The Sweetwater Music Hall is having one of those moments on Saturday night (May 9).
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more unique sound and story than Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. The 45-year-old Australian artist has been blind since birth, hails from the tiny Elcho Island off the northern coast, learned to play a right-handed guitar upside down as a young boy and continues to do so and sings in a tribal Gumati dialect spoken by just 3,000 people in the world.
Though those traits sound like an artist whose appeal would be rather, well, limited, Yunupingu has brought audiences to tears from Holland to Beijing, garnered the Australian equivalent of a Grammy and counts the likes of Elton John, Stevie Wonder, will.i.am and Bjork among his admirers. Heck, the legendary Quincy Jones posted a video to his Facebook page in March that heaped praise on Yunupingu.
“I had my mind blown when I first was privy to hear this incredible human being’s voice,” he says. “It’s unbelievable. I know you’re going to get blown away as much as I was when I first heard him. So kick back and let it all in, ’cause this is one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices that I’ve ever heard. I want you to give it all up and check out Gurrumul.”
Yunupingu’s ability to garner broad acclaim despite comes from his voice, Australian music critic Bruce Elder wrote in a review of Yunupingu’s debut solo album in 2007.
“Australia has produced very few, if any, popular singers of such extraordinary talent that their voices seem to be a gift from the gods,” Elder wrote. “You will instantly surrender to the greatest voice this continent has ever recorded. It is as though Yunupingu has reached into a wellspring so deep it transcends cultural barriers. He has found an emotional bridge which is genuinely universal.”
Enjoy Mill Valley: It’s been said that your music goes beyond language, and transcends language’s barriers. Why do you think that is?
Michael Hohnen: There is a spiritual connection. He was also brought up with gospel music, traditional music and Western pop music, so his musical heritage is varied and rich and he seems to be able to pull that feeling of longing and nostalgia and channel that through the way he sings.
Quincy Jones talked about him as being honest. In a lot of music and show business, they’re acting – they’re playing themselves a part. When Gurrumul sings, it’s about his identity, his connection with the world. People can feel that in his music.
EMV: You have your first show on this tour in New York City. What are you feeling about this visit to America?
MH: We got off the plane yesterday and we came from Belgium and we got the news that it was sold out in New York and I went straight over to him and congratulated and his whole body sat up with pride. He knows that this is one of the musical capitals of the world from an industry perspective. This is not a hyped tour – no advertising. So to sell out NYC is huge. It means so much more to him than he’ll ever talk about. When he goes home, that’s ALL he’ll talk about.
EMV: What can people expect at this show in Mill Valley?
MH: He’s bringing a small band – a double bass, accompanying guitarist and drummer. He loves doing small shows. We’ll mostly play the first solo album live, but we’ll also play 2-3 songs from a record we’ve been working on, songs from the Methodist gospel songbook which will show people another side of him.
EMV: How does Gurrumul see himself in the broader musical landscape?
MH: He’s not a ‘world music’ artist. People often characterize someone who doesn’t sing in English as a world music artist. He sees himself as in the singer-songwriter tradition. He’s over the moon that he’s going to get to meet one of his heroes, Vince Gill, when we play in Nashville. The stuff that he’s producing will be around for a long, long time. It’s not fashionable, but it’s heavy cultural content – this is not flash in the pan stuff.”
His journey has already been amazing. The odds are against him. He lives in a remote area. So many parts of his life are compromised, compared to someone who lives in Melbourne or Sydney or Mill Valley. But his voice, and his talent, are taking him to new heights.