It is with great sadness that I report that Mr. Yunupingu* passed away surrounded by his family at his north-east Arnhemland home last evening.
Many of you will have your own stories about this wonderful man taken too soon and I hope you’ll post them here. You can read more at the ABC News piece here.
As I noted four years ago in this piece following news reports about his battle with end-stage renal failure in The Australian and on Australian Story at the ABC:
Mr. Yunupingu has fought more than a few battles in his time – most of which he has won hands down.
But, if you believed the title and tone of an article written by Natasha Robinson in The Australian in December last year – Songline fades for Treaty man …….. Yunupingu – you could be forgiven for thinking that Mandawuy had given up hope and that he was soon to “finish up”, as we say up here.
Nothing could be further from the truth – anyone who knows him is aware that the last thing he could ever be would be a quitter. I’ve known him since the mid nineteen-eighties when I was working as a sound engineer and general factotum for a rowdy bunch of Darwin-based ratbags known as the Swamp Jockeys.
From the dim recesses of memory I recall that he turned up one night while we were on tour in Sydney with an old battered guitar, a swag of great songs and a keen desire to get them heard by as many people as possible.
He did a few gigs as a guest with the Jockeys and it was soon pretty clear to us all that he was bound for great things – which he went on to achieve for many years as the frontman of that groundbreaking band called Yothu Yindi.
A testament to his determination is that he already had a distinguished career as an educator – maybe enough for most of us.
But he knew that he could do more to spread his people’s message through his words, music, songs and performances fronting one of the most musically dynamic and politically forceful acts we’ve seen in this country.
Through the work of Yothu Yindi and beyond he has raised awareness of any number of important issues that affect the daily lives of the Yolngu peoples of north-east Arnhem Land and of Aboriginal countrymen and women across Australia.
And these messages weren’t just for blackfellas – they reached out to mainstream Australia as well.
Yothu Yindi was always about more than music.
As their ground-breaking – and chart-topping – Treaty indicates, Yothu Yindi was all about building bridges between cultures and peoples:
Nhima Djatpangarri nhima walangwalang –
Nhe Djatpayatpa nhima gaya nhe-
Matjini…. Yakarray – nhe Djat’pa nhe walang – Gumurrtijararrk Gutjuk –
This land was never given up
This land was never bought and sold
The planting of the Union Jack
Never changed our law at all
Now two rivers run their course
Separated for so long
I’m dreaming of a brighter day
When the waters will be one
Treaty Yeh Treaty Now Treaty Yeh Treaty Now
Treaty Yeh Treaty Now Treaty Yeh Treaty Now
Nhima djatpa nhe walang
Gumurrtjararrk yawirriny Nhe gaya nhe matjini
Gaya nhe matjini Gaya gaya nhe gaya nhe
Matjini walangwalang Nhema djatpa nhe walang – Nhe gumurrtjarrk nhe ya-
Promises – Disappear – Priceless land – Destiny –
Lyrics by Yothu Yindi & Paul Kelly
The Yothu Yindi website explains that the band has deep roots into the land, traditional law and decision-making based on consensus and culture:
The Yolngu members of Yothu Yindi live in the tribal homelands of north-east Arnhem Land 600 kilometres east of the Northern Territory capital of Darwin. Some live in Yirrkala, a coastal community on the Gove Peninsula that was originally established by the Methodist Missionary Society in 1935. Others live in Galiwinku, a former mission on Elcho Island originally established in 1942.
A move pioneered in north-east Arnhem Land, the homeland movement has seen Aboriginal people returning to their traditional lands and lifestyles-relying less on the trappings of Western society and more on traditional activities such as hunting, fishing and cultural and ceremonial education.
Yolngu band members are drawn from two of the sixteen clan groups in the region, the Gumatj and Rirratjingu. The people of the region have had contact with Balanda (Europeans) only over the past sixty years or so. Consequently, their traditional cultural, religious, artistic and ceremonial activities are still among the strongest in the country.
The band’s approach to its career is deeply rooted in traditional decision making processes, so all traditional songs that have been performed or released have been done so as a result of substantial consultation with clan leaders and traditional lawmakers.
Yothu Yindi – the band – has cut back its activities over the past several years.
But Yothu Yindi – the concept and the philosophy – has gone from strength to strength through the work of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, which, among many other things, runs the annual Garma Festival at Gulkula, outside Yirrkala.
You can learn more about the musical work of Mr. Yunupingu and Yothu Yindi at the band’s website, and see what the Yothu Yindi Foundation is up to.
* In accordance with the family’s wishes I have deleted the photograph used earlier and also removed the reference to Mr. Yunupingu’s full name in this piece.