Life begins with music


Mandawuy Yunupiŋu, lead singer of Yothu Yindi, talks to Aaron Corn about his cultural heritage

AARON CORN: Mandawuy, you've enjoyed a distinguished career as one of Australia's foremost cultural ambassadors. How did music become such an enormous part of your life?

MANDAWUY YUNUPIŊU: Well, you know, Aaron, that music is integral to Yolŋu life where I come from up in Arnhem Land. When Yolŋu are born, they carry that special gift, especially males, who have music running in their blood. So when a person is born, they are automatically exposed to music. I grew up at Yirrkala [in the Northern Territory] where there were only a handful of white missionaries, so my exposure to song and dance was immense where I come from.

AC: Social-justice themes spanning a whole range of issues including land rights, indigenous sovereignties, religious freedom, race relations and, of course, cultural survival are found throughout Yothu Yindi's repertoire. When did you first become aware that you could use music as a means of educating people about the social justice concerns of indigenous Australians?

MY: I think that, in a contemporary way of looking at it, my exposure to the Western way in the classroom, learning Western types of music and adjusting to them, and getting to know the meanings behind them was a task on its own. I think that was the drive that made me want to switch it all around and use my Yolŋu thinking to combine the Western way with the Yolŋu way so that others might understand Yolŋu perspectives. I think that was my objective.

AC: You were born in 1956 at the Yirrkala Mission, which the Methodists founded in 1934. What was it like growing up in that environment?

MY: Well, I grew up in a semi-nomadic lifestyle, and when I wasn't going to school, my father and mother would take me out and go hunting, following the seasons of course, so there was that balance in my education. My mother taught me all the things that I should know about, all the types of things that were in season on the land, and my father taught me things that were in season too, especially the big game. So I had balance in learning how to follow the seasons and going to school as well. There was a big push for me to pick up academic skills, as well as being exposed to and knowing the Western way.

AC: Can you describe the kind of relationship you have to your own Gumatj countries, and how that differs from kinds of relationships you have with your mother's countries and your mother's mother's country, because references to these places and their law crop up again and again in your repertoire?

MY: Okay, well you need to understand the yothu-yindi or 'childmother' structure. Yothu-yindi is a structure that all Yolŋu recognise, and in this worldview, everyone is either Dhuwa or Yirritja.

AC: Your two constitutions.

MY: Yeah, both are equal, parallel and balanced, and everybody has a responsibility to both. So I'm responsible to my father's group which is Yirritja, and I have an extra responsibility to my mother's group which is Dhuwa. I'm an owner in Gumatj country and law. But I am like a manager or a djuŋgayi to my mother's country and law, and to her Gälpu songs and dances. You can see it in ceremonies when djuŋgayi manage their mother's law. Likewise, a Dhuwa person born from my sisters, they have extra responsibilities to our side.

AC: You can potentially inherit from your mother's mother group as well, because once you skip a generation along the mother's line, you're under the same constitution again.

MY: That's right. That's the mother's mother. It's the gutharra-märi (mother's mother-daughter's child) relationship, and that is an important and powerful way to pass responsibility to the next generation.

AC: So really, this system provides a comprehensive set of checks and balances between different Yolŋu groups who might otherwise compete for country and resources.

MY: Well you know, it's just one of those things that Yolŋu have had since day one. We came up with a very acute way of seeing the world, and how things should be shared equally within society without making a federal case out of it.

AC: Speaking of which, Baywara, the song named after your mother's Olive Python ancestor, beautifully describes the concepts that underpin Yolŋu sovereignty. How did you come to compose Baywara?

MY: This is a special song. In 1991, my uncle Dadayŋa Marika, who is considered to be the father of land rights, passed away. We were recording our second album, Tribal Voice, at that time, and when he passed away, we were in a mobile studio at Gunyaŋara. We were sitting outside that evening when he passed away, and we could see lightning talking over the sea and over the freshwater. These two snakes were talking to each other in the freshwater and the saltwater and that inspired me to write this song about Baywara. Dadayŋa was a master of that philosophy and he taught a lot of the ways that Yolŋu are initiated through it.

AC: The song's chorus describes Baywara as 'Maker of the Land, Maker of the Song, Maker of the Constitution'. How do you understand the relationships between those three entities: land, song and constitution?

MY: It's all integral, all one. You can't isolate one from the other. It's all interwoven very tightly and immovably. That is written in our bark paintings, on our log coffins, which are like giant scrolls, and in the many songs sung in any of Arnhem Land's languages. Everyone recognises this. Even down in central Australia where they sing with boomerangs, they talk about the same thing. It's the law. It's the basis from where we come.

AC: How would you describe your own relationship with ancestors, including the people you've known in life, through your own practice as a musician and dancer?

MY: Yeah, if you ever see people dancing at a big ceremony, whether they be Shark people or Stingray people… At that funeral at Dhanaya, you saw my family and me dancing Bäru (Saltwater Crocodile), the Maralitja man. Bäru is another name for Maralitja. Maralitja discovered fire in the beginning. So when you're dancing Bäru, you become. You're transformed into Maralitja. And that's when you say, when talking to the people, that 'I'm the Maralitja. I own the land. I own that philosophy. I own that knowledge. I hold copyright over that land and you can't take that away from me'. The other mala are the same. When the Shark people are doing their Shark dance, they're transformed into the Shark man ancestor. So that's how one becomes transformed into something they want to show, they want to tell, in that most classical way. The classical way of making your point be known is by doing it in unity and strength with your mala. And of course, the yothu-yindi balance is always there in that strength and unity.