Who was Mandawuy Yunupingu? Australian indigienous singer, Celebrated With a Google Doodle

Today’s Doodle celebrates musician, educator, and civil rights activist Mandawuy Yunupingu.

Mandawuy Djarrtjuntjun Yunupingu (formerly Tom Djambayang Bakamana Yunupingu, skin name Gudjuk), AC (17 September 1956 – 2 June 2013), was an Aboriginal Australian musician and educator.

In 1989, he became assistant principal of the Yirrkala Community School – his former school – and was principal for the following two years. He helped establish the Yolngu Action Group and introduced the Both Ways system, which recognised traditional Aboriginal teaching alongside Western methods.

From 1986, he was the front man of the Aboriginal rock group Yothu Yindi as a singer-songwriter and guitarist. Yothu Yindi released six albums, Homeland Movement (March 1989), Tribal Voice (October 1991), Freedom (November 1993), Birrkuta – Wild Honey (November 1996), One Blood (June 1999), Garma (November 2000). The group’s top 20 ARIA Singles Chart appearances were “Treaty” (1991) and “Djäpana (Sunset Dreaming)” (1992). The band was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2012.

Yunupingu was appointed Australian of the Year for 1992 by the National Australia Day Council. In April 1998 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Queensland University of Technology. He died in 2013, aged 56.

Yunupingu was born as Tom Djambayang Bakamana Yunupingu on 17 September 1956 in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, an Aboriginal reserve in the northeastern part of the Northern Territory. He was a member of the Gumatj people, one of sixteen groups of the Yolngu people. His skin name was Gudjuk, but his name was changed to Mandawuy in 1990 when a family member with the same name died, in line with Yolngu custom. He described his names as “Mandawuy” means ‘from clay’; Djarrtjuntjun means ‘roots of the paperbark tree that still burn and throw off heat after a fire has died down’; Yunupingu depicts a solid rock that, having travelled from freshwater, stands in salty waters, its base deep in the earth. I am Gudjuk the fire kite”.

His father was Munggurrawuy Yunupingu (c.1907 – 1978), a Gumatj clan leader and artist. His mother, Makurrngu – one of Munggurrawuy’s 12 wives – was a member of the Galpu clan. His oldest sister, Gulumbu Yunupingu (1945 – 9 May 2012), was also an artist and healer. His other sisters are Nyapanyapa and Barrupu, who are also artists. His older brother, Galarrwuy Yunupingu (born 30 June 1948), is a senior elder of Arnhem Land, who was Australian of the Year in 1978, and was an Indigenous land rights campaigner. Yunupingu attended Yirrkala Community School.

In 1983, Yunupingu published “Outstation Schools at Yirrkala” in Aboriginal Child at School, where he described the advantages to indigenous people by “[determining] their own way of living, provided, they manage budgeting through Isolated Children’s Allowance, staffing their schools, developing curriculum, and teacher training”. In March 1987 he contributed to the book, Educational needs of the Homelands Centres of the L̲aynhapuy Region, North East Arnhem Land : report of the Balanga ̲na Project : a Schools Commission Project of national significance.

He was the first Aboriginal person from Arnhem Land to gain a university degree, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in education from Deakin University in 1988. In 1989 he became assistant principal of the Yirrkala Community School. He helped establish the Yolngu Action Group and introduced the Both Ways system at his school, which recognised traditional Aboriginal teaching alongside Western methods. In 1990 he took over as principal of Yirrkala Community School. Also that year he authored “Language and power : the Yolngu rise to power at Yirrkala School”, detailing his work with Yolngu Action Group. He remained principal until late 1991, leaving to expand his musical career.

By 1985 with Yunupingu on vocals and guitar, he formed a Yolngu band including Witiyana Marika on manikay (traditional vocals), bilma (ironwood clapsticks) and dance, Milkayngu Mununggurr on yidaki (didgeridoo), and Gurrumul Yunupingu – his nephew – on keyboards, guitar and percussion. The following year the Yolngu group combined with a balanda (non-Indigenous) group, Swamp Jockeys, which had Andrew Belletty on drums, Stuart Kellaway on bass guitar and Cal Williams on lead guitar. The new collective, Yothu Yindi, performed Aboriginal rock which fused traditional indigenous music and dance with Western popular music. yothu yindi means “child and mother” and refers to the kinship of north-east Arnhem Land.

In the group’s early years their performing was restricted to holidays as Yunupingu completed his tertiary studies and then started work as a teacher. By 1988 Yothu Yindi had toured Australia and North America supporting Midnight Oil. Late that year they recorded their debut studio album, Homeland Movement, which appeared in March the following year. Australian musicologist, Ed Nimmervoll, described it “[o]ne side comprised Midnight Oil-like politicized rock. The other side of the album concentrated on traditionally based songs like ‘Djapana’ (Sunset Dreaming), written by former teacher Mandawuy Yunupingu”. He was credited on the album as Mandawuy Bakamana Yunupingu and provided vocals, guitar and bilma.

The band achieved national recognition for their single, “Treaty”, the remixed version was released in June 1991, which reached No. 11 on the ARIA Singles Chart and stayed in the top 50 for 20 weeks. Mandawuy and Galarrwuy had wanted a song to highlight the lack of progress on a treaty between Aboriginal peoples and the federal government. The song contains words in Gumatj, Yunupingu’s variety of Yolngu matha. It was written by Australian musician, Paul Kelly, with Yothu Yindi members Yunupingu, Kellaway, Williams, Gurrumul, Mununggurr and Marika. The associated album, Tribal Voice appeared in October 1991, which peaked at No. 4 on the ARIA Albums Chart. A re-recorded version of “Djäpana (Sunset Dreaming)” was issued as the second single from the album and reached No. 13.

Yunupingu’s work on Tribal Voice was described by Allmusic’s Jonathan Lewis, “[his] voice is suited perfectly to [traditional songs], but it is the rock tracks that are the weak links in this disc. Yunupingu is not a particularly good pop singer, and the music is sometimes insipid”. Nevertheless both “Treaty” in 1992 and “Djäpana (Sunset Dreaming)” in 1993 charted on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play singles charts, with “Treaty” peaking at No. 6, Tribal Voice peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Top World Music Albums chart in 1992. In 1991 “Treaty”, co-written by Yunupingu, won the inaugural Song of the Year Award at the APRA Music Awards presented by Australasian Performing Right Association. In May 2001 it was listed in the APRA Top 30 Australian songs of all time.

Yothu Yindi completed four more studio albums, Freedom (November 1993), Birrkuta – Wild Honey (November 1996), One Blood (June 1999) and Garma (November 2000). They toured Australia, North America, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong. Yunupingu strove to achieve a better understanding of Aboriginal culture by balanda and was a prominent advocate of reconciliation between all Australians.

Yunupingu and the band established the Yothu Yindi Foundation in 1990 and since 1999 promoted the annual Garma Festival. From May 2007 the foundation has supported the Dilthan Yolngunha (Healing Place), which uses traditional healing practices and mainstream medicine.

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