Obituary: Yothu Yindi frontman true battler

By Ross Purdie

Artist's fusion of Aboriginal music with rock and pop took message to global audience.

Mandawuy Yunupingu pushed Aboriginal music. Photo / Getty Images
Mandawuy Yunupingu pushed Aboriginal music. Photo / Getty Images

Mandawuy Yunupingu was an Aboriginal musician, songwriter and campaigner who fought many battles - most of which he won.

As the frontman of Yothu Yindi, he pushed indigenous music beyond Australian borders and gained a global audience with his 1992 hit Treaty.

Yunupingu, who died yesterday aged 56, was born in an Aboriginal reserve in Yirrkala, Arnhem Land, on September 17, 1956.

A member of the Gumatj clan of the Yirritja moiety, his ancestral totem was the "baru", or saltwater crocodile. His surname, Yunupingu, translates as "rock that will stand against anything".

Yunupingu began teaching at the Yirrkala School in his early 20s, becoming the first indigenous Australian appointed as a school principal after receiving a Bachelor of Education in 1987. He developed a progressive curriculum that straddled Western and Aboriginal traditions. The same could be said for his songwriting style, which fused rock and pop with Aboriginal music.

Yunupingu formed Yothu Yindi in 1986 with Stuart Kellaway, Cal Williams, Witiyana Marika, Milkayngu Mununggurr and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, under a banner of uniting cultures.

Aided by Paul Kelly, the band wrote their signature song Treaty to highlight the Hawke government's promise of a treaty for Aboriginal people, something they apparently heard about "on the radio". Released in 1991, it peaked at No11 on the Australian singles chart and went on to become a timeless protest song in the campaign for indigenous rights reform.

Yothu Yindi toured the US with Midnight Oil and famously performed Treaty at the launch of the UN International Year of the World's Indigenous People in 1992.

Back home, they had the rare honour of performing above Nirvana at the first Big Day Out.

Yunupingu was named the 1992 Australian of the Year for his role in "building bridges of understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people".

The award was previously won by his brother Galarrwuy in 1978 and followed a rich tradition of political activism throughout the family.

Yunupingu was a committed philanthropist and established the Yothu Yindi Foundation as a vehicle for developing Yolngu cultural life.

As well as building the Yirrnga Music Development Centre, a state of the art recording studio, he established an indigenous recording programme where members of Yothu Yindi toured schools.

Recognition was a cause Yunupingu fought to the end, through his publicised battles with alcoholism and subsequent diagnosis with advanced renal failure in 2008. Some wrote him off then, but receiving haemodialysis three times a week, Yunupingu soldiered on - perhaps hanging on for the political recognition he had demanded for decades.

"I'm still waiting for that treaty to come along, for my grandsons," Yunupingu said in 2008.

As well as a rich legacy, Yunupingu leaves behind his widow Yalmay and their six daughters.


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