A Gumatj man from Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island in the Northern Territory, Gurrumul became adept at a variety of instruments despite being born blind. His skills on the drums, keyboard, didgeridoo and guitar are largely self-taught.
Gurrumul began his music career in 1985 as an original member of Yothu Yindi, led by his uncle Mandawuy Yunupingu, playing keyboards, guitar and percussion. After the band’s successes and intense touring he moved back to Elcho Island full time in 1995.
He later went on to form the Saltwater Band which performed traditional songs with a reggae influence, primarily in the Yolngu language. The band recorded three albums with their second effort Djarridjarri them winning the Deadly Award for Best Album of the Year in 2004.
In 2008, Gurrumul released his self-titled album to critical acclaim. It peaked at number three on the Australian charts and was nominated for four ARIA awards, winning Best World Music Album and Best Independent Release. He also won Album, Artist and Single of the Year for ‘Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)’ at the Deadly Awards.
The album, performed in a mixture of Yolngu and English, tells of a love of country and a spiritual connection to the land through songs such as ‘Wiyathul’, ‘Djarimirri’ and ‘Marrandil’. It also touches on personal moments including the death of Gurrumul’s father in ‘Bapa’ and on the difficulties of being born blind in ‘Gurrumul History’.
The album drew international attention to the humble singer/songwriter with artists such as Will.I.Am, Elton John and Sting quickly becoming fans. Reviews proclaimed that his music has a ‘transcendental beauty’ and that:
"Yunupingu has a voice which is so beautiful and so emotion-laden that it invests every song with a passion and pathos which are quite overwhelming".
Gurrumul performed at Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations in 2008 and was awarded the Australian of the Year for the Northern Territory in 2009. He was also the subject of a portrait by Guy Maestri which went on to win the 2009 Archibald prize.
Gurrumul’s second solo album Rralaka was released in 2011 and went platinum in Australia. A live album was distributed in 2013 and after a tour of the United States he released his third effort ‘The Gospel Album’. The album won him a third ARIA Award for the Best World Music Album in 2015.
The timelessness and universal beauty of his music has seen him perform for the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, US President Barack Obama and Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary of Denmark. In 2012, he was one of the contributing artists on the commemorative album ‘Sing’ for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and performed the song live at the concert in the United Kingdom.
Adding to Gurrumul’s many accomplishments; the Gurrumul Yunupingu Foundation was created in 2013. It encourages remote Indigenous youth to become involved in arts and cultural programs, to learn new skills and pursue healthy lifestyles.