Djarimirri (Skinny Fish)
There’s good reason to be wary of pronouncements such as “this is the most important/groundbreaking/brilliant album released by an Australian”, or “this is the greatest artist/songwriter/guitarist etc we have produced”. We critics - and even more often, fans and publicists with access to either social media or an ad spend – can be swept up in the excitement or the heady smoke of sustained praise, and lose perspective. Something not entirely clear until time has passed.
That said, the declaration a decade ago by a former colleague, Bruce Elder, that Gurrumul – the Yolgnu man whose solo career post-Yothu Yindi was sung entirely in language and yet was grasped all over the world – was the finest voice to emerge from these parts, looks more and more self-evident every day.
Djarimirri is an album which gives rise to thoughts of consequential efforts and laudatory pronouncements. It is both adventurous and thoughtful, brave and impactful. It is not like anything else out there - Gurrumul (his family has given permission for the use of his name to be continued with his work, in a break from their custom with the dead), his long-time collaborator Michael Hohnen, and composer Erkki Veltheim, bridging the gap between traditional musics of north-east Arnhem Land and contemporary western classical forms.
The songs telling stories from ancient parables and drawn from interactions with traders from Malacca, reflecting the scale of life against nature or long-held philosophies, and often based around the rhythm of the yidaki (what we call a didgeridoo), are set within strings, percussion, woodwind, harpsichord and brass working in the rhythmic framework of Part and Stravinsky, Nyman and Richer, and especially Glass and Reich.
The use of cello to reconstruct the yidaki patterns provides one of the links between cultural imperatives, the circularity of patterns another. It is never stapled together, like someone taking mismatched panels and fashioning a coat of many colours, but rather built on common ground.
In the album-opening Waak, measured steps of strings and horns, like small waves, gradually shorten the space between moves, urgency arriving with marimbas and cellos, the momentum joined by a voice which prickles and then sighs, glides and pushes up and away.
In the reworked title track – whose translation, Child Of The Rainbow, ties in with a description of the singer offered by his aunt in the new documentary Gurrumul, as someone who “lived inside a rainbow” – mild agitation and contradiction in the strings is echoed in the multiple voices which cross paths rather than work in unison, while a trombone occasionally walks through the centre like a casual visitor.
Tension and implication is prominent in the slowly rising, low brass shudders at the beginning of Baru, and then Gurrumul’s vocals combine what might elsewhere be thought of as Gregorian chant with something like Qawwali devotions. If you hear Stravinsky anywhere on Djarimirri it would be here in the off-centre tone and unsettling space of the orchestra against which the voices fly like birds constantly diving into the dark.
That tension partly dissipates as Gopuru (cello now more slow dancer than tempo-holder; voices in conversation; violins flighty) and Djapana (exultations of strings, lowing brass and narrowly moving vocal) approach the end of the album, but the repeating patterns of Djapana which prod away at you, serve as a reminder or, at least, a memory of something more than an easy passage.
That memory remains as a trace of sharpness in the soothing beauty of Wulminda which passes by with the majestic grace and transfixing simplicity of the passage of clouds across the sky. The final trombone note set adrift is somewhere between sunset’s ease and the promise just before sunrise.
Is Djarimirri good? Yes, very. Possibly great. It is intellectually stimulating and often exciting, its patterns weaving a sense of time-as-immaterial that enhances rather than collides with vocals which for many reasons (cultural imposition, their sheer beauty, how we have come to talk about it now) are usually seen as timeless. It isn’t a crossover but a seamless meld of multiple cultures.
Is it for everyone, or even many? Unlikely, no. This may link ancient and modern(ish) in new ways but it does not have the spiritual awakening and soul caressing character of the Gurrumul albums which broke through and deeply connected here and abroad. This demands your contribution for full satisfaction rather than providing all the effort within.
Will it be seen as one of the most important Australian albums? I think there’s a compelling argument for that, but let’s reconvene in a decade and discuss it then. I’m pretty sure if nothing else it will still be an album rewarding attention.
SPOTIFY: LISTEN TO GURRUMUL – DJARIMIRRI HERE
APPLE MUSIC: LISTEN TO GURRUMUL – DJARIMIRRI HERE