Reviews/Dance/Music/Perth Festival

Songlines come to life

10 February 2020

Rosalind Appleby finds herself transported to Gurrumul’s country in Perth Festival’s powerful show, Bungul.

Review: Skinnyfish Music and Perth Festival, Buŋgul ·
Perth Concert Hall, 8 February 2020 ·
Review by Rosalind Appleby ·

A campfire smokes in a bed of sand. Men paint their chests in diamond patterns. The yidaki (didgeridoo) and the chanting begin, and sand is flicked as the men dance.

Then, floating above them, almost ghostly, comes the voice of the late Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupiŋu, keening, trembling, exultant.

The Perth Festival show, Buŋgul, is a ceremony featuring dancers, musicians and artwork from Gurrumul’s Northern Territory Yolŋu clan collaborating with the WA Symphony Orchestra to bring to life the songs from Gurrumul’s posthumously-released album, Djärimirri (Child of the Rainbow).

The project is directed by Don Wininba Ganambarr (a Yolŋu cultural leader) and Nigel Jamieson (a theatre director specialising in ceremonies and large-scale events), plus an enormous creative team. Their purpose is to share the meaning behind the songs Gurrumul made famous.

Djärimirri draws on songs and ceremonies from Gurrumul, his mother and his grandmother, and has been acclaimed for its haunting blend of orchestral traditions and Yolŋu culture. It’s clear, though, that the album is just scratching the surface. Buŋgul expands on this with breathtaking depth and beauty.

Gurrumul’s family (his brothers, nephews, son and clan members are all on stage) offer a multi-dimensional picture of the man and his music, drawing awareness to the relationship between songlines and landforms, dance, painting styles, musical patterns and language.

Members of the Yolŋu clan, collaborate with the WA Symphony Orchestra to bring to life the songs from Gurrumul’s album Djärimirri (Child of the Rainbow).

On a vast screen behind the orchestra, Paul Shakeshaft’s cinematography blends video footage of the dancers on stage, with images of striking Yolŋu art, pristine landscapes and the dancers themselves, on country in Galiwinku.

In Bäru (crocodile), geometric textures of grasses and rippling wave patterns are matched by the micro-patterns in the art and music. In Gopuru (blue marlin/tuna), the polyphony of the violins and violas creates shimmering ripples of sound. Composer and conductor Erkki Velthiem’s deep understanding of both musical traditions is evident – he even manages to transcribe the pulsating rhythm of the yidaki into a complicated cello part.

The Yolŋu dancers and musicians are utterly compelling, from the delicate precision of the Djiŋawurr (scrub turkey) to the moody Wulminda (dark clouds) and the flamboyant synchronisation in Galiku (flags). Marayarr is particularly moving in its parallel depiction (through video and also live on stage) of the Yolŋu men painting a flagpole in memory of Gurrumul and placing it at his burial site.

Stunning lighting (Mark Howett) and sound design (Steve Francis) add to the immersive effect. The combined impact of all the artforms is highly dramatic, even operatic: the ultimate Australian Gesamtkuntswerk.

Gurrumul’s voice underpins the entire evening; not the silken voice of his ballads but a gritty, nasal voice, rich with overtones and inflection. Now, when I hear it, I will recognise the sand, the smoke, the sea, the ritual. And I will remember the Marayarr and its flag, waving in the wind on a beach at Galiwinku.

Pictured top: Yolnu dancers perform Wak (the crow), supported by Yolnu musicians and the WA Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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