Pronounced as "yo-thoo yin-dee", the band's name translates from Yolngu
matha to English as "child and mother" and is essentially a kinship term
referring to the connection that the Yolngu (Australian Aboriginal) clans
of north-east Arnhem Land have between themselves.
Even in their earliest stages, Yothu Yindi were recognised as a unique act.
They combined the sounds and instrumentation of western rock 'n' roll with
songs and performances that date back tens of thousands of years. They
took the ancient song cycles of north-east Arnhem Land - featuring such
traditional instruments as the bilma (ironwood clapsticks) and yidaki
(didgeridoo or hollow log) - and juxtaposed them with western pop sounds to
present a true musical meeting of two diverse cultures. They took
traditional Yolngu dance performances - describing the behavior of
crocodiles, wallabies, brolga and other fauna of their homelands - and
worked them into the context of contemporary performance. The result is a
band that's been hailed as "the most powerful blend of indigenous and
modern music to emerge from the world music scene".
Coming together in 1986, Yothu Yindi consists of both Yolngu (Aboriginal)
and Balanda (non-Aboriginal) musicians and embodies a sharing of cultures.
The band promotes the strength of Yolngu culture, presenting non-Aboriginal
people throughout the world with an opportunity to appreciate and enjoy
aspects of that ancient culture.
The band recorded their first album Homeland Movement in Australia's
bicentennial year, 1988. Combining contemporary western rock with the
traditional song cycles of the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans of north-east
Arnhem Land, Homeland Movement was recorded in one day and mixed in
another and won the band a contract with Australia's leading independent
record company, Mushroom.
In 1988 Yothu Yindi performed at bicentennial protest concerts in Sydney,
recorded Homeland Movement, performed at the Seoul Cultural Olympics in
Korea, headlined the first Festival of Aboriginal Rock Music in Darwin
(later appearing in the television documentary Sing Loud Play Strong) and
embarked on a 32-date tour of the United States and Canada with Australia's
most politicised rockers Midnight Oil. Also that year, the band's founding
member and lead singer, Mandawuy Yunupingu became the first Aboriginal
person from Arnhem Land to gain a tertiary degree when he graduated with a
Bachelor of Arts (Education) from Deakin University.
Early in 1989, Homeland Movement was released to critical acclaim. An
innovative recording, it has now clocked up sales in excess of 50,000
copies. The band's touring opportunities that year were limited when
Mandawuy Yunupingu was appointed principal of the Yirrkala Community
School (where he grew up) and set about implementing a radical both-ways
curriculum, combining Balanda (European) and Yolngu (Aboriginal)
educational processes designed to present students with the best aspects of
both cultures. During school holidays, Yothu Yindi performed in Hong Kong
and Papua New Guinea and toured Australia's capital cities with Neil Young.
In 1990, with Mandawuy committed to his ground-breaking work at the school,
the band used the school holidays to tour New Zealand with Tracy Chapman
and to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the European Folk Festival
With the 1991 release of their second album, Tribal Voice, Yothu Yindi
secured their place in the annals of Australian rock history.
Tribal Voice, which dominated the national charts for much of 1991-92,
yielded the hit singles Treaty and Djapana, won the band recognition as
the first predominately-Aboriginal act to gain widespread media attention,
and generated international recording and touring commitments.
The album featured the band's first hit single, Treaty, which crashed into
the Australian Top Twenty and spent 22 weeks in the national charts. The
first song by a predominately-Aboriginal band to chart in Australia, it was
also the first song in an Aboriginal language (Gumatj) to gain extensive
airplay and international recognition.
Treaty was a plea for reconciliation sparked by former Australian prime
minister Bob Hawke's commitment to negotiate a treaty between the
descendants of the Aboriginal people who'd lived in Australia for 40,000
years or more and the non-Aboriginal people who've lived here since 1788.
That a song with such a potent political message should dominate the charts
for almost six months was in itself extraordinary.
As Treaty soared up the Australian charts, the band used the mid-year
school break to take up an invitation to perform at the New Music Seminar
in New York. Their performance in New York soon led to their securing an
international recording contract with US-based Hollywood Records.
Treaty was voted Song of the Year at the APRA (Australian Performing
Rights Association) awards for 1991. It picked up the Human Rights
Commission's award for songwriting. At the ARIA (Australian Record
Industry Association) Awards, Treaty was voted Australian Record of the
Year and Best Australian Single. The film clip directed and shot by Stephen
Michael Johnson of Burrundi Pictures was named Best Australian Video at the
Australian Music Awards and took out the same title at the MTV
International Awards in Los Angeles.
The Tribal Voice album, voted Best Indigenous Record at the 1992 ARIA
awards, has now clocked up multi-platinum Australian sales and has been
instrumental in breaking the band throughout the world.
In 1992, with Yothu Yindi fast emerging as one of the hottest acts in
Australia, Mandawuy took leave from the Yirrkala School to concentrate on
the band. Yothu Yindi spent much of 1992 touring Australia, north America
and eastern and western Europe, winning rave reviews wherever they played.
In December 1992, Yothu Yindi represented Australia at the launch of the
United Nations International Year of Indigenous Peoples in New York. Upon
their return, they released Ditimurru, a compilation of their videos.
(Ditimurru is a Gumatj clan term meaning "pieces coming together to build
On January 26 1993, Mandawuy Yunupingu was named 1992 Australian of the
Year in recognition of his commitment to forge greater understanding
between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, and because of his
burgeoning role as an ambassador for all Australians.
At the 1993 ARIA awards, Yothu Yindi continued to pick up the accolades
when their second hit single, Djapana, was named Best Indigenous Record,
Best Video, and also took out the gong for Best Engineer.
During 1993, Yothu Yindi joined with the National Drug Offensive to launch
a campaign aimed at encouraging the sensible use (rather than abuse) of
alcohol in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies.
In between touring commitments - which saw the band playing in Australia,
Japan and Europe - Yothu Yindi recorded their third album Freedom.
Released to critical acclaim in November 1993, Freedom featured the
singles World Turning, Timeless Land and Dots On The Shells and paved the
way for 1994 tours of Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Germany,
France, Belgium, Holland, the UK, the USA, Canada and Japan.
1995 saw the band in studios in Australia and the UK recording their fourth
album, Wild Honey (Birrkuta).
Amid tours of Germany, Australia and north America Wild Honey (Birrkuta)
was released in 1996, garnering airplay with Superhighway, a single
co-written with Andrew Farriss from INXS.
In 1997 Yothu Yindi performed in South Africa under the auspices of the
Fred Hollows Foundation and embarked on two tours of Europe and Brazil.
1998 saw Yothu Yindi recording their fifth album One Blood in Dublin and
Bavaria. The band then toured Germany with Peter Maffay on the German rock
star's ambitious Encounters tour. With special guests Liam O'Maonlai from
Hothouse Flowers and Simple Minds' Jim Kerr, One Blood was a polished
selection of songs old and new. The album featured dramatic new recordings of
the band's earlier Australian hits plus new songs like One Blood (co-written with
Paul Kelly) and traditional Yolngu songs of the Gumatj clan performed by tribal
elder and ceremonial leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu.
In 1999 Yothu Yindi toured Vietnam, New Zealand and Australia (including a
show with Darwin Symphony Orchestra) and then embarked on a four week
headlining tour of Europe taking in Germany, Austria, Holland and the UK's
With the dawning of 2000 Yothu Yindi toured Australia and New Zealand with
the Big Day Out and completed recording their sixth album Garma with
producer Andrew Farriss of INXS, a musician with whom the band has been
collaborating since 1993. The album was recorded in Sydney and at the Yothu
Yindi Foundation's new Yirrnga Music Development Studio in the band's
homelands at Gunyangara on the shores of Melville Bay in north-east Arnhem
Yothu Yindi capped off a busy year in 2000 with performances at the closing
ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and the opening ceremony for
the Paralympic Games. In the weeks prior to those appearances Yothu Yindi
celebrated East Timor's freedom with a concert in Dili on the first
anniversary of that emerging nation's vote for independence and launched
their 6th album Garma with an open air concert at Gulkula in their
homelands of north-east Arnhem Land, an event that rounded off the Yothu
Yindi Foundation's 2nd annual week-long Garma Festival of Traditional
In September 2001, after workshops and a showcase performance at the 3rd
Garma Festival, the band played at the Yeperenye Festival in Alice Springs.
The band kicked off 2002 with shows around Perth and then embarked on a
jaunt up the east coast that included the Shoalhaven Thank You Concert at
Nowra. With a bill that included Jimmy Barnes, Mental As Anything and Wendy
Matthews, the event was organised to show community appreciation to all the
volunteer rural fire fighters and State Emergency Services personnel who gave
up their holidays during that summer’s fire crisis.
In March 2003, Yothu Yindi shared the stage with INXS, Jimmy Barnes and
Killing Heidi at the Sydney stop on the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary Open
Road Tour. Following that fuelled-up show, Yothu Yindi headed off on a nine-
date tour of New Zealand and Australia supporting 2003 Grammy award winner
Carlos Santana. Also in early 2003 Yothu Yindi spread a message of respecting
culture through Northern Territory schools. Singer-guitarist Mandawuy
Yunupingu, traditionally trained Yidaki (didjeridoo) players Gapanbulu
Yunupingu, Nicky Yunupingu and bass guitarist Stuart Kellaway travelled
across the Territory using songs, storytelling and open discussions to inspire and
encourage some of Australia's most vulnerable young people to attend school
and stay healthy. The tour started in February in the Top End of Australia and
will roll through the Northern Territory until May. The Yothu Yindi NT Schools
Tour was sponsored by the Commonwealth Department of Family and
Community Services under the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy.
Yothu Yindi then performed at the 14th Annual East Coast International Blues &
Roots Music Festival at Byron Bay over the Easter Weekend.
Each August, the members of Yothu Yindi are involved in the annual Garma
Festival in their homelands at Gulkula, conducting workshops for indigenous
musicians from Arnhem Land communities at the Yirrnga Music Development
Studio, and presenting a showcase performance at the closing concert. Overseen
by Mandawuy Yunupingu and other members of the Yothu Yindi Foundation,
Garma has gone from strength to strength in recent years, attracting guests from
around the world who wish to experience aspects of Yolngu culture and engage
in the forums presented each year. Further information about Garma can be
found at http://www.garma.telstra.com
ORIGINS OF THE TRIBAL VOICE
The Yolngu members of Yothu Yindi live in the tribal homelands of
north-east Arnhem Land 600 kilometres east of the Northern Territory
capital of Darwin. Some live in Yirrkala, a coastal community on the Gove
Peninsula that was originally established by the Methodist Missionary
Society in 1935. Others live in the neighbouring community of Gunyangara on
the shores of Melville Bay.
Yirrkala is a community of 800 Yolngu people that serves as a resource
centre for a further 800 people who live in small family-orientated
out-stations or homelands centres in the region. (It was the move back to
out-stations or homelands centres that inspired the title song of Yothu
Yindi's debut album, Homeland Movement). A move pioneered in north-east
Arnhem Land, the homelands movement has seen Aboriginal people returning
to their traditional lands and lifestyles that rely less on the trappings of Western
society and more on traditional activities such as hunting, fishing and cultural
and ceremonial education.
Yolngu band members were drawn from two of the sixteen clan groups in the
region, the Gumatj and Rirratjingu.
The people of the region have had sustained contact with Balanda (Europeans)
only over the past sixty years or so. Consequently, their traditional cultural,
religious, artistic and ceremonial activities are still among the strongest in the
country. The band's approach to its career is deeply rooted in traditional
decision making processes, so all traditional songs that have been performed or
released have been done so as a result of substantial consultation with clan
leaders and traditional law-makers.
As vocalist Mandawuy Yunupingu told Rolling Stone : "We operate in two
aspects of reality. One is restricted (sacred); the other is unrestricted (public).
That's why I find it easy to come into the white man's world and operate, then go
back to my world without fear of losing it. I'm using white man's skills, Yolngu
skills and putting them together for a new beginning."
The processes of consultation generally involve Mandawuy's older brother,
Galarrwuy Yunupingu, leader of the Gumatj clan and chair of the Northern
Land Council. Galarrwuy, who performs traditional Gumatj songs on some of
the band's recordings, was named Australian of the Year in 1978 (sixteen
years before Mandawuy took out the same honour) and was awarded a Member
of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1985.
The band's homelands make up part of the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve
that was established in 1930. In the 1960s the Australian government
granted mining leases to a multi-national consortium to extract bauxite
from lands traditionally owned by the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans. The
clans were not consulted about the mine. Consequently, the birth of the
Aboriginal land rights movement can be directly traced to the actions of
the fathers and grandfathers of Yothu Yindi members. In consultation with
their families, the leaders of the Gumatj and Rirratjingu and other clans
presented petitions on bark to the federal government during the 1960's
calling for recognition of their traditional land tenure. Those petitions, which led
to the establishment of the Woodward Royal Commission and
ultimately the tabling of the Land Rights Act (NT) 1976, now hang in
Parliament House, Canberra.
That Yothu Yindi broke through with the hit single Treaty is indeed
appropriate, given the political sophistication of their heritage.
Yolngu society has always been based on sharing and reciprocity. In those
isolated areas in which Aboriginal culture still survives, those fundamental
tenets are as strong as ever.
Through their recorded music and their live performances, the Yolngu
members of Yothu Yindi are seeking to share aspects of their culture with
the rest of the world.
Their track record would suggest that they're achieving that.