It is with sadness that Gurrumul’s final album begins. Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) is the final chapter in Gurrumul’s musical career as the highest selling Indigenous musician of all time, as well as one of the most important Australian icons, both musically and culturally. Formerly a member of Yothu Yindi, Gurrumul was well known as a multi-instrumentalist with skills in guitar, keys, percussion and the didgeridoo. But it was his spirited yet fragile vocals, most often sung in the Yolngu language of his people, that struck a chord with thousands allowing him to reach international success with his solo records. Gurrumul passed away in mid-2017, weeks before completing his final album, so it is with a heavy heart that I sit down with his final album.
Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) is unlike anything Gurrumul has released, tonally. Gurrumul lays down his acoustic guitar that people have come to expect from his music. Instead he is accompanied by hypnotic orchestral arrangements; tremendous string sections and bellowing horns that lay the foundation of Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow). The orchestral arrangements beautifully blend traditional European composition with Gurrumul’s traditional stories from the Yolngu culture; it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before.
Often the orchestral instrumentation mimics traditional Indigenous instruments like in opening track Waak (Crow). String melodies ebb and flow alongside a strong horn rhythm playing the same note, drifting in and out of consciousness as if carried by air. It’s hypnotic, like listening to the didgeridoo, each time the strings return they crescendo subtly and then back away, like wings flapping.
The rhythm of the instrumentation changes often throughout each song, accenting different beats in entrancing syncopation, all the while Gurrumul’s voice strong and beckoning one moment and humble and fragile the next. Title track Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) portrays this notion beautifully. Thick, bawling cello strings lay the base as higher pitched violins flutter and soar like birds in the sky. Musical images are conveyed so vividly that my imagination follows each spellbinding movement. Meanwhile Gurrumul’s chants beckon something out of you; he pulls you forward into the hypnotic orchestral symphony. It’s truly a work of art.
Djilawurr (Scrubfowl) has a menacing feel. The cellos play even deeper against the subtle boom of a bass drum. The instruments cut away almost immediately and what sounds like a triangle and a xylophone begin playing a syncopated rhythm. It’s a sudden shift in tone as the traditional western percussion takes the place of traditional Indigenous percussion. It takes a while to get your head around, but once you do it’s brilliant.
Gurrumul has been able to fill each piece with overwhelming emotion. Baru (Saltwater Crocodile) is a haunting, sometimes frightening track as tense string melodies play against shrill descending tones. Gurrumul powerfully beckons into a cacophonous yet beautiful arrangement. Djapana (Sunset) continues to play with emotion again as tense strings shake back and forth and deep horns harmonise with other bright, colourful horn melodies. There’s a sadness to Djapana (Sunset) as if it’s the last stunning sunset you’ll ever see.
Wulminda (Dark Clouds) is a beautifully sad closing track to Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow). Sombre strings dance elegantly, each one taking their time to complete their crescendo like a flower slowly trying to bask in any remaining sun. The cellos once again hypnotise with their deep growl, continually rolling like a didgeridoo without breath. Warm horn melodies contrast against the shrill violins until they both slowly fade out. The horn player blows their last breath as the bow finishes its final strum on the violin; silence follows.
Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) is Gurrumul’s final statement, a stunning combination of two traditional cultures. The landscape of sounds created on this album is unlike anything in the world, let alone Australia. Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) surpasses any final musical message given to the world and is one of the most important records in Australian history. It stands as a musical message for Gurrumul’s culture as well as a cultural message for Australians, Indigenous or not.
Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) is out now via Skinnyfish Music / MGM Distribution