Charting the genius of Yothu Yindi

22 October 2009

For the first time, the history and music of the multi-award winning Australian band Yothu Yindi has been documented in a new book by Aaron Corn, a University of Sydney academic, ethnomusicologist and long-time colleague of lead singer Mr* Yunupingu.

Titled Reflections & Voices: Exploring the music of Yothu Yindi with Mr Yunupingu, the book traces history of the band, which formed in 1986 and was rooted in the traditions of the Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land.

"Yunupingu's bold new approach to song composition took rock music and embedded it with ancestral themes and direct quotations from the Yolngu Manikay tradition that his own people would instantly recognise," says Dr Corn.

"They combined the sounds and instrumentation of western rock 'n' roll with songs and performances that date back tens of thousands of years. This is the deeper story of Yothu Yindi's genius that is yet to be told."

The band's first album, Tribal Voice, featured Yothu Yindi's first hit single "Treaty", the first song by a predominately-Aboriginal band to chart in Australia. In 1991 it spent 22 weeks in the national charts, and was the first song in any Aboriginal Australian language (Yolngu-Matha) to gain extensive international recognition, peaking at number six on the international Billboard dance charts.

Co-written by Paul Kelly and the now Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garret, "Treaty" was a plea for reconciliation sparked by former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke's 1988 commitment to negotiate a formal Treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

"They captured hearts in Australia that proudly shed the harmful conceit of terra nullius, and they introduced Treaty to this nation's political vocabulary," says Dr Corn.

In 1993, Mr Yunupingu was named 1992 Australian of the Year. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Yothu Yindi toured extensively in Australia and overseas, released nine albums and penned a series of hits, including "Tribal Voice", "World Turning" and "Treaty".

Reflections & Voices covers the key events in the career of Yothu Yindi, as well as setting out the cultural, historical and political context the band emerged from. Key songs and music are reproduced, with detailed reflections and analysis from both Dr Corn and Mr Yunupingu.

"When few had heard of the Yolngu or of Arnhem Land, Yothu Yindi's message struck a chord," says Marcia Langton in the epilogue. "Listeners were asked to imagine a life that was beautiful, to wonder about ideas carried in metaphors, to hear sounds with profound meanings, and to feel Yunupingu's emotional bond with his ancestors and all that they have given in this world."

Reflections & Voices: Exploring the music of Yothu Yindi with Mr Yunupingu ($49.95) is published by Sydney University Press.

* The first name of this singer, educator and leader of his people has been deleted and replaced with the term 'Mr' out of respect for an Indigenous Australian custom, as well as the wishes of his family.

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Kath Kenny, 02 9351 1584, 0478 303 173,