The voice floated across my lonely motel room in Darwin. The sound of slow sweet lament suited my mood in that anonymous room in a lodging for transients. The voice sang of home, of home lost, of home dreamed and remembered. In that room, at that season – the three weeks of mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple – the voice sang to me of loss, my own and the singer’s.
After a period working on Elcho Island I had arrived in Darwin at day’s end, had wandered blindly about the Darwin Festival, blindly had selected this CD of Elcho singers. Later, in the light I read their names. I recognised ‘Yunipingu’: hadn’t he been Australian of the Year? But this would be a different Yunipingu.
Only a couple of years later that floating voice had percolated through the ears of the entire nation, seeped into our being and changed us. Distinctive as didgeridoo, his voice was recognised everywhere. His solo album was the cultural event of the year. Realising how a voice had become the sound that we recognised ourselves by, I wrote. “Australia is becoming more Australian.”
Born in 1971 the singer passed away last week. He died during the three weeks of mourning. I listen to ‘Warwu’ and I feel for my country, impoverished. The singer has passed from us. So much loss, so many, so young.
click on this link to hear him singing 'Warwu': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhkMP89rRMk
Warily opening the newspaper I came upon the following passage, quoted in an essay authored by Aboriginal leaders. I found it unusual.
“What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst the past has thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”
This cri de coeur from the pen of former Australian of the Year, Galarwuy Yunupingu, distils the Letter from the Heart, which is the statement of Aboriginal consensus on their future. There’s a Jewish saying, words that come out from the heart (will) enter the heart.
This announcement was born as a boast but I make it today as a confession: I DON’T BELIEVE IN MOTHER’S DAY.* I don’t honour it, I don’t observe it (unless with quizzical disdain), I don’t respect it, (excepting as a smart marketing exercise. What began as a means of selling greetings cards in the off-season found eager recruits in floristry and in restaurantry – as well as in cafetery and lingerie. Mother/s Day has all the hallmarks of Hallmark and the hallmarks of the pulsing of empty cultures in new countries and guilty sons in the pub, at the footy, at work, at play – at living outside extended family.)
Climbing down from my lofty position of cultural oversight into the kitchen of my own life, I can identify a serious gap: my mother and I have not spoken to each other for almost five years.
I have dreamed of her. I have dreamed she dreams of me. Mum died in June 2009 and I miss her. I do not mourn for Mum: I grieve for my loss, for the delight of her company. Mum always made me smile. Always. In her breathless dying week I watched as Mum suffered one particularly horrifying attack: she gasped at air. It went on and on, as her lungs filled higher and higher with the fluid that would drown her at week’s end. I called a nurse, Nurse squirted a diuretic into Mum, the breathing slowed and Mum pulled off her oxygen mask, grinning: “You thought I was going to croak, didn’t you, darling? Well” – Mum was cackling now in the hilarity of the merry joke that was all her existence – “I didn’t, did I?”
In my kitchen of now, I fry tomatoes and eggs and red kidney beans with onions fried in oil with garlic and smoked paprika and cumin. I serve this and avocado bathed in fresh lime juice and garlic-infused olive oil on a mountain of fresh bagels and specialty breads. All is prefaced by a glass of orange juice squeezed by my grandchildren. We serve this to the children’s grandmother and great-grandmother. Everyone gives gifts, festoons and cards (handmade, unHallmarked) to the old ladies. And I watch, a non-combatant. I look at my mother in law, fulfilled, filled with years. I come in, in from my chill principles, and I celebrate with them all.
*I’ve always felt the same away about Fathers Day and Valentines Day too.
A thin teenage boy limps into my consulting room. His file gives his age as fourteen. He accepts my offered hand and shakes, his narrow face opening into a shy smile. His English is slow, studied, like his gait. Mum, accompanied by a three-year old son, enters with the bigger boy. She is trim, confident in English, smiles readily. This reversal in facility with English is curious: more commonly the parent’s tongue limps in the new language while the child’s races ahead and translates for the parent.
I examine the painful foot which is swollen and tender at the top of the instep. The diagnosis eludes me. “I don’t really know what has made this foot sore. But I can try some treatment which I think will help.”
Fourteen-year old appears happy with this. Mum says, “Thank you.”
The three year-old wanders quietly around my consulting room, locates all its fittings and gadgets, investigates their workings and adjusts all to his satisfaction.
I guess from the family’s surname they come from Vietnam. The older boy confirms this.
I hand the boy a prescription and prepare to write a letter for him to take to his own doctor.
Mother, smiling, shakes her head: “He doesn’t have a doctor.”
“I can write a letter for your clinic and you can take your son there. Will that be OK ?”
“Yes”. Another smile.
The letter written, the family rises to leave.
Mother turns to me. “He has been here in Australia two weeks only. Until now he was in Vietnam. And we have been without him.”
“How long have you been apart?”
“One year and a half a year.”
“Did you miss each other?”
The boy nods. Mother says, “We miss very much. Now happy. Now family all together.”
She thanks me and heads for the door, then adds:”You are the first doctor he sees. Thank you for being so kind.”
At the door, the three-year old folds his arms across his upper trunk and bows.
Mother says: “In our culture that means he show you respect.”
Another consultation, this one in 1971. I take a phone request to visit a patient in Altona who has a fever and is unwell. I make my way to the address, which turns out to be the migrant hostel. The sun is setting as I park my car in the enormous parking area. Ahead of me in the gloom I sight squat oblong buildings that proliferate wherever I rest my gaze. All have the same design. My instructions are to proceed to “Room Number Seven”.
But number seven in which building of these many? I cannot know. (Mobile phones have not yet been invented.)
Dismayed, I look around. I see buildings that are anonymous and many. Of residents I see none. Continue reading
If autobiography is the least reliable genre in fiction then the authorized Life sits at its flakiest edge. That this is not true of Hillman’s “Gurrumul” is on account of the slipperiness of the subject.
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu emerges as shy, remote, elusive, cryptic, mischievous – an outer island in an archipelago of tongues. He does not so much emerge as submerge himself. Blind from birth, Gurrumul seems at times to be mute by choice. At others he makes himself perfectly clear to a whitefella, especially when working with his intimate collaborator, Michael Hohnen.
By book’s end Gurrumul remains hidden; only his music and the beauty of his features – a beauty we can enjoy and he can never perceive – speak to us.
No biographer could truly represent this life, (nor for that matter could he successfully misrepresent it). Wisely, Hillman does not attempt either. Instead he places the artist in his context. Chiefly that context is the complex of family (especially his bevy of aunties), community, land and Dreaming: in short, culture.
“Culture”, a term used promiscuously in conversations between the races, embodies meanings that are layered and expressed in dance, in music, in painting, in song, in storytelling and in land husbandry. The meanings are traditionally expressed obliquely, which is to say they are in part obscured. What Gurrumul does with these enfolded meanings appears to be a risky enterprise of his own, with calibrated departures from liturgical norms, a sort of jazz move in which he improvises within a theme and extends it beyond the limits of permitted custom.
Such a variation on a theme must be perceptible only to a tiny number of the millions who respond to Gurrumul’s music making. In this sense it is a secret, yet another, in practice that skates ever along the outer edge of theunshareable.
When Gurrumul sings, whitefellas listen, enthralled. Literally, we are in a thrall, under a spell cast upon us by the spellbinding singer. We scarcely hear the words, we cannot parse them; and when we read their translations in Hillman’s book, the words in English are so simple as to appear banal: a profoundly false impression. And yet, and yet, we are transported. If beauty be truth, then truth is shown to us precisely as it is withheld. The subtlety of all this magic is clearly rendered in Hillman’s book.
To those who have read “My Life as a Traitor” and “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif”, Hillman’s skill in rendering an alien culture will be familiar. It is in his later work, “The Honey Thief”, that Hillman manages to capture the artist in the act of working his art, in this case the sublime art of the Afghan (Azari) storyteller.
In the present volume Hillman attempts the extremely ambitious exegesis of the utterly untranslatable term, “Dreaming.” He succeeds, in this reader’s view, brilliantly. In twenty five years and over sixty working visits to remote Aboriginal communities, I have never felt I came so close to apprehending (I doubt any whitefella will ever comprehend) the Dreaming, as in Hillman’s “Gurrumul, his life and music.”
Hillman has succeeded remarkably in penetrating the life of art and ceremony (the two amount to much the same thing) on Elcho Island. Seven years ago while I worked on Elcho ceremony was active but off limits for whitefellas. Clearly Robert Hillman won the trust of capable cultural brokers on the island, who ‘let him in’ wherever this was permissible. In return, Hillman repays trust with respect that neither fawns nor condescends. In this his text avoids the vapid tone of comments on the book’s photographs.
Which leads me to the one regret I have about the book, a quibble perhaps, but an important one. In an important sense Hillman’s publisher subverts the author’s enterprise, which is to render in words an art that is ineffable. It is the format of the handsome volume that works against the writing. You look at the book, you find the cover images arresting – and to one familiar with the singing – quite new. The book itself cannot be held in the hand and read: it is biography in a coffee table format. You open the book, you start to read and you find yourself distracted repeatedly from the text by beguiling photographs which tell their own story quite compellingly, but quite out of sync with Hillman’s theme at any point.
Better justice might have been done to both text and photos by physically separating them.
In the end the book succeeds to a remarkable degree. Importantly, it demonstrates how, as whitefellas embrace Aboriginal culture, Australia is becoming more Australian.
Hillman’s book is bound to succeed beyond these shores as Gurrumul’s audiences around the world drink deeply in their thirst for some understanding of his life and his music.