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BWW Reviews: GURRUMUL, THE GOSPEL SONGS Gently Educated a Packed Spellbound Theatre

Reviewed by Ray Smith, Wednesday 6th August 2015

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu's latest recording, The Gospel Album, is a dedication to his mother and aunts who introduced him to the songs, lullabies and gospel music at the Methodist church on Galiwin'ku, Elcho Island, off the Arnhem Land coast. Gurrumul, The Gospel Songs is the tour to launch this new CD.

A reverential and widely diverse crowd of South Australians braved a cold and wet Wednesday evening to experience the music live.

The show opened with local South Australian singer/songwriter Caiti Baker accompanied by guitarist Ben Hauptmann.

Baker looked very lonely standing in the centre of that large stage, Hauptmann sitting unobtrusively stage right, as she prepared to open this highly anticipated concert virtually alone in front of such a large audience.

I was beginning to feel sorry for this isolated performer, and then she sang.

Suddenly the stage seemed to shrink as her extraordinary voice and absolute confidence filled it to capacity, Hauptmann's subtle rhythmic loops and fluent fretwork weaving intricately with the vocals.

Her song, Need No Help, evoked the ghost of Amy Winehouse but had such a clearly contemporary edge to it that it defied comparison to other singers.

She and Hauptmann were joined by Michael Hohnen, Gurrumul's manager and double bass player, for one song and, as she introduced her final offering, she asked the audience for permission to allow "an island boy" to join her on stage.

Gurrumul himself entered the stage to tumultuous applause and Caiti Baker's status and absolute right to be on that stage was beyond question. She clearly needs no help.

The interval allowed me and many others to get a copy of one Baker's CDs and to eagerly prepare ourselves for the second half.

Gurrumul sat centre stage, his infamous 'upside down guitar' placed carefully on his lap by an attentive Ben Hauptmann, Michael Hohnen stood ready behind his double bass, Tony Floyd behind his drum kit on a riser, with Matt McMahon on keyboards.

The back of the stage began to fill as director and conductor Libby O'Donovan's twenty two voice community choir, Women With Latitude, took their places and I was delighted to see Caiti Baker enter stage left to take her place at a microphone.

Hohnen introduced the musicians and the songs, on behalf of the notoriously shy Gurrumul, explaining that they thought it best to start the show with some more familiar pieces before leading us into the unknown territory of the more recent works.

Gurummel's guitar technique is odd, to say the least. His guitar is strung right handed but he plays it in a left handed position. Baffling to watch from a guitarist's viewpoint as every chord and action is inverted but the sound he produces is strong and sophisticated. The first few notes of the opening bars of Gurrumul's earlier works were enough to trigger excited and enthusiastic applause from the audience and it was evident that there were many hardcore fans in the theatre.

The first of the Gospel Songs transformed the stage into a chapel as the choir's voices lifted behind the lead vocals of Gurrumul and Caiti Baker's tight harmonies, the instrumentalists providing strong but understated support.

There were very few flurries of solos during the tightly arranged and well rehearsed pieces, but the musicianship of each and every member of the band was very plain to see.

The atmosphere was a curious mixture of relaxation and joy and deep reverence, as songs of Christianity and traditional culture sat side by side without a hint of conflict.

The baffling but beautiful Yolngu language seems to be designed for music and, when Gurrumul sings, the spirituality and the emotion and the history meld into an almost plaintive invocation of culture and country. His voice is utterly beautiful and quite extraordinary.

Yolngu language expert, Michael Christie said, "In the end, the religious terminology of Gurrumul's world is so redolent of smells and colours and sensations on the cheek that they really defy translation."

No translation was required in the Adelaide Festival Theatre on that cold and wet Wednesday evening. We were in the presence of an exceptional man from an ancient people and he was teaching us to see.

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