01 Jul 2013

Eulogy for Dr Yunupingu

Eulogy for Dr Yunupingu




He called me brother. He called the whole country and the whole world brother and sister. So Brother is what I’ll call him today.


I first met Brother and his band in Chicago over 20 years ago when I saw them open for Midnight Oil. The first thing I remember about him was his huge beaming smile, his proud head, his curly hair, his colourful headband  – him standing in his jeans in the middle of a great spectacle of sound and dance. Backstage in our very first conversation he quoted a line from one of my songs that talked about the ‘honey sun’ and said “Honey sun – that’s my dreaming”.  I only realized later that within seconds of meeting me he had effortlessly and generously linked our cultures and found common ground.


This is what he did – not just with me but with so many he encountered. He found the meeting place, the hinge, the point of balance. When he invited me to this country in 1991 to work on Yothu Yindi’s second album and to write a song about the treaty I was struck by how many times he used that word ‘balance’. Sitting around the campfire at Birany Birany where we started the song he talked about balance – between parent and child, dhuwa and yirritja, freshwater and saltwater.  That balance was at the heart of his world-view and at the heart of his band who blended the tribal and the modern, balanda and yolngul, art and politics, seriousness and celebration. They were much more than a band. They were a physical philosophy. A philosophy you could dance to.


Yothu Yindi’s first album had traditional songs and modern rock songs. But they were on separate tracks. For their second record Brother very consciously, very deliberately, sought to blend those elements within the songs. Balance. This was how he and the band discovered their style. And in doing so they pioneeered a style that continues to reverberate today. English verses would suddenly give way to manikay, drums to bilmah, bass to yidakis. Then back again. Then all together. Their music expressed both the duality of his culture and the duality of Australian culture in general. Balance. Two ways. Two waters. Two tracks.

That music went round the world. In this country and in others young people were  inspired to pick up instruments and play. You can hear and see Yothu Yindi’s influence everywhere. You can hear it and see it directly in bands that sound and look like them in some ways. But their influence is much wider and more subtle than that. Their example has given pride and encouragement to indigenous bands all over the country. And still does. And to all bands, singers and artists they have shown a way. All great art contains contradictions and struggles to reconcile opposites. This was Yothu Yindi’s daily work, their daily bread. Balance. And we are all richer for it.


Balance is the heart of life, the heart of art, the heart of the dance. Thank you, Man of Balance. Thank you, Brother. Long may you dance!


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