Agent of bicultural balance

Friday 7 June 2013

Mr Yunupingu
Musician and educator
Born Yirrkala, September 17, 1956.
Died Yirrkala, June 2, aged 56.

It is with great sadness that Australia mourns the passing of Mr Yunupingu - educator, musician and cultural ambassador.

Mr Yunupingu was born in 1956 in Yirrkala - a small town on the Gove Peninsula, Northern Territory, that had been founded as a Methodist mission for local Yolngu people in 1934. He spent his childhood hunting through the bush and beaches of the Gove Peninsula with his parents, who taught him how to follow the seasons.

Missionaries were few at Yirrkala during his childhood, and so Mr Yunupingu participated fully in the rich ceremonial life of the Yolngu with all its sacred song and dance traditions.

His parents, however, also encouraged him to succeed at school and know how to navigate the Western world, instilling in him a lifelong love of knowledge and learning.

While his childhood might have seemed idyllic, in 1962, Mr Yunupingu's father, Munggurrawuy, became a leader in the Yolngu struggle against bauxite mining in their homelands on the Gove Peninsula. This struggle consumed a decade of his life as he and his contemporaries continued to petition the Australian government and, in an unprecedented move, eventually went to court to have the mining of their lands stopped. The bid for government recognition for Yolngu sovereignty, which lay at the heart of the claim, was unsuccessful, yet it sparked a chain of events that would lead to the creation of Australia's first land-rights bill, the Northern and Central land councils and Mr Yunupingu's band, Yothu Yindi.

As a child of those times, Mr Yunupingu could well have turned his back on the world as he reached maturity. Instead, he chose to dedicate his life to reaching out to others - first through his work as teacher and later through his music.

Mr Yunupingu experienced his first rock concert as a teenager when visiting the Sydney Opera House in 1974. He taught himself guitar and later played in a local covers band at Yirrkala called the Diamond Dogs.

His career as a composer began at Galiwin'ku on Elcho Island in 1983 during his tenure as assistant principal at Shepherdson College, and it was there he composed his first original song, Djapana: Sunset Dreaming. In it, he took the revolutionary step of quoting lyrics from the sacred Yolngu song tradition, Manikay, to express his homesickness for the wife and young daughters he had left behind at Yirrkala, and comments on the unfairness of the Australian government in not recognising the hereditary rights of Yolngu over their sacred homelands.

Mr Yunupingu's originality as a songwriter fuelled his revolutionary thoughts on schooling. Songs such as Mainstream reflected his commitment to providing Yolngu children with a balanced bicultural, or two-way, education. Mainstream was composed in 1986 as he was completing his bachelor of arts in education through Deakin University. In his studies, he had been challenged by the notion that a "mainstream" education in English alone could fully serve the needs of Aboriginal students.

Reflecting on his own schooling under the Yirrkala Mission in his Boyer lecture of 1993, Mr Yunupingu recalled that "a lot of what motivated those white teachers was the view that it was only when Yolngu stopped being Yolngu, that we could be Australians".

So in 1986, when confronted with the task of writing a university assignment on the educational needs of indigenous students, Mr Yunupingu responded in a classically Yolngu way. He composed Mainstream as a treatise on bicultural learning and submitted it for assessment. It was awarded a high distinction, and the song's inner logic became central to Yolngu thinking about bicultural education. To make its point, Mainstream drew on two traditional models from within Yolngu society: the meeting of salt and fresh water currents, or ganma, and the relationship between mother and child, or yothu-yindi, from which his band took it name.

Mr Yunupingu graduated with a bachelor of arts in education from Deakin in 1987 and was among the first Yolngu to earn a full academic degree. In another first, he was promoted to principal at the Yirrkala School in 1990, but he resigned soon after to pursue his career with Yothu Yindi, which had formed in 1986. Following the success of Yothu Yindi's second album, Tribal Voice, of 1991, he was named Australian of the Year for 1992 and spent the next few years touring the world.

Mr Yunupingu's innovations in bicultural education remain influential. In 1998, he received an honorary doctorate from the Queensland University of Technology to mark this important contribution. This bicultural balance was also central to his greater social project through Yothu Yindi. As a constructive balance, it encouraged the exchange of differing views, laid foundations for mutual respect between different peoples and created new possibilities for the coexistence of different ways of life - all of which had been absent when mining continued on the Gove Peninsula.

Yothu Yindi's most enduring song, Treaty, from Tribal Voice, beautifully exemplifies these ideals in its evocation of ganma - two waters becoming one - and its call for Australia to right past wrongs by recognising Australia's indigenous peoples in the form of a treaty with the commonwealth. Treaty became the first song with lyrics in an original Australian language to top the Australian charts and, quite unexpectedly, it also charted overseas.

It won a string of prominent awards, including the Deadlys' Jimmy Little Award for Lifetime Achievement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Music.

With its mixed repertoire of originals and traditional Yolngu songs, Yothu Yindi became a microcosm of the kind of world in which Mr Yunupingu wanted to live - a world where people of different cultures, languages and colours could exchange ideas and ways of being to create something new within a framework of equality, understanding and mutual respect.

Along the way, Yothu Yindi's music introduced audiences all over the world to the unique beauty of Yolngu culture, and challenged us to rethink relationships with Australia's indigenous peoples.

Though suffering from renal failure towards the end of his life, Mr Yunupingu had a spirit, intellect, and generosity that remained indomitable.

He remained adamant about the importance of two-way education not just for indigenous Australians but for all, as evidenced in his founding of the Garma Festival of Traditional Culture at Gulkula near Yirrkala. Similarly, his belief in the need for indigenous Australians to be recognised in the form of a treaty remained stronger then ever.

Child and mother, the meeting of different cultures, the living wisdom of those gone before, and the future of another day - these were the values of equality and hope by which Mr Yunupingu lived and brought to his life's work for the benefit of all.

He captured our nation's heart, and introduced treaty to our political vocabulary as we shed the hurtful conceit of terra nullius in the early 1990s.

He did nothing less than challenge us to perceive Australia's past, present and future in a boldly different way, while building our capacity to live harmoniously in mutual respect and understanding. We can honour his memory by continuing his work in the way we treat each other with respect and understanding.

Mr Yunupingu - the crocodile man eternal. Follow the waters home, and rest with the old people.

Aaron Corn is the author of Reflections and Voices, a book exploring the music of Yothu Yindi, published by Sydney University Press.

Mr Yunupingu
Musician and educator
Born Yirrkala, September 17, 1956.
Died Yirrkala, June 2, aged 56.

As published in The Australian on 2 June 2013

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