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Black Down Under 


By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


Tuesday, November 25, 2008.


Down under. One Australia, two Australia. Please meet Ash Grunwald and Gurrumul Yunupingu.


First, we have Ash (main picture), his mother is Australian, his father an African. He’s a surfer boy, a nomad by choice, drives a van all around Oz. Ash decided to sing blues. Yeah, that’s what I said: blues.


I got hold of his first album, Introducing Ash Grunwald, and didn’t know a thing about him. But two things struck me:  I liked what he was doing with the traditional blues songs even though he was no match for the originals, but then again he was doing them acoustic while most of the ones he had chosen to cover were from recorded with electric guitars.


Secondly, he had this marvelous song about dolphins saving his ass during a surfing episode when he was beset by a shark. I could go on a wild writing spree and make up some association of dolphins, sharks, Mississippi terror and country blues, but it’s not necessary to wild out in order to appreciate either “The Sky Is Crying” or “Dolphin Song.”


Ash started off strictly acoustic then began incorporating modern technology. Many guitar tutorials follow the same process of progression. He explains: 


“The technology is not that subtle. I use the stomp box on my left foot and a tambourine on my right. I also use a foot controlled sampler. I layer in percussion by recording myself hitting my guitars (the sound goes to the sampler via my acoustic pickups) and creating loops on the spot. I use a Boss phrase looper. It looks pretty much like a normal guitar pedal except it has two pedals, one for record and one to stop. I can layer as many overdubs as I want down. The only tricky bit is that if you stuff up you have to start again because you can’t take a layer away!”

—Ash Grunwald


You can hear it on “Give Signs,” the title of the 2006 album Give Signs released on his own label, Delta Grooves. The new 2008 album, Fish Out Of Water, is the result of a collaboration. Again Ash describes:


“I had a producer for the first time. His name is Pip Norman, aka Count Bounce, from TZU. I met Pip at a songwriting day that our publishers put on called Writers Block. I had never really done that kind of thing before and I was pretty apprehensive about it. I wanted to do a beats thing myself for the next album, because I have been doing it already and when I met Pip I didn’t realise he was a producer, he got his laptop out and laid down a beat, and we wrote Fish out of Water, and bang after that I hit him up and asked him to do an album with me."


" It was cool, we recorded a lot of stuff in his studio inside this shipping container – and then we went to my house and after that we did ten days in Sing Sing studios and hired Tony Espy who did TZU’s last album. These are processes I had never gone through before. I had never gone that extra mile. In the past I had always used analogue gear. I had never spent a month before getting an album right. It was all about the reworking. We had done all the songs in the container, that ten days in Sing Sing was about getting different amps with different mics and seeing how we could tweak the sound.”

—Ash Grunwald


While I like the early music better than a lot of the songs on Fish Out Of Water, I do like “Get What You Want,” “The Devil Called Me A Liar” and the title song, like them a lot. I think it’s important for Ash to keep stretching, keep experimenting keep searching to find his own sound, which, if he is true to who he is, has to be more than an echo of traditional blues.


There is a raw urgency in Ash’s best music. He sounds like he sounds, not like someone trying to please other people. It will be interesting to hear where he goes as he digests the influence of traditional blues and at the same time experiments with technology.


Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is an Australian aborigine who sings mostly in his mother tongue of Yolngu Matha. A autodidact who began playing on a toy keyboard his mother gave to him, he is left-handed and plays a regularly tuned guitar upsidedown. Gurrumul has a dual focus: he offers traditional themes on the dream state side and reflections on contemporary issues on the contemporary reality side.

My Yolngu is pretty rusty, so I can’t do much translating. I encourage you to do like me — just kick back, close your eyes and let the sounds free you to drift into what Stevie Wonder calls innervisions.


Gurrumul 01.jpg 

Oh, did I tell you that Gurrumul is blind?


Gurrumul’s music is soothing, encourages contemplation, blissing out and dreaming of beauty, whatsoever one might consider beatific.  


“I don’t have much to say to people when I talk. That is for other Yolngu. But I can play and sing and tell people things through my songs. We (Yolngu) have like an encyclopaedia of stories ready to tell people, if they want to listen. These are songs that I sing for all my families, and Yolngu. When I sing it is like I am singing for my fathers and mothers and aunties and my clan. It makes me feel strong and happy, like I am giving people a message and a good feeling. “



I know that Gurrumul’s melodies are jewels, quietly beautiful, like sincere prayers. The simple but ultra effective parallel harmonizing is totally relaxing. The music on Gurrumul is a balm during troubling times.


If you spend an hour alone with Gurrumul’s music you will definitely end up with a better idea of who you are.

Ash is the exterior of
Australia, Gurrumul the interior. Both are authentic, even as they are very different from each other, yet I think they are connected by more than mere geography. They both are serious about living through music, offering us songs that are keys to understanding—and if not understanding at least resonating with—the other.


Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.


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