Yothu Yindi's tribal voice, Mandawuy Yunupingu, dies in Outback aged 56

Mandawuy Yunupingu's passionate pleas for unity catapulted his band onto the global stage

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 3:57am


Tributes poured in yesterday for Mandawuy Yunupingu, the former lead singer of Australian indigenous band Yothu Yindi and one of the country's most famous Aborigines.

Yunupingu, 56, gained worldwide fame in the 1980s and 1990s with his hits Treaty and Tribal Voice. He died on Sunday night at his home in a tiny Outback Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory, Indigenous Health Minister Warren Snowdon said.

Officials have not released a cause of death, but Yunupingu struggled for years with kidney disease.

"We have lost a uniquely talented musician, a passionate advocate for Aboriginal people and a truly great friend," Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said yesterday.

Yunupingu began his career as a teacher and was the first indigenous Australian appointed a school principal. He developed what he called the "both ways" educational philosophy, which combined Western and Aboriginal teaching techniques.

His penchant for blending cultures carried over to his music career, with the formation of his band Yothu Yindi in 1986. The group included Aboriginal and white musicians, and won fans with its unique combination of traditional indigenous sounds and modern pop and rock. Yothu Yindi, which released six albums, toured the United States and Canada as a support act to Midnight Oil and toured Australia with Neil Young.

The band's most famous song, Treaty, was written in response to an unrealised promise of then-prime minister Bob Hawke in 1988 - the bicentennial of European settlement in Australia - to formalise a treaty between the government and Aborigines. In 1992, Yothu Yindi performed the song in New York at the launch of the United Nations' International Year of the World's Indigenous People.

"He led a band that performed and played its songs and expressed very strongly his culture in all parts of the world," Education Minister and former Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett said. "His legacy is immeasurable, but the loss is great."

Yunupingu was named the 1992 Australian of the Year for his role in "building bridges of understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people".

In recent years, he was forced to undergo dialysis three times a week as he struggled with kidney disease. In 2009, he told ABC television he had battled alcoholism before he was diagnosed. Alcohol was not the direct cause of his kidney failure, but worsened his health problems.

"I had the whole world in front of me, and this small, little kidney problem got me right where it hurts," he told the ABC.