Meet King Stingray: Surf Rock Band Yolngu Traveling Two Worlds
With just three songs released, Yothu Yindi’s surf rock offspring King Stingray captured the nation’s attention. The band’s lead guitarist talks to us about old songs, land rights and life in Yirrkala, Arnhem Land.
Hearing the music of King Stingray for the first time is like being immersed in the ocean.
You’re overwhelmed by the swell of harmonics created by contemporary instruments, like Roy Kellaway’s salty surf-rock guitar, fused with age-old songs and instruments. Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu’s voice, which slips between the English and Yolŋu Matha languages, keeps you spellbound.
“We have a lot of stories to share”, says guitarist Roy CityMag by phone from his home in Yirrkala, in north-east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.
“Having grown up in such a place with so many amazing experiences, we are very excited about our surroundings and the things around us.”
Friday morning CityMag calls, Roy tells us he won’t be surfing today. He is currently doing the laundry and will see his sister and niece later. Despite the hype surrounding King Stingray, he maintains a fairly humble lifestyle.
“We’re not full-fledged rockstars yet,” he jokes.
King Stingray burst onto the scene in August 2020 with his psychology-infused single ‘Hey Wanhaka’. Through humming yidakis (didgeridoos), percussive bilma beats (clapsticks) and fuzzy electric guitars, the sound and feel of this remote pocket of northern Australia (which in 2011 had a population of 843) can be felt.
Since their debut, the six musicians have released two additional singles, the sentimental “Get Me Out” and funk-infused “Milkumana,” which also weave Western musical phrases with traditional Yolŋu ideas and instruments.
Despite their small back catalog, King Stingray has also been nominated for a host of awards and even secured places 46 and 56 in the 2021 Triple J Hottest 100 Countdown.
At its purest level, it’s about friendship and family – and it’s this band.
“Yirrŋa sings traditional manikay, which are songs that are thousands of years old, and with that he has the power given to him by the bilma, which are the clapsticks,” Roy explains.
“Through the traditional dance, through the bilma and through the didge (the yidaki), [that’s] the traditional elements of the group. And then we have kind of a classic rock setup, where we have guitars and big sounds and big drums and big bass.
Making political music is in the band’s blood. Roy is the son of Yothu Yindi bassist Stuart Kellaway and he goes by the name of Roy Marika, a much-loved leader of the Rirratingu people living in northeast Arnhem Land.
Marika was involved in the 1971 Nabalco land rights case, which played a significant role in bolstering Aboriginal title claims by Indigenous peoples in Australia.
“So much leadership has come out of this community, from Yirrkala,” Roy says.
Vocalist Yirrŋa is also related to Yothu Yindi, as the nephew of that band’s late lead singer Dr. M Yunupiŋu. The ’80s political pop band were best known for their single “Treaty.”
Yothu Yindi’s descendants grew up on the same street as bandmate Dimathaya Burarrwanga, who sings backing vocals and plays rhythm guitar and yidaki for the band.
Roy says that making music with a philosophy similar to that of his and Yirrŋa’s ancestors was not a choice, it seems fundamental.
“At its purest level, it’s about friendship and family – and it’s this band,” Roy says of King Stingray.
“Dr. M Yunupiŋu from Yothu Yindi always talked about balancing two worlds, and that’s Yolŋu law and Western law, in terms of ideology. I guess for us it’s important to celebrate Yolŋu culture and we do that through our own contemporary lens.
They also create space for Yolŋu men and women to practice culture in a contemporary way – culture that is now filmed and uploaded to Instagram, and collected in annual best-of lists.
They also bring in linguists to help transcribe Yolŋu lyrics, which is not something that has traditionally been done for oral language.
“We certainly aren’t the pioneers of it and there have been so many amazing people before us who have had a voice and are huge advocates for things that people are passionate about, whether it’s culture, political injustice or social injustice,” says Roy.
“Just for us, I think having a scene, having [the] a space to share a story across language and across English, and putting it in a way that people can enjoy and dance to is an added bonus.
“Language is so important to culture, and I guess having languages makes your culture.”
King Stingray will perform at the three-day WOMADelaide world music festival in March as part of a national tour.
When asked what people can expect from King Stingray’s WOMAD set, Roy stops.
“Expect to feel the power and feel the energy that’s edgy, raw and pretty wild,” he says. “And also, I guess, moving at the same time.”