From out of nowhere
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupinga with Michael Hohnen.

Gurrumul wasn't supposed to happen to Skinnyfish Music. Not on the level that crashed the pop charts, toured the world and pressed flesh with gobsmacked heads of state, anyway.

"He sort of stuffed us up a little bit," says Michael Hohnen, to the quiet amusement of his business partner, Mark Grose.

For 10 years, their intentions with the tiny Top End record label have been passionately local. This week, having followed their Elcho Island prodigy from Carnegie Hall to Buckingham Palace to Stevie Wonder's dressing room, they're expected on the Australians of the Year podium in Canberra.

Stuff-up or what?

"I don't think we'll win," says Hohnen, counting off some of the other 2013 finalists on his fingers: Ita Buttrose, Kerry Stokes, ACT social justice campaigner Dr Tom Calma, Melbourne businessman/ philanthropist Harold Mitchell . . .

A former bassist with Melbourne's Killjoys, Hohnen's pop career has taught him to temper high expectations. Grose has travelled a different road from teenaged idealist to "optimistic pragmatist" since moving from Geelong to indigenous community administration in the 1990s. "You never know," he says quietly.

The pair's official shortlist citation mentions Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu only in passing, more saliently noting that "for Mark and Michael, music is the key to unlocking potential".

On that score, Grose was as surprised as any jaded veteran of "community development" when Hohnen came knocking on his door in Galiwinku, the largest settlement on Elcho Island, with sound recording equipment from Darwin University in 1996.

The bass player had endured a slow epiphany over a cold, lean residency in London a few years earlier. The Killjoys met Yothu Yindi there, riding high on their Treaty rush, and also Archie Roach, their star Mushroom Records label mate, who they supported on several dates.

"The way Archie just sat there and didn't say much, that really fascinated me," says Hohnen, who was rapidly tiring of rock biz bluster.

"After a couple of meetings with those people I realised there was something going on. And I knew there were songs there: songs from Australia.

"I know we have our Paul Kelly songs; our bush-folk tradition, but . . . I got to this point back in Melbourne, I'd hit my mid-30s and I thought 'There's got to be more'. I put my bass in the car and drove to the Territory."

At Darwin University, Hohnen soon found his practical industry skills in demand. A chance to work on Elcho soon arose.

At the time, Grose was the council clerk of Galiwinku and admits to some initial scepticism. "The one thing everyone looks for in those remote communities is what avenue you can use to communicate," he says, "but generally they never come to fruition." What he saw on this occasion was a level of engagement he could only compare to the magic of football.

"These young guys were just busting down the doors to be involved in Michael's music course," he says. Hohnen floated the idea of starting a local record label on that first visit.

If this were a conventional rock'n'roll success story, this would be the bit where the barefoot kid with the guitar walks in, jaws drop and a montage of magazine covers shifts the location to some teeming neon metropolis for the rest of the picture. But in spite of half-a- million worldwide sales of the Gurrumul album, Skinnyfish's focus never wavered.

"The Gurrumul thing has been fantastic, but it hasn't been the main game," Grose says. "The main game has been to nurture and foster musical talent, to present it to the world, sure, but the world as we see it is local, regional and if you're lucky, every now and again, national."

From a national perspective, the so-called "Gurrumul effect" has been undeniable. Galvanised by the extraordinary arrival of Yolngu language and stories on the global stage, artists as diverse and far-flung as Iwantja, Frank Yamma, East Journey, Warren H. Williams, Shelley Morris and the Yabu Band have since released albums in traditional languages.

The fact that none of them are household names is practically irrelevant. For Skinnyfish at least, the Gurrumul effect is not so much in the pop charts as in the hearts of their local communities.

"To have someone come along who presents their music, their language, their view of the world, taken up and appreciated by a broader audience, that says to them 'We are worth something'," Grose says. "That, for me, has been the biggest outcome of his success."

Nonetheless, it comes with a duty of care in the expectation management department.

"We're very careful not to sell bands the idea that they're going to be the next Gurrumul," Grose says.

In any event, the Skinnyfish strategy is unlikely to cross the mainstream pop radar again for some time.

A world away from the ARIA charts, many of their acts are engaged in outback and Top End projects including the Strong Choices cyber-awareness campaign and a series of videos to promote disease prevention in regional communities.

In November, Grose and Hohnen were invited to take up management of the Barunga Festival for the next five years. The iconic cultural event near Katherine has been running for 27 years, and famously hosted Bob Hawke's unfulfilled promise of a treaty in 2008.

"Apart from music, what we are committed to is involvement," Hohnen says.

"Mark's driving theory is that when a community feels good about itself, a lot of other positive things happen. With Barunga we hope to set up a model of how an Aboriginal festival can run. We have five years to do that, which should be plenty of time."

Even if they become Australians of the Year this week?

"I don't think we will," he repeats with a smile. "But I think we have got a model of working with Aboriginal Australia that is reasonably effective. It's not based on waiting for the Government to do something, and it's not based on handing all the control to an Aboriginal organisation or individuals. It's about setting up a business and saying 'Do you want to get involved?' It's about the long-term."

'I think we have got a model of working with Aboriginal Australia that is reasonably effective.'


The West Australian

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