October 20, 2008 / 9:51 AM / in 9 years

Aboriginal prodigy steals the night at Australia music awards

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, a blind Aboriginal man hailed as the greatest voice Australia has ever recorded, carried the night at the country’s top music awards, despite most awards going to a 17-year-old schoolgirl.

Blind since birth, Gurrumul, 37, speaks almost no English, but has become a sensation in his homeland, with a haunting, lilting voice and lyrics sung in three indigenous languages which few Australians understand.

“He captures a very particular feeling that is part of Yolngu culture, about pining but at the same time feeling happy, about longing for your land but not worrying about it,” spokesman Michael Hohnen told Australian media.

The acutely shy Gurrumul, a self-taught outback guitarist who plays his instrument upside down, stunned crowds at the annual Australian Record Industry Awards night on Sunday, winning best independent release.

Critics have described his voice as having “transcendental beauty.” Others compare it to “slow rain.”

Sting, Elton John, and Icelandic singer Bjork are fans, along with Australian former rock star and Arts Minister Peter Garrett, who recently said the Elcho Island-born singer had penned the greatest songs he had ever heard.

“You’re hearing 80,000 years coming out of one little throat,” said critic Hugh Benjamin.

Gurrumul has so far refused to give in to public hype and said he uses music awards to open clams at his island home in Arnhem Land, 560 kilometers (350 miles) east of Darwin.

When Gurrumul sings live, English translations of his songs are usually beamed onto a screen behind him. The singer rarely talks to media and feels journalists are “hunting him like a kangaroo, trying to spear him,” Hohnen told the Age newspaper.

Australia’s 460,000 Aborigines make up about 2 percent of the population. They suffer higher rates of unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence, and have a life expectancy 17 years shorter than other Australians.

Gurrumul’s award night performance brought silence to the crowd who waved hands overhead in appreciation, stealing the night from teenage music sensation Gabriella Cilmi, who won six categories, including best female artist.

Gurrumul released his first self-titled solo album in March this year, hitting number 1. on local album charts and Apple’s iTunes Roots chart.

Editing by Valerie Lee

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