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Byron Shire
March 8, 2021

M. Yunupingu – A tribute to a voice and soul that helped a generation join in reconciliation

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Ian Browne, Independent Academia

This week saw the passing of a wonderful soul who helped transform the cultural landscape of Australia in the modern era. In respect to Yolngu culture, I will refrain from speaking his name, but will instead say M. Yunupingu.

It is such a great honour to be asked to write this tribute of M. Yunupingu for The Echo, as I have gained so much in my life from my connection to Yolngu, while living and working alongside this leader’s family in Darwin (Yolngu is pronounced Yoong-oo).

From the land of baru (crocodile) and lindirritj (lorikeet) M. Yunupingu, a Yolngu elder of Yirritja moiety from the Gumajt clan in Yirrkala, north-eastern Arnhem Land, lived his life with great spirit and conviction. Whether displaying his irresistible passion for song and dance, or when improving the health and education of his community, his grand aim was to share the positives of his culture with all Australians. M. Yunupingu was the first Aboriginal man to become a school principal and set out to document Yolngu culture as a safeguard for future generations. He also taught both Yolngu and Western ways of learning, thus restoring the Yolngu matha language. Sharing lineage with powerful Yolngu cousins the Marikas, his uncle was the first Indigenous Australian to sign for land rights agreements in 1975.

M. Yunupingu and his brother Galarrwuy Yunupingu, became strong leaders, not only in the Top End, but across Australia, where people sought out their assurances in land title agreements and cultural protocol. But it was his music that M. Yunupingu will be remembered for by many, as a whole generation were spiritually refreshed by an Aboriginal voice and soul that opened the door for all people to explore the tropical coastline and culture of NE Arnhem Land.

The late 80s and early 90s were a return to the psychedelic peace and love times of the 60s, but now dance parties and ‘raves’ doofed-out amongst the urban landscapes of the UK, Europe, US and Australia. Yothu Yindi’s kaleidoscope of beats and growling yidaki (didge) were in the thick of it. Famous around the globe, and filling our hearts with joy, as colourful body-painted Yolngu culture back-flipped its way along the white sands of Yirrkala and among the sacred cycads of its tropical woodlands, M. Yunupingu’s voice and charisma charmed us all. In 1992 he was named Australian of the Year with his bringing together of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal folk in the corroboree of modern life.

My short time around this intriguing person was spent in humble respect, as strength and health slowly drifted from his body. While sipping coffee in Darwin with M. Yunupingu and his wife Yalmay, a strong, intelligent Yolngu woman, a balanda friend of theirs asked me if I knew M. Yunupingu. I turned and nodded a calm smile towards M. Yunupingu as I proudly stated, ‘Yes, I teach his nephews and nieces’. The smile of joy and love that leapt from his tired face filled me with pride and purpose, and this moment of shared trust and commitment to his people will stay with me forever.

Yolngu culture is colourful, rich and dynamic, and now a great Yolngu leader has passed. But it is each and every one of us that have lost a friend and mentor. Now his spirit moves towards the Dreamtime and sinks within the vibrant sunset of Arnhem Land, among the sweet nectar of Melaleuca flower, this gift to cheeky lindirritj, as his soul now swims the warm turquoise seas where baru holds his tale in keep.

Goodbye M. Yunupingu, we will enjoy your song and story in the next life. And though sadness sweeps this old red land, we will remember you and help nurture the gift of your people forever more.

Out of respect for the family of the late M. Yunupingu we have not included a photograph of him.

This article was first published on Ian Browne’s website at Independent Academia.

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