Mandawuy Yunupingu, an artist, mentor and ambassador who galvanized Australia’s indigenous and non-indigenous people and brought contemporary Aboriginal music to the world through his group Yothu Yindi, has died at the age of 56.
The former Australian of the Year and ARIA Hall of Famer died overnight at his home in Yirrkala in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Yunupingu was a trailblazer who became the first indigenous Australian to be appointed a school principal and the musical group he founded went on to become Australia’s most successful and highest-profile indigenous act.
Yothu Yindi had a global hit with their 1991 song “Treaty,” written to highlight the then-Hawke Government’s broken promise of a treaty with Aboriginal people. Yothu Yindi played it the following year in New York to help launch the United Nations’ “International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.” The track, which blends rock and traditional Aboriginal music, went on to win song of the year at the ARIA Awards.
Also in 1992, Yunupingu was bestowed his country’s highest honor, “Australian of the Year,” for his role in “building bridges of understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.”
In an interview with this reporter in 1994, Yunupingu said the market for Aboriginal bands was opening up, and he urged musicians to not give up, despite the changes they often faced. “It’s hard when you start, to try and get accepted into the system,” he said. “We’ve been able to get through and get accepted and I think it’s easier for up-and-coming bands to get a deal.”
Yunupingu had been battling with kidney disease, and was visibly frail when he spoke last November at the ARIA Awards in Sydney. The 2012 ARIAs truly belonged to Yunupingu and Yothu Yindi, who were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame on the night.
During the celebration, Yunupingu called on the nation to “come together for a better tomorrow” by recognizing Aboriginal people in the Constitution.
Yunupingu had co-founded Youth Yindi in 1986. From the start, the group “was about indigenous culture, about indigenous rights, about our rights and place in Australia,” he told onlookers at the ARIAs, adding that his group “has been about messages and bringing people together and asking them and the people to respect and understand one another.”
“Treaty” was performed on the night by an all-star ensemble which included ARIA Award-winning indigenous artists Gurrumul, Jess Mauboy, Dan Sultan and the legendary Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett, who’s now a frontline politician for the Labor government.
Garrett today tweeted: “Can’t believe he’s gone, my dear friend. A path breaker and leader. A shining light for his people. Rest in peace Mr Yunupingu.”
Federal arts minister Tony Burke added, “Mandawuy Yunupingu didn’t only create a fusion of musical styles and a celebration of Australian culture, he reached people in a way that only music can.”
Through their career, Yothu Yindi released six albums and won eight ARIA music awards.