Words by Seth Jordan
As is the Yolngu custom, M Yunupingu’s family has asked that out of respect for the deceased, his image and full name not be used during the mourning period.
Yothu Yindi band frontman M Yunupingu passes away
A seminal figure in indigenous Australian music, M Yunupingu passed away on June 2, aged 56. Born in the Aboriginal homeland community of Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, Yunupingu was best known as the frontman and lead singer for the influential band Yothu Yindi.
An influential member of the Yolngu people, he was the first Arnhem Land man to gain a university degree, graduating with a BA in education, and he became the principal of the local community school. He co-founded Yothu Yindi (‘child and mother’) in 1986, which featured both indigenous and non-indigenous members, and their live show showcased vibrant traditional Yolngu dancing, pulsing yidaki (didjeridoo) and upbeat rock/reggae songs, with a mix of both English and Gujamati lyrics.
The band’s 1988 debut album Homeland Movement was followed by 1991’s Tribal Voice, which included their huge hit ‘Treaty’. Addressing the need for indigenous land rights, the anthemic song and album topped the Aussie pop charts for months, won multiple ARIA Awards (Australia’s version of the Grammys), and received considerable international airplay. Subsequent albums included Freedom (1993), Birrkuta–Wild Honey (1996), One Blood (1998) and Garma (2000).
As the band’s leader and spokesman, Yunupingu became a national personality, and an outspoken advocate for reconciliation between Aboriginal and white Australians. Prestigiously named ‘Australian of the Year’ in 1993, Yunupingu, together with his older brother Galarrwuy (chairman of the politically important Northern Land Council), established the Yothu Yindi Foundation to promote Yolngu culture and development. Since 1999, their annual Garma Festival of Traditional Culture held at Gulkula – a traditional Aboriginal meeting place in Arnhem Land – has become a significant national event that highlights educational, economic and social issues, alongside the preservation of indigenous culture.
Yunupingu was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure in 2007, and fought kidney disease ever since. In 2009 he revealed on national television that he had also battled with alcoholism for many years. He is survived by his wife, six daughters, five grandsons, and his nephew Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the blind Elcho Island singer who was also a member of Yothu Yindi before embarking on a meteoric solo career.