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YOTHU YINDI Writing in the Sand by Matt Garrick

YOTHU YINDI Writing in the Sand by Matt Garrick

Review by Ian Browne Shamrock News

This is a very insightful book about Australian music and culture. Authorised band biographer, ABC journalist Matt Garrick, also worked as Yothu Yindi’s media coordinator. With Mandawuy Yunupingu and Witiyana Marika at the helm, in 1986 Yothu Yindi started out in Yirrkala, Eastern Arnhem Land. In Yolngu Matha (“Yoong-oo matha”) …. Yothu and Yindi means ‘mother & son relationship’, balancing respectfully the intricacies of Yolnu kinship. Arriving at the soul of their groove with rock, country, reggae − and hollering out ceremonial manikay (Yolnu songlines) − in time a connection to a nightclub owner in Melbourne allowed electronica to flush this fusion out to wider audiences.

Front man and ‘Australian of the Year’, Mandawuy Yunupingu’s ambition was to sing of the need for reconciliation, of treaty; communicating Indigenous plight by means of a spiritually invested partnership between black and white in this country. As Paul Kelly states in this book, Mandawuy always promoted ‘balance’. It’s true, he was calm and gentle, his approach was inviting, Mandawuy’s music invigorating, allowing time for various perspectives to have their time in the tropical Top End sun. The Yothu Yindi machine also included a couple of hardworking, humourous white fellas, like Stu Kellaway, whose relationship to Yolngu band members was fostered during a time when Mandawuy lived in Darwin and Humpty Doo, hitting the stage with bands like the Swamp Jockeys. Hugely popular in countries like Brazil, the Yothu Yindi outfit travelled the planet to places as far afield as Denmark and South Africa. Further enhancing their message through music, they also teamed up with the likes of Neil Finn, Peter Garret, The Oils in general, the thoughtful and reflective Paul Kelly and others. All the band members tap you on the shoulder for a yarn: the young Yolngu ladies who danced and sung in the early days, to Cairns’ flamboyant Jodie Cockatoo, the coming and going of yidaki (didg) players, and drummers like Papua’s Ben Hakalitz. Of course, as expected, we are further enlightened the many talents of Gurrumal Yunupingu. I also enjoyed the discussion related to the contemporary aspirations of the children of both balanda (non-indigenous) and Yolnu Yothu Yindi, such as Yirrmal and Roy Kellaway in the surf rock band King Stingray.

You will enjoy the international tours, the comradery, the way the Yolngu members of the band rubbed shoulders with the locals as they danced and thundered the yidaki through the streets of places like Harlem. But through these pages we also have to face up to the passing of time, the passing of life. I myself was a small part of this journey. While living and working with Yothu Yindi siblings in Darwin (Marika and Yunupingu) as their coordinator in education, I used to chat to Mandawuy over coffee while he was sadly enduring kidney dialysis. More so, I spoke with his wife Yalmay, an educator at Charles Darwin University, who features throughout the book with her valued insights into the couple’s life. Like many non-indigenous Australians, I too mourned the passing of Mandawuy and Gurrumul.

This book takes you on the long journey to a treaty that has been promised, but never arrived. The transformation of time with music, the insight into the way Yolnu think and feel; the coming together of all clans to share wisdom in the ‘public arena’ − a term known as “Garma”, it is a colourful, fun, and knowledgeable book to spend many a day with.


*While I was chatting over coffee with Mandawuy at the Cool Spot café in Darwin’s leafy Fannie Bay, I accidentally mispronounced “Yolnu”. I knew how to say it correctly of course, but for some reason I mispronounced it. It was a large balanda fella, not a Yolnu man accompanying Mandawuy who sternly corrected me.

I replied to the man: “Yes, I know how to say Yolnu correctly”, then nodding to Mandawuy, “because I teach his nephews”.

A big smile erupted over Mandawuy’s face, one that has graced many over the years. Like Mandawuy’s mate, I too am annoyed when one of the Yolnu leaders or musicians passes over and the journo’s around Oz don’t even bother to pronounce Yolnu correctly, just saying the title as it reads. Oh, come on, since Yothu Yindi took on the planet the nation of Yolnu has been the most widely announced first nation’s cultural group in our media, and yet almost none of the non-indigenous journo’s bother to try and pronounce it correctly, even when they are there with Yolnu in Arnhem Land themselves!

I am equally annoyed when southern region Indigenous Australians say Yolnu incorrectly too. Yolnu was grossly sounded out incorrectly on a well-known rap hit on Triple J, the singer loudly broadcasting “Yolnu” as how he decided it should sound.

Always “ Yoong – oo ” NEVER Yong-oo … or Yoln- oo.

Two O’s not one! “Yoong – oo”

Picture sourced via Australian Music Database


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