Review: Buŋgul

A genre-defying show featuring extraordinary performances sometimes undercut by its staging decisions

music review (adelaide) | Read in About 2 minutes
33313 large
Photo by Anna Reece
Published 03 Mar 2020

Despite Gurrumul Yunupiŋu's international and domestic success, his works – particularly those contained in posthumous album Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) – were not always well understood.

Buŋgul is the generous antidote to this gap in comprehension around a great Australian musician. Yolŋgu dancers, Songmen, and artists from Gurrumul's community in North East Arnhem Land offer insight into the timeless stories woven into his songs. 
Directed by Senior Yolŋgu Don Wininba Ganambarr and Nigel Jamieson, the show is structured around the tracks of Djarimirri and performed by the Yolŋgu artists with Adelaide Festival Orchestra. 

Recordings of Gurrumul's transcendent voice soar over the powerful orchestral ensemble and each song swells to fill the Thebarton Theatre, but it is the Yolŋgu performers who hold the audience's attention. This handful of men elegantly present elements of ceremony, including dancing, body painting, singing, and instrumentation. There is an intensity that is rarely seen on stage – an emotional and intellectual commitment to every movement. It is impossible to look away.

While many of these actions may be unfamiliar to audience members not from a Yolŋgu background, the men embody each moment with such clear intention that meaning ripples out into the crowd. 

The men and the orchestra perform with an enormous projection behind them, alternating between footage of North East Arnhem Land, film of the Yolŋgu artists performing on country, depictions of artworks created by community members, and live footage of what is happening on stage. 

Individual elements of this projection are beautiful – the artworks and the on-country vision are particularly compelling. Yet the mesh of different visuals is not always balanced and the projection detracts from what is happening onstage by presenting a competing version of the same ceremonial performance. 

The need for simplicity is underlined in the most powerful moments, occurring between and at the end of songs. For periods no longer than a minute or two, the orchestra ceases playing, the projection fades to black, and the Yolŋgu performers are given space to sing, dance, and make music alone. 

It is these moments that grab at something deep in the viewer and offer flashes of truth. They are extraordinary, but denied the space and time they deserve.