Legendary band Yothu Yindi and their pioneer call for treaty

Review: Writing in the Sand: The Epic Tale of Legendary Band Yothu Yindi and How Their Song Treatise Gave a Voice to a Movement by Matt Garrick (ABC Books)

Readers are cautioned that this article contains representations of deceased persons. Special thanks to Witiyana Marika of Yothu Yindi for confirming that it is acceptable to publish the name of the late Mandawuy Yunupiŋu.


Few musicians have had such a profound impact on the cultural and political life of Australia as those of Yothu Yindi. Formed in 1986, this revolutionary group brought together indigenous musicians from the Yolŋu town of Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land and their non-natives, or Balanda, friends who played in a Darwin band called the Swamp Jockeys.

Their union became fertile ground for new musical dialogues between very different styles, cultures and ideas with the group’s innovative songs drawing inspiration from musical elements and yolŋu lyrics.

Their sources were Manikay, the ancestral tradition of Yolŋu songs performed during public ceremonies, and Alreadytpaŋarri, a playful and exuberant folk song composed and performed by young men in Yirrkala from the 1930s to the 1970s. These overt borrowings gave Yothu Yindi their distinctive sound.

Sung in English and Yolŋu, Yothu Yindi’s early hits included fiery rock anthems such as Djäpana: Sunset Dreaming and Treaty. These songs affirmed traditional ideas and values ​​for local Yolŋu audiences, while resonating across Australia with the Aboriginal reconciliation movement of the early 1990s.

The group’s biggest success story, Treaty, released in 1991, was informed by the deep sorrow of the Yirrkala community following their 1971 defeat to the Supreme Court in a case brought against the bauxite mine that had consumed their surrounding land. .

The song was instrumental in popularizing calls for the Australian government to negotiate a treaty with indigenous peoples in recognition of their human rights and unceded sovereignty.

Despite the gravity of such themes in many Yothu Yindi songs, the group’s generosity of spirit towards people from all walks of life shone.

Having grown into an increasingly diverse group of musicians over time, Yothu Yindi championed his own vision of an Australia in which indigenous peoples and others could live together in mutual respect and harmony.



Read more: My Favorite Album: Yothu Yindi’s Tribal Voice


A hymn for all Australians

Writing in the Sand: The Epic Story of Legendary Band Yothu Yindi and How their Song Treaty Gave Voice to a Movement is a new book by Matt Garrick, an award-winning writer and ABC News reporter based in Darwin. It is both Garrick’s first book and the group’s first biography.

Writing in the Sand marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Treaty. The title of the book is taken from the first verse of the song, which laments Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s broken 1988 promise to make a treaty with indigenous peoples during his lifetime of parliament.

As the first book to fully chronicle Yothu Yindi’s globetrotting career, Writing in the Sand deepens our understanding of the accomplishments of this remarkable group. He brings together a multitude of diverse voices to bring this story to life, vividly illustrated by unpublished photos from the group’s archives.

Much love and care was taken to respect and honor the memories of deceased musicians, including late Yothu Yindi singer Mandawuy Yunupiŋu, as well as Slim Dusty, who toured with the band.

Their contributions are contextualized through Garrick’s in-depth interviews with Yothu Yindi musicians, including Witiyana Marika, Stu Kellaway and Jodie Cockatoo, as well as Yunupiŋu’s widow, Yalmay Marika-Yunupiŋu, and a wide range of collaborating artists, including Peter Garrett, Paul Kelly, Neil Finn, Joy McKean, Bart Willoughby and Andrew Farriss.

These interviews beautifully illustrate the humanity of Yothu Yindi’s creative process. For example, when Kelly joined Yunupiŋu on his ancestral homeland at Biranybirany, together they wrote the first lines of the Treaty as a hymn for all Australians.

The book also touches on the early musical influences that shaped Yothu Yindi’s sound, from the band’s formative affinity of Yolŋu musicians with Slim Dusty, to the irreverent country originals of the Swamp Jockeys in a 1980s Darwin flooded with cover bands from blues.

Find a balance

The name Yothu Yindi means child and mother. the yothu – yindi relationships between children and mothers, and their mala, or clans, is fundamental to maintaining the systemic balance within Yolŋu society.

This principle provided a basis for the inclusion of the group of musicians from a wide range of backgrounds and influences from around the world. Its importance is engagingly explained in the book through the words of WitIyana Marika.



Read more: Friday Essay: How Indigenous Songs Tell Deep Tales of Trade Between Australia and South East Asia


The book also mentions the important Yolŋu concept of Georgiammom, the balanced encounter of fresh and salt water from certain estuaries. This metaphor of the meeting of different cultures and knowledge inspired and informed Yunupiŋu’s prolific career as an educator and musician.

Even in this time of growing hyper-partisanship on a global scale, as perceived differences threaten to overwhelm our common humanity, Yothu Yindi offers us these uniquely Australian lessons on the intrinsic value of social harmony and harmony. mutual respect in creating a more inclusive world. for everyone.

In an Australia that has yet to make a treaty with indigenous peoples, Yothu Yindi is more relevant than ever.

The Gupapuyŋu app is a free download from Charles Darwin University that provides a pronunciation guide for the Yolŋu language.

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