NATIONAL: The world got to know Yothu Yindi in the early ’90s when their song Treaty was given a dance makeover by remix duo Filthy Lucre, cementing the band as the first poster boys for Aboriginal pop.
Treaty peaked at No.11 in the ARIA singles chart in 1992, picking up eight ARIA Awards, including song of the year, and reached No.6 in the US Billboard dance chart and No.72 in the mainstream chart.
In that same year Yothu Yindi represented Australia at the launch of the United Nation’s International Year of Indigenous Peoples at the UN Headquarters in New York. A year later frontman Mandawuy Yunupingu was named Australian of the Year.
After being invited to tour the US with Midnight Oil, the band from Arnhem Land played at the inaugural Big Day Out in Sydney and can boast the rare feat of having performed on a bill above Nirvana.
Twenty years on, Yothu Yindi will become the latest band to be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. Mandawuy says the honour extends far beyond the band he founded with Stuart Kellaway, Cal Williams, Witiyana Marika, Milkayngu Mununggurr and future solo star Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.
“It’s a great honour for Yothu Yindi and for my family and my community and for Australia because we want us all to be in the same boat sailing towards the future,” Mandawuy says.
“I’m looking forward to an interesting celebration of us being inducted into the Hall Of Fame and that many friends in music and our community will come and celebrate with us.”
Treaty, the song Yothu Yindi will perform at the ARIAs, was inspired by the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations when Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke visited the Northern Territory, promising a treaty with indigenous Australians.
One of the first songs to combine traditional Aboriginal sounds with modern pop and rock, its legacy was ensured with the catch-phrase “well I heard it on the radio / and I saw it on the television”.
Mandawuy says he revealed the lyrics to his friend Paul Kelly over a fishing trip and between them Treaty was born, the song later recorded in Darwin.
“When Bob Hawke was in power he came up to the Barunga Festival and met up with the elders there and said there was going to be a treaty between black and white Australia,” recalls Mandawuy.
“I couldn’t come to the festival itself but I saw it on the TV and heard it on the radio so that’s where the lyrics came from.
“Paul Kelly came up and I took him out fishing and we came back with a big fish and had that for dinner sitting around a big campfire with our guitars trying to write a song.”
Treaty has been named by APRA as one of the Top 30 Australian songs and Mandawuy is hopeful the latest honour will throw further weight behind its message.
“It’s achieved a lot and lingered in people’s minds and made people think twice about a treaty,” he says.
“It’s coming round to a point where currently Australia is talking about constitutional inclusion of Aboriginal people… so that’s a beginning in the right direction.”
Now focused on the future, Yothu Yindi have recorded their first song in 12 years to feature on a forthcoming greatest hits album.
Healing Stone, written with INXS tunesmith Andrew Farriss, is a personal song for Mandawuy as it tackles end-stage renal disease, the illness he was diagnosed with in 2008.
“I just hope that this song, and telling my story, helps build understanding and action – action to improve prevention and treatment of this dietary affliction and help create a better future for my people,” Mandawuy says.
* Healing Stone: The Best Of Yothu Yindi is released on November 30.