisable to Yolngu people.

“Michael had this concept of combining the more traditional songs and chanting and yidaki patterns, with this kind of contemporary minimalist orchestral tradition,” confirms Erkki Veltheim, the Melbourne-based composer and violinist who helmed the album, and had played with Gurrumul on a number of occasions over the previous decade.

“At first I was kind of trying to turn it in my brain, trying to figure out how these different traditions could work together, but then the more I thought about it, the more it actually made sense because of the very nature of these traditional songs and the yidaki patterns, which kind of do have a lot of repetition in them, but also a lot of variation within that repetition, [which combines] really well with the orchestral minimalist tradition.”

Veltheim started listening to the recordings of songs Gurrumul had already made back on Elcho. From there, the task was to find instrumental transcriptions of the yidaki patterns and transcribe them into a western notation, to be played on western instruments.

“[That] was a real challenge, but also a great pleasure to come up with these arrangements,” he recalls. “And the most nerve-wracking thing for me, was whether Gurrumul himself and his family and the other people on Elcho would actually relate to these arrangements…. that was the key. The important thing [was] that every step of the process, we’ve made sure that we haven’t done anything that doesn’t communicate those songs.”

The 12 songs that make up Djarimirri all relate to specific totems and aspects of Yolngu culture – Waak (Crow) in E-Flat Major, Ngarrpiya (Octopus) in A-Flat Major, Gapu (Freshwater) in D Major, Baru (Saltwater Crocodile) in E-Flat Major, Marrayarr (Flag) in F-Sharp Major, to name a few. All songs ended up in major keys, a coincidence, which to Hohnen’s mind gives it a happy vibe.

Initially, Djarimirri isn’t an easy listen. It relies heavily on repetition, and Yolngu songs are traditionally quite short, so Gurrumul’s vocal contributions are fleeting. Repeat listens begin to cast new light on what’s happening though – there’s variation within the repetition, and the drone of the strings, the popping of horns, add their own weight to what is, within each song, a slow building story. The purity of the singer’s voice across this sonic soundscape tops it off.

Djarimirri is essentially an exercise in ethnomusicology – the keeping alive of this ancient music, albeit in a more modern fashion, so that those yet to come are able to access it, no matter their cultural background. “[Gurrumul had] hundreds of songs in his head,” says Hohnen. “He wasn’t writing a lot of new contemporary style songs but he probably [knew] 400 or 500 songs, traditionally.”

***

Completed early in 2017, the album was being prepared for release in the middle of that year. When Gurrumul died, they re-thought it, in part due to the fact that in Yolngu culture, when a member dies, their name, image and any music or art is retired.

“[We] held it for a year,” Hohnen confirms. “It would just not have been right to put it out. Although, spending a lot of time with the family, they sort of said to us, even at his funeral, no one’s stopped listening to his music, [they] all play it.”

In the press pack sent out with the advance stream of Djarimirri, there’s a note on the use of his image and name which reads, in part, “The family have given permission that, following the final funeral ceremony (which occurred at Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island on November 24 last year), his name and image may once again be used publicly, to ensure that his legacy will continue to inspire both his people and Australians more broadly.”

“In most situations when an aboriginal person up here passes away, the name gets changed, and the music and imagery gets stopped,” explains Hohnen, “[but] it’s hard when someone’s as famous as this. I think it’s more they’re really proud… and I think Yolngu don’t want him forgotten, that’s what they said to us. There’s this ownership of him being a public representation as well.”

When we speak, Hohnen is just pulling himself back together after what he describes as a fairly dysfunctional six months. “It’s affected Mark and I very personally,” he says, of his co-founder at Skinnyfish Music, Mark Grose, “because [Gurrumul] was such a unique and happy person, someone who, no matter how recalcitrant, always made you feel that fun and music and life and traditional culture was here to be lived and loved.”

Gurrumul was Skinnyfish Music’s biggest artist, and his success enabled the label to expand and focus on other acts like Caity Baker and The Lonely Boys. Royalties from Djarimirri will flow, in part, into the Gurrumul Yunupingu Foundation, which will us the money to “create greater opportunities for remote Indigenous young people to realise their full potential and contribute to culturally vibrant and sustainable communities”.

It’s not lost on anyone involved with the making of the record how sad it is that its main player won’t be here to see it out into the world. “We wanted to release the album while he was alive so he cold live it out on the airwaves around his community and further afield,” says Hohnen. “But I now feel like we did everything possible to live up to the standards that he and his family expected of us. The recording is as much a representation of all Yolngu.”

This is what Djarimirri is primarily about – legacy. “There’s different ways people can go about activism,” Hohnen continues. “There’s anger, abuse, there’s hurt, there’s quite sinister ways, destructive ways. The journey that we took with him was almost the opposite. And, for me, his legacy was opening people’s hearts to one of the greatest assets of this country.”

Briggs, who became a friend of Gurrumul’s in the years after their 2014 collaboration, agrees. “This last record… is testament to him transcending genre and transcending what’s expected of an indigenous artist . This album is an orchestral piece, so it’s sheet music… it could be read by a conductor or composer in Germany, and they’d understand it. It transcends cultural barriers, because music is an international language. Anyone will be able to read this, and translate it and play it. Even in his death, he’s transcended genres and cultural barriers. Him and Michael, they’ve delivered this gift of music.”

Gurrumul’s niece says his life and music are still inspiring young Yolngu people. “A lot of youngsters in the north-east Arnhem land region, where G comes from, and other youngsters from all around NT, from every aboriginal community… a lot of youngsters are doing music today. Most of the young people I know, they want to continue his legacy, they want to show the world that they can do it… if he can do it, why can’t we do it, you know?”

Canned Heat

Published in the March / April issue of Rhythms magazine (Cover Feature – EXCERPT)

Fifty-three years ago, three blues nuts formed a band. Today, Canned Heat are still at it, still pushing the blues, writes Samuel J. Fell

I’m standing on a hay-bale or something, maybe a milk crate, I don’t really know, it’s too dark to see, but it’s higher than ground level and so I’ve purloined it and am standing on it in a vain attempt to see over the swelling rip-tide of human flesh in front of me, to get a better glimpse of what’s happening up on stage.

It’s a futile exercise though and I abandon my poor vantage point and try to wedge my way through the throng but it’s leather-pants-tight and I can’t penetrate and so I retreat, reluctantly, to the outer edges, where I can at least hear, if not see.

I roll a cigarette, fishing around in my pocket for a lighter, spark, inhale, you know the drill. I lean against a pole and let it all wash over me, forget I’m well outside the tent and nowhere near the stage, just feel the old music bursting from under the gargantuan faded canvas cover, over people’s heads and across the grass to where I’m standing.

Despite when it was written, or what’s informed it, the music is muscular and bawdy and seems made for right now, like maybe it’s being played for the first time and all of us, crammed together in the humidity with dust on our boots, wild-eyed after three days in the field (as it were), are hearing something new that no one else has ever heard before.

It’s blues, but it’s rock ‘n’ roll and it carries with it, as it whips across distance, an effortless cool that despite its immediacy, is at once familiar and comfortable. Not because you’ve heard the songs before but because of what they represent, a particular time where the music meant something else entirely but has since been lovingly reworked and fawned over and loaded up on all sorts of chemicals and wrought through the wringer and so it’s old and new at the same time and it just fits, like an old and faded pair of jeans you just can’t remember ever having lived without.

The crowd throbs with an energy I’ve not come across all weekend, and the players themselves, up on stage – tiny from my vantage point, when I can catch a glimpse – seem to throb too, vibrating with an energy they themselves are creating via this music which all at once seems both timeless and of this one place and time. Frenzied harmonica cuts through buzzing guitar and the rhythm section bumps and grinds underneath it all like an old alligator death rolling in some muddy river somewhere south of the Mason Dixon.

I butt my smoke out and wonder if I can cut across to the bar on the other side of the stage to grab another beer before this song finishes but I can’t move and so stay and keep letting it all wash over me, somewhere in a field, wild-eyed, with dust on my boots and the sweat of a thousand others painting the air wet all around me.

***

That was the first time I ever saw Canned Heat, back in 2012 at the 23rd Byron Bay Bluesfest. I’d known of the band of course, but had never really delved into their extensive catalogue. I was actually introduced to them in a reasonably random way, a compilation album landing on my desk some years prior, Rarities From The Bob Hite Vaults, presented by some cat called Dr. Boogie, a collection of “rare pieces taken from Bob Hite’s fabulous collection of 78rpm records.” This is a record which still gets regular play at our place, and it was from this cut, along with the extensive liner notes contained within, that I was introduced to Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite, and the band he formed with Alan Wilson back in 1965, a band which would go on, in its own unassuming way, to change the face of popular music at a time when change was of the essence and a new way of looking at things – or hearing things – was paramount and carried with it weight and cred and cool.

Changing the face of popular music wasn’t what the band originally set out to do though. For many bands, this sort of ideal was high on the list, but Canned Heat it seems, just wanted to emulate the music of their heroes. Hite and Wilson were, as is well documented, mad blues fans and so the mandate of Canned Heat from the get-go – if indeed the band even had one – was to push the music of these mostly unknown players to a much, much wider audience. And it was this that was of paramount importance for Hite and Co., more so than fame, fortune, the trappings of being in a band in the red-hot middle-‘60s.

“Well, you had three guys, Bob Hite, Alan Wilson and Henry Vestine, who were all major record collectors,” recalls Skip Taylor, over the phone from Tucson, Arizona. “Mainly blues record collectors. They’d travelled to Mississippi in the south, and had talked to these older guys, and their lives were spent in the blues. And that wasn’t the most common thing [back then], it was really about rock for most young, white, American guys.

“So they were kind of a cult unto themselves, and in marrying their blues proficiencies with my rock ‘n’ roll background, together we were able to get something not necessarily commercial, but they always wanted to be as big as Paul Butterfield, having an album crack the Top 100 on Billboard, that was it. My thoughts had always been to go a little higher and deeper than that, but all of us talked about having a music that would appeal to a much wider, white audience, and give the blues and black blues… at least give the populace the chance to hear this more, and be aware of this more. In the same way I think John Mayall has always felt, you know?”

This Christmas, The ‘Where’ Is Just As Important As The ‘Who’…

[Published on Medium, December 31]

They say that, at this time of year, it doesn’t matter where you are. It matters more who you’re with, family and friends, loved ones, people you travel vast distances to spend time around; those you might not see regularly throughout the year, and so when the festive season lands upon us (often with surprising speed), you make haste to convene, wherever that may be.

This year though, it does matter where we are. This year it’s at the old family home, Mum’s place. A squat old farmhouse on a couple of scrubby acres a few hours north of Melbourne. At a glance, from the cracked and crumbling concrete front porch, it’s in the middle of nothing and nowhere, but cast a wider glance and it’s surrounded by vineyard along the back and one side, green and waving maize across the front road, a meandering channel to the east that winds its way down to Greens Lake.

Within a reasonable drive are bigger centres like Rochester, Kyabram, Echuca and Bendigo, and on the way there you’ll find places like Girgarre, Nanneella, Timmering and Corop. In between are vast tracts of land that undulate slowly, changing in the blink of an eye from earthen browns and oranges to shimmering greens and yellows, burnt and swaying under a merciless sun.

We’re here every two years, the in between times spent with my wife’s family in Brisbane. This year, over the Christmas and New Year period in the unwavering heat surrounded by fractured earth and crunchy grass, it’s the two of us with our eleven-month-old daughter, my sister and her partner, and Mum and the dog. Dad died a couple of years ago, and so now the old homestead is Mum’s Place. It’s different to how it used to be, but it’s home still, and when we all descend for Christmas, it rings with a familiar joie de vivre, this year added to by our daughter, spending her first time among the dusty eucalypts that line the driveway up from the red-dirt road.

It’ll likely be her last though, and the same is true for all of us. Mum, after a couple of years here by herself is moving north, closer to her siblings in Brisbane, closer to us. She and Dad moved up here in the late 1990s, just after my sister and I finished school, and so for almost twenty years, as we’ve grown into actual adults and begun to deal with life proper, we’ve had a place to escape to, to hide, to rebuild, to recharge.

It’s the same for our partners, and if only on one occasion, and an occasion she likely won’t remember, it’s the same for our daughter. Which is why this year the ‘where’ mattered as much as the ‘who’.

This past week, as the heat has begun to lift and dusk descends and the blue-breasted wrens dance about the backyard, we’ve sat and swatted mosquitoes and sipped beer from cans and bubbles from flutes; we’ve played Trivial Pursuit and snacked on chips and nuts; we’ve raised glasses to Dad, to each other, to life now and life to come. No one’s really mentioned that we won’t be doing this again, here.

In two years, when it’s again time to spend the festive season together, it’ll be somewhere else, somewhere up north. And that won’t matter really, because Mum and the rest of us will leave here, perhaps tearfully at first, but with many strong memories of the place and the experiences we all shared here, whether at Christmas time, or any other time during the year that was.

And so from then, I suppose it will ring true what people say, that it doesn’t matter where you are, it matters more who you’re with. We’ll be in a newer place, a place that yet won’t have many family memories, a place that Dad never saw. But we’ll all be there (perhaps there’ll be more of us), and so it’ll start to become the family home once again and will act as an escape, a hiding place, a place to rebuild and recharge. Mum’s Place.

And perhaps that’s the crux of it – it doesn’t matter where you are as long as the people you love are there, which makes where you are the most important thing of all.

Samuel J. Fell

Invisible Threads

[Published in the Summer issue of Peppermint Magazine. EXCERPT]

Microfibres are emerging as one of the biggest environmental problems of our time, and they originate from the shirt off your back, writes Samuel J. Fell

It’s the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of, and it stems from the most basic of sources – the perpetrators are hanging in your wardrobe, in drawers, folded neatly in your linen closet. Microfibres, plastic fibres invisible to the naked eye that have been shown to shed from synthetic clothing during the washing process, are flushing via domestic wastewater through sewage treatment plants, eventually making it to rivers and the ocean.

A 2011 study by a number of scientists, including UNSW ecologist Dr. Mark Browne, found that microfibres make up 85% of human-made debris on beaches and shorelines around the world.

Microfibres themselves are tiny fragments of plastic debris that are micrometres in diameter, which emanate from myriad different sources – tyre dust; paints; the breaking down of secondary microplastics (plastic bags, take-away containers, plastic cutlery); airborne synthetic fibres; microbeads (which have been banned from facial cleansers and some cosmetics in the US and the UK).

The main culprit however, is synthetic clothing; fleece, rayon, acrylic and polyester garments, all of which emit thousands of microfibres every time they’re washed. Given, in 2014, 60% of all fabric produced by the textile industry was polyester, it’s little wonder microfibre pollution is becoming as rampant as it is.

The problem came to light in 2004, when Dr. Browne and a research team, through extensive testing, found these fibres to be the most prominent form of man-made waste washing up on shorelines worldwide. “A lot of the NGOs, who do their best to try and tell people about environmental issues, had been doing a pretty poor job of explaining the issue of plastic pollution,” explains Dr. Browne, a world-renowned authority on plastic debris pollution.

“They were confusing a whole range of issues… saying, it’s to do with microbeads, it’s to do with bags, it’s to do with packaging,” he goes on. “I [thought], actually, that’s really funny because I’ve gone around the world sampling on different shorelines from the poles to the equator, and most of the material we’re finding, although we expected to find bags and microbeads, are actually these fibres.”

Remembering Dr. G Yunupingu

[Published in the the Sep/Oct 2017 issue of Rhythms magazine]

REMEMBERING DR. G YUNUPINGU

Over the course of the past decade, Rhythms senior contributor SAMUEL J. FELL has written about, and spent time with, DR. YUNUPINGU on multiple occasions – he shares observations on an artist Rolling Stone called Australia’s Most Important Voice

It’s close to midnight, July 2010, and it’s cold, more so than usual for sub-tropical Byron Bay. Dr. G Yunupingu and I are standing outside Studio 301, smoking a cigarette together. His keeps going out and so I’ve relit it for him once or twice, fumbling in my pocket for the lighter each time.

We’re not talking much. I’ve told him how I’m enjoying watching him play, and he’s nodded, smiled a little to himself, but we’re spending the time together quietly for the most part; not as journalist and subject, not as white fella and black fella, but as two dudes just sharing some quiet space.

After the almost stifling heat inside, I’m enjoying the brisk air, only wearing a light hoodie. Yunupingu though is wearing a huge jacket which makes him appear twice as wide as he actually is. He’s quite short, slender. He smokes slowly, which is why it keeps going out. He seems in his own world.

Which he is. Over the three or four days I spend in the studio, as he and his team put the finishing touches to his second solo release, Rrakala, I don’t really get a sense as to what that world is like, and I suspect many who spend fleeting time with the man don’t either. All we can do it observe, listen. Watch how he moves, how he interacts, how he works. He is, as I noted in an article for The Saturday Paper in 2015, five years later after spending more time in the studio with him, a man of few words, and so he comes across as somewhat mysterious, a man on a trajectory that I couldn’t understand if I tried.

That notion also plays out in reverse. Yunupingu, born on Elcho Island off the coast of Darwin, is a true Yolngu man and due to his cultural upbringing has no real concept of western life. He has no concept of the press, or of the music industry in which he finds himself, he has no understanding of the significance of appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, aside from a love of the lyrics to that old Dr. Hook song. It’s just not on his radar, and so me being there in 2010 doesn’t register for him as, ‘there’s a writer from Rolling Stone in the studio’, I’m just another body in the room. I could be from anywhere.

As a result of this lack of concept, Yunupingu isn’t trying to impress people, he’s not attempting to curry journalistic favour, he’s not looking to win awards, he’s creating in the purest form, because he has to, it’s as simple as that.

In the article I wrote for Rolling Stone, which ran in April 2011, the same month Darwin-based label Skinnyfish Music released Rrakala, I wrote how refreshing this was. Over the course of my career as a music writer, I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of musicians, and while many of them, the majority of them I hope, create because they have to as artists, none of them come within stone’s throw of Yunupingu. He is the only musician I’ve ever encountered who can honesty say they are completely pure as creators. And it showed in his music, in the way if affected people across the globe.

***

It was 2008 when Yunupingu – guided by label-boss, bass player and longtime friend Michael Hohnen – released his eponymous solo debut. The powerful simplicity of this clutch of songs, the obvious meaning to him and his people they conveyed, and the angelic voice with which they were adorned, stunned a jaded music establishment. The music itself was nothing new, essentially folk music, but the way in which it was delivered was almost miraculous.

Rrakala was a calculated release – calculated by Hohnen and Skinnyfish co-director Mark Grose – which capitalised on the success the debut had here in Australia, and over in Europe. It was Rrakala that brought Yunupingu to America, helping raise his star even higher. The third solo release, The Gospel Album, released in 2015, came about, by comparison, almost by accident – once again at Byron’s Studio 301, looking to pass some time before another album came together (a record of Yunupingu’s songs, backed by a symphony orchestra was in the works at that point), Yunupingu started playing, Hohnen jumped to press record, and so that album, inspired by the Methodist gospel music Yunupingu was exposed to as a child, tumbled forth, appearing as if from nowhere.

I spent a little more time in the studio for this album, writing in this instance for The Saturday Paper, as I mentioned. As I noted in the subsequent story, “There was a different energy in the air, a raw excitement, an almost incredulity at what was happening.” Where the Rrakala sessions were, for lack of a better phrase, serious business, The Gospel Album sessions pulsated with a sense of fun. Not that Yunupingu wasn’t having fun in 2010, but this was free and seemed easy. By that point, he had nothing to prove and it was joyous.

Hohnen wanted Yunupingu to “blow off some steam” after the intense high this studio time would have given him, and so he and I organised a pop-up gig at the tiny Civic Hall in Mullumbimby, ten kilometres north-west of Byron. I took care of the details – my one and only stint as a promoter – and come the Wednesday morning, a few days later, Hohnen posted show details on Yunupingu’s Facebook page.

People began showing up at around two in the afternoon, and a couple of hours later, as the sun set over another chilly sub-tropical winter’s scene, almost four hundred formed a line which snaked from the Hall’s front doors, down Dalley Street past the fire and police stations, almost to the post office down on the corner. I walked along the line, killing time before opening the doors, chatting with people I knew, really feeling the sense of excitement these people were exuding, along with a sense of almost-disbelief that they were about to see Dr. Yunupingu in such an intimate setting. Some people were in tears at the thought.

A little while later, in the tiny green room, Hohnen and Yunupingu arrived, the latter once again rugged up to ward off the chill, a smile on his face as he contemplated playing his songs – two of them brand new, only recorded in the days prior – to people in a warm little hall somewhere in the countryside with his friend by his side. I’d enlisted a rag-tag group of volunteers and a local sound engineer, Hohnen had put together a band. Just before going on stage, Yunupingu was bouncing on his feet, smiling, calm, ready.

The show was magic. Only an hour or so, it wasn’t even so much a show as it was a small gathering. “One of the great things about that whole gig, was the community feeling,” Hohnen recalled in my article. “We walked out at the end of it and said, ‘We should do this everywhere in Australia’.” Yunupingu came off stage grinning, Hohnen was grinning too, everyone was – it was a moment which captured all that had happened in that three or four day period; the music was so real and had been flowing so freely, it was just a joy to behold for all concerned, not least of all Dr. Yunupingu.

***

Yunupingu’s passing in late July after a long battle with illness closed a chapter, but by no means ended a story. The music he created so purely has lifted the spirits of countless people, and will no doubt continue to do so. The man truly was on his own trajectory, and to spend even a little time with him was something special – his gift will certainly be missed, by people all over the world.

Jerusalem… A Brief Portrait

[UNPUBLISHED]

Jerusalem throbs with a religious fervour, with a visceral sense of time and place, with tension you can almost cut and with a power that’s hard to put your finger on.

It swelters in summer heat, its maze of streets – in both the new and old cities – an indecipherable sprawl of foot-polished stone, undulating with the hillside, sharp left turns and dips, rivulets of some liquid or other coming to pool in the cracks, covered over with wet cardboard and shredded paper; detritus and bits and pieces that, at the end of the day, are hosed off and left to fester in the damp heat.

Damascus Gate

Outside the daunting Damascus Gate, perhaps the most formidable entrance to the Old City, long and black guns are strapped to uniformed fronts, tan pants tucked into boots planted firm on shining flagstones behind blue Police barriers. Inside the gate though, in the Old City on the final day of Ramadan, in the Muslim Quarter, the market booms and bustles and people throng. A seething mass bumping up against one another as they move from place to place, up steps, vanishing into dark corners behind the old rock, the giant walls disappearing behind as you descend into the maze, covered alleys decked with garments and plastic toys and sweets with names you can’t pronounce and shouldn’t pretend to.

We follow the stations of the cross and stop in small churches amidst lush gardens, oasis’ from the heat and noise outside. For the most part, they’re empty and quiet and our footsteps echo and we whisper just because. A lone woman kneels at the alter and starts to sing and her voice fills the entire space, ricocheting and furling back on itself and it sounds like a choir and stuns us to silence as we listen, before slowly fading out.

Temple Mount

The Temple Mount is closed and things are quiet at the Western Wall. We don yamakas and wander down to the ancient barrier and touch its smooth sides, think for a minute about what it all means. The tension doesn’t seem too heightened here, the sunshine layering the scene perhaps a pleasant distraction from what could, or what has, or what might happen. An electrifyingly religious place for so many with varied beliefs and opinions as to what it means, what happened, who has ownership, who can do what and when. The guns are still there, but they’re hanging loose and it all seems so calm.

Jordan (background)

Having dinner with the ABC middle east correspondent on the hill above town, Jordan visible through the heat haze as the sun sets. We talk shop and throw opinions and observations onto the table among the tall cans of Budweiser and bottles of red wine, olives and bread and shredded meat. Talk is cheap and as the wine flows, so to does the speculation. Half a dozen people from halfway around the world trying to dissect a place as tangled and gnarled as any on earth.

Flashes of gold from a way across the desert as the setting sun reflects back off glass in another country.

The streets around the Old City seem grey and listless. The closer you get, the busier it is though, cars and buses bumper to bumper, horns blaring. At the crossing, men and women of different religions and belief systems stand side by side, the minutia of the everyday relegating them from sworn enemies to mere people crossing the road together, with their shopping, to catch the bus, to head home, to pray, to pick up their children.

The market bustles and a young Asian man sprints past, accosts someone, seems his passport has been lifted from his pocket. The accosted man is indignant and the Asian kid nearly beside himself, potentially trapped somewhere he no longer wants to be.

Alleyways

James and I head out later, at night, to a shisha bar where we smoke giant pipes and drink cold Lebanese beer while discussing this and that. Stray cats play in the garden and jump from the trees. A young woman sitting by herself receives a birthday cake from the staff who sing to her, and we wonder why she’s there alone.

Ramadan had finished the day before, and having dinner high atop one of the local hotels, we hear what seems an explosion, but are told it’s just the signal for the sun setting and so the feast begins – seems an odd signal in this part of the world, an explosion. To get here from Tel Aviv, we’ve driven through the West Bank, a long and fast run through the desert which, before you realise, is bordered on both sides by high barbed-wire fences, cameras every fifty metres on tall poles, monitoring the scene… one doesn’t stop on this road, not even for a flat tyre, one just drives until the destination, either way, is reached.

We pass through checkpoints along the way, and the soldiers manning them look no older than seventeen.

You can see the Palestinian towns, marked by tall mosques, and the Israeli settlements, marked by red-tiled roofs and huge Israeli flags. It’s tense and I feel the car speed up a little. It seems so incongruous that this place, the West bank and Jerusalem itself, these volatile pits of possible violence and despair, are so close to Tel Aviv with its convivial feel and its cosmopolitan ambiance. They seem of different countries.

We leave Jerusalem after a couple of days having walked the flagstones and seen the people and the places. It still sat heavy and foreboding, despite the sun and the heat, a place that could erupt at any time and yet is so full of history and tales tall and true that one could get lost there for decades.

It recedes behind us in the rear-view mirror as we re-enter the West Bank, past checkpoints and guns, and seems like it wasn’t even ever real, just an imaginary place where trouble brews but where people just get on with life as if it’ll never change.

Samuel J. Fell

Sunrise To Sunset – Yirrmal Leads A New Generation Of Indigenous Music

[Published in the summer issue of No Depression (US) – EXCERPT]

His voice is pure. High and strong, it thrums like taut wire, resonating with a power that belies his young age. At 22, Yirrmal Marika shows signs of a talent set to bloom — a talent that could one day see him placed alongside his mentor Archie Roach, or other seminal artists like Ruby Hunter, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, and Yothu Yindi, whose work has come to define an important part of Australian contemporary music and shine a light on often dark parts of Australia’s past.

“He’s an amazing young musician,” muses Roach. “When I hear Yirrmal sing live … it cuts right through you, it’s just so powerful.”

Last November, Yirrmal released his debut cut, an EP titled Youngblood. In commercial music terms, it’s essentially a folk album: largely acoustic, it features storytelling set to a simple sound, with an emphasis on the lyrical content as opposed to the instrumentation. It showcases the young man’s emerging songwriting talent, his skill on the guitar, his passion for what he’s doing. It’s not a release that’ll shake the music world to its core, but Youngblood offers a glimpse of what the Australian roots music scene can expect in the years to come. It is a foundation from which Yirrmal will no doubt build as he comes to terms with his talent, solidifies his vision, and immerses himself further into his ancient heritage and its culture and philosophies.

Yirrmal is a Yolngu man, an indigenous Australian. Hailing from Yirrkala, in northeast Arnhem Land on the northern edge of the country — locals call it the Top End — his people have one of the oldest cultures on the planet. It’s from this ancient tradition that Yirrmal draws inspiration. It informs his music; it’s the fertile earth in which his very being is rooted.

Yet, despite the fact he sings mainly in the Yolngu language — putting to song the stories of time and creation passed down from one generation to the next by his people — he sets his stories to Western folk music. This is where his sound intersects with that of his mentor. Roach, a man of both Gunditjmara and Bundjalung heritage — and one of the most respected musicians in Australia, indigenous or otherwise — is also largely a folk player, and has been since his debut release, Charcoal Lane, back in 1990.

While Yirrmal and Roach are touchstone artists, they’re also just two of many indigenous Australians who have combined their storytelling traditions with a Western musical form, whether it be folk, country, blues, soul, gospel, rock and roll, or hip-hop. Indeed, indigenous musicians utilising Western music has become such a part of the Australian music world since it became mainstream here in the early 1990s that it’s no longer regarded as odd, surprising, or a genre of its own merely because its purveyors are of a different race. Indigenous culture, after all, is built on the tradition of passing down stories and legends, so this tradition translates well to Western songwriting styles.

“It’s just progression,” reasons Roach. “Yirrmal especially. His music surrounds a lot of his stories and culture. For years, we’ve been doing it — it’s just an aspect of storytelling or communicating. [Adding] Western instruments, like guitars, keyboards … is just a continuation of that old culture [of] communicating and educating.”

Feature In No Depression Magazine (US) – Yirrmal & Indigenous Australian Music

Appearing in the summer issue of legendary American roots music magazine No Depression, SJF has a long feature on up-and-coming artist Yirrmal, and the scope, influence and identity of indigenous Australian contemporary music.

Issue out in mid-May.

And consider subscribing to No Depression – for only $6 a month, you can support ad-free, in-depth arts journalism. Head to the website HERE.

Meeting Molly

[Submitted to the inaugural Horne Prize, 2016 – presented by The Saturday Paper]

He answers the door in shorts, a t-shirt with the face of Che Guevara emblazoned across it. It’s an unseasonably warm autumn day, and so his feet are bare. In place of his famous Stetson is a red baseball cap.

Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, short and slightly hunched and yet instantly recognisable despite his seventy-three years, stares quizzically at me as he leans against the partially open door, a small dog running about behind him barking, high-pitched. The door is set into a tall, yellow concrete wall on a quiet street in an inner-city Melbourne suburb. On either side of the wall’s doorway, on the outside for all to see, are stencilled metre-high replicas of the logos for both the St. Kilda football team and the Melbourne Storm, outfits Meldrum has a long history supporting.

He doesn’t say anything, so I introduce myself, remind him we spoke on the phone yesterday, and that we’re meeting for a chat – I’m interviewing the iconic Australian music industry personality for a book I’m writing on the history of the Australian rock press, which this year celebrates fifty years since its inception. It all started, essentially, via the pop paper Go-Set, for which Meldrum was a long-running contributor prior to his days as host of the popular Countdown television program.

He nods his head in recognition – ‘Yep’ – and invites me inside, into the small front garden to the doorway of the house itself, a double-wide terrace in which he’s lived for years. I ask him if I should remove my boots, he shrugs, so I kick them off and walk into the house, the sunshine receding behind us as we make our way down a dark hallway, dodging the accumulated belongings of a lifetime spent in the music industry, into the lounge-room.

It’s lighter down this end of the house. The room opens up through glass doors onto a bricked terrace with a small swimming pool to the side, a mirror ball suspended over the still, blue water, a giant sarcophagus head mounted on the high wall at the end. Meldrum has an affinity with Egypt and its culture, he’s been there countless times and so there are Egyptian themed artefacts littered all about the place, they meld into the framework of a house which is more museum than dwelling; Pharaoh heads and sphinxes affixed to walls alongside signed photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, gold records and pictures of Meldrum with the likes of Elton John and Paul McCartney.

He tells me to take a seat on the couch.

As he sits down the other end, picking up a milky bowl of cereal from the coffee table, which he resumes eating, I launch into my book spiel, tell him what it is, exactly, I’m doing, and what I’d like from him. He nods intermittently, keeps eating his cereal. On the table in front of us, among the detritus – books, unopened mail, CDs, ashtrays and the like – I place my Dictaphone, and open my notebook which I balance on my knee. I ask him my first question, looking over at him as I finish, waiting for his reply.

It doesn’t come.

Meldrum looks at the floor in front of him, spoons another mouthful of cereal, keeps looking down. I wait, nervous now. His mobile rings, and he places the bowl on the coffee table and answers it. It’s a journalist from the Herald Sun, I can hear her voice clearly, she’s asking him for a comment on something to do with naming Melbourne laneways after famous musicians. He listens, answers in one or two words, listens again, then tells her he’s in an interview and can she call back.

He hangs up, puts his mobile down, picks up the bowl and takes another mouthful, resumes looking at the floor. Tentatively, wondering if he’ll speak to me at all, I ask him my initial question again. This time, to my relief, he looks up and seems to think. He starts talking.

***

My father couldn’t stand him. I was never sure why at the time, I was probably only about eight or nine. Every time we all sat down to watch Hey, Hey It’s Saturday though, and Molly Meldrum’s segment came on, Dad would furrow his brow and grumble, get up to make himself a cup of tea.

“What an eedjit,” he’d say to no one in particular as he walked into the kitchen.

A few years later, no longer watching Channel 9’s long-running variety show but coming across Meldrum more and more as I began to ingest popular culture prior to the year I was born, I thought that maybe Dad didn’t like him because of the homosexual thing. As it turned out though, my sister is gay, and Dad went on loving her without missing a beat.

In hindsight, now I’m older again, I think it was Meldrum’s manner that so infuriated Dad. Coupled with the music he was talking about (with which Dad would surely have had no connection), the be-hatted commentator’s trademark almost stream-of-consciousness style of talking, his hair-brained way of getting his point across, would have been anathema for my old man; Dad, before he died late last year, was very straight-to-the-point, which is something Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum has never been accused of being.

“Molly churned out his… stream of consciousness, drowning in a sea of ellipsis, as I described it for years,” laughs Phillip Frazer, who along with Tony Shauble, founded Go-Set in 1966. I’d spoken to Frazer at length almost nine months prior to meeting Molly, and he’d given insight into the man himself. Indeed, just reading Meldrum’s columns which began to appear in the long-defunct paper not long after its inception, you can see where his jump-around style of communicating originated, in print before it ever graced Australian airwaves.

I get a taste of this as our chat builds momentum – I’ll ask about the entertainment sections of the major newspapers of the time and within seconds, we’re talking about Meldrum being a surfer down in Lorne; I ask him about the first issue of Go-Set, if he remembers seeing it, and before I know it we’re talking about Ronnie Burns, with whom Meldrum lived for years.

And yet it all makes sense. When I transcribe the interview a day or so later and read through it afterwards, there’s nothing Meldrum says that isn’t interesting or a part of the story, at least in some regard – his style is just to talk as it comes, which it eventually all does. What’s amazing is his recall; after half a century in an industry well known for its excesses, his memory of it all is remarkably clear.

That half century began in mid-1966. “I came in and there’s a guy sweeping the floor,” Frazer had told me. In those early months, Go-Set was produced out of a house in Malvern, a comfortable suburb in Melbourne’s east. Meldrum had turned up looking for some sort of work and Shauble had pointed him towards the broom. Frazer lobbed in, and there he was.

“He knew more, because he was a groupie, a band follower… he knew more about the local scene than anybody I’d met at that point,” Frazer remembers, and it was because of this knowledge that Meldrum became, soon afterwards, an integral part of this fledgling publication.

“Everything,” Meldrum says immediately when I ask what he got from writing for Go-Set. “It gave me a purpose you know?” It certainly gave him a beginning.

***

I would have sat down with Meldrum months earlier if I’d been able. I tried a number of times before it finally happened, a litany of missed opportunities and close calls that resulted in the situation just never coming to be. My contact was journalist Jeff Jenkins, who co-wrote Meldrum’s biography, The Never, Um, Ever Ending Story, which was published in late 2014. Jenkins tried his best to facilitate a meet, and his efforts eventually paid off, at least for me. He emailed me Meldrum’s number in March this year, and told me he was expecting my call.

I was nervous. A couple of other journalists had told me that he was hard to interview, that his attention span was limited and that he was likely to evade questions, instead just talking about whatever he felt like. He’d suffered a couple of well publicised accidents – a serious fall from a ladder in 2011, and an accident in Thailand only a couple of months before we met – and so he was reportedly not as ‘with it’ as he used to be.

Standing in a friend’s Coburg backyard though, I made the call, emboldened by numerous cups of instant coffee, and while he didn’t come across as overly enthusiastic about my talking to him, he offered his home as a venue for our chat, and we were finally good to go.

***

We talk, on the record, for around an hour. After the initial false start, Meldrum warms to the subject, one which is obviously close to his heart. He talks of bands and artists like Johnny O’Keefe, Olivia Newton John, The Twilights, Marcia Hines; he talks of The Beatles’ fabled 1964 Australian tour and how it then impacted upon the fledgling Australian music scene; he tells tales of going out all night and sleeping in his car before being woken by production assistants and then going on air on Kommotion, the television show he was involved with for a while at the same time he wrote for Go-Set, a show which has been credited with being an influence on Countdown.

He laughs as he calls his good friends Michael Gudinski and Michael Browning, who started Daily Planet, a short-lived rival to Go-Set, “hippies and radicals”. He smiles and laughs as he remembers things, things that happened when Australian music was young and growing and anything was possible. Things that happened when the Australian rock press was young and growing and anything was possible.

We finish up the interview, talking about The Beatles. “I love John, I loved both of them (Yoko), and Paul has always remained a good friend, and George was a friend,” Meldrum says, pointing to a couple of framed pictures hanging on the lounge room wall. Meldrum was the journalist who, in the pages of Go-Set, broke the news that the band was breaking up, after interviewing Lennon back in 1969.

I ask if he still keeps in touch with any of the remaining members. “Yeah, Paul all the time,” he smiles. “And Yoko as well.”

I turn off the Dictaphone, close my notebook, put it on the table. Meldrum asks if I want a cup of coffee – ‘Sure, if you’re having one’ – he gets up and walks slowly to the kitchen where he puts the kettle on. I sit and look around, pat the dog which is sitting on my foot, look out over the small courtyard where the sun is reflecting off the pool mirror ball throwing shards of dancing light all about the place.

He comes back with a full cup, he walks slowly these days, carefully puts it down on the coffee table in front of me, sits back on the couch and picks up a packet of cigarettes. He asks if I mind, which I don’t, I pull out tobacco and roll up, he passes me a lighter and we sit in his lounge room and smoke. He’d said on the phone, the previous day, that he was busy and we’d only have an hour, but he seems quite content to continue talking, even though the formal part of the interview is over.

He tells me how, only a week or so prior, he’d had a party at his place for his Melbourne Storm mates, “Around 160 people in here,” he says with a laugh, waving his arm about the house which while reasonably roomy, would struggle to fit a heaving mass of humanity within its walls, even a small one, given the amount of paraphernalia leaning and piling and squatting in almost every available inch.

He tells me about his Storm mates, and how he’s friends with Queensland league legends Jonathan Thurston and Greg Inglis – I grew up in central Queensland, weaned on a steady diet of rugby league from an early age, and so I hang on his every word. I’m a Brisbane Broncos supporter, so we swap footy stories for a while. He asks about Phillip Frazer. We talk about Byron Bay. He slowly ashes his cigarette into one of the ashtrays littering the table top.

“Molly is a staggeringly principled person,” Frazer had told me. I can believe it. He sits on the front edge of the couch, his hands together between his knees, gnarled fingers playing with the large rings which adorn same, slowly scuffing his bare feet on the rug. Even engaged, he keeps his head bowed for the most part; he comes across as honest, humble, principled indeed. Most of all, he comes across as passionate, even after all these years; as passionate now as he would have been when, as a youngster, he began his journey, writing for Go-Set, back when it began for everyone.

The Australian music press was the medium which brought Australian music culture to international attention, and launched the careers of not just countless musicians, but writers, editors, publishers and photographers, simultaneously providing a voice for an entire cultural movement. Meldrum was there for the beginning, and as such, became a crucial part of the Australian music press, and as a result, of Australian culture.

I finish my coffee, butt out my third or fourth smoke. I tell him I need to be off, I’ve another interview somewhere else in Melbourne this afternoon. He doesn’t get up, but offers his hand and smiles as we shake, tells me I know more about “bloody Go-Set” than he does.

I leave him sitting on his couch in his cluttered lounge room, the sun still dancing off the mirror ball outside, surrounded by a life in music. I make my way down the dark hallway, out the front door where I put my boots back on. I walk out the front gate and close it behind me. I make my way through the quiet streets to the tram stop back into the city. I leave an Australian icon behind me.

Samuel J. Fell