Former Australian of the year, Yunupingu died yesterday in his native home in Yirrkala, Eastern Arnhem Land after a long battle with kidney disease.
The singer co-found the Aboriginal rock group Youthu Yindi in the late 1980’s and helped to bring indigenous issues to the national and international stage through their music.
As Yothu Yindi’s most prominent figure he lead the band to numerous musical records. More notably their album Tribal Voice, which featured best known hit Treaty, hit number three on the Billboard top world music albums chart in 1992. The band also received eight ARIA awards, including Best Song of the Year in 1992 – for Treaty – and Best Indigenous release for Tribal Voice.
Yunupingu, which means rock, was also a great advocate for the needs of his community and local people, the Yolngu people. His long list of accomplishments meant he was also a great role model. He became the first indigenous Australian from Arnhem Land to gain a university degree and in 1990 made history when he became the first Aboriginal school principal.
“Well, I am quite content of what I got already, you know. My riches is my heart. Where I come from. ‘Cause the land, mother earth, the country, the people, the history, the religion, the song lines, everything like that, it is the riches that I’ve already inherited from my ancestors,” the musician’s says in his biography on the band’s website.
The songwriter leaves behind his wife and six daughters. His nephew Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who was born blind, also carries on the family’s music legacy, having become an award-winning musician in his own right.
“We have lost a uniquely talented musician, a passionate advocate for Aboriginal people and a truly great friend,” Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said of the singer’s passing.
“He sang about reconciliation, he always aimed to serve his people. His legacy is immeasurable, but the loss is great,” said Australia’s education minister and former Midnight Oil front man Peter Garrett.
Mr Garrett, who helped induct Yunupingu into the ARIA Hall of Fame last year, spoke fondly of the fellow musician: “He was a very dear friend. He was an outstanding leader. He was a highly successful musician, if you consider what Yothu Yindi achieved, and he’s gone too young.”
Even his death, at such a young age, Yunupingu highlighted the disparities that still exist between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Aborigines have a much shorter life expectancy, 17 years less than white Australians. Most die in their late 50’s largely due to heart, kidney, diabetes and respiratory illnesses.
The name Yothu Yindi, means “child and mother” in the Yolngu dialect and refers to the kinship of their homelands on the northeast coast of Australia’s Northern Territory.
Yothu Yindi released six albums from 1988-2000. While Yunupingu’s health kept him from the performing in 2007 his health improved enough that he was able to be on stage one last time in 2009 at the Garma Festival.
The rock band also toured internationally with acts such as Midnight Oil, Neil Young, Carlos Santana and was invited to play at the closing ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
* We have removed an old photo of the deceased that was originally published with this article in accordance with cultural practice and out of respect for the wishes of the deceased’s family and community. The deceased first name has also been removed for culturally sensitive reasons. We apologise for any unintended offence we may have caused.