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King Stingray’s Guide to East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory

King Stingray talk to Rolling Stone Australia for our #UpInIT series, where Australian musicians reveal their unique perspectives on the NT.

King Stingray’s lead vocalist, Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu, and the band’s two guitarists, Dimathaya Burarrwanga and Roy Kellaway, grew up in the remote community of Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. 

King Stingray emerged onto the Australian music scene 18 months ago, but the band’s origin story goes back many years. Yunupiŋu’s uncle was the late Yothu Yindi vocalist and songwriter, Mandawuy Yunupiŋu (aka Dr Yunupiŋu); Kellaway’s father, Stuart Kellaway, was Yothu Yindi’s founding bass player. As such, Yirrŋa and Roy came together at a young age and have been making music ever since.

After uniting with Burarrwanga, as well as bass player Campbell Messer and drummer Lewis Stiles, King Stingray released the debut single “Hey Wanhaka” towards the end of 2020. Three more singles have followed—“Get Me Out”, “Milkumana” and “Camp Dog”—each showcasing a funk-influenced indie rock sound that pairs ancient Indigenous melodies with guitar-led arrangements. In their own words, King Stingray specialise in “Yolŋu surf-rock.”

In a new video produced by Rolling Stone Australia and Tourism NT, King Stingray speak about their favourite places in the NT and the cherished local customs of their East Arnhem Land home.

Burarrwanga and Yunupiŋu are both proud Yolŋu people; the Yolŋu constitute the majority of the Yirrkala population. Burarrwanga describes Yirrkala as “a small remote community beside the coastal area” and a place “where we always will be.”

East Arnhem Land is renowned for its stunning coastal ecology and rich cultural and artistic history. “It’s alive, that Country,” says Kellaway. “It only takes you to go there to really feel the power and the energy from it, and the rawness of it.”

The ocean that surrounds Yirrkala is typically a clear light blue and green colour. The coastal headlands are covered in green shrubbery and native flora. “Its strong colour I think is really unique to that area,” says Kellaway. “In the whole wide world you don’t see this sort of stuff.”

Burarrwanga agrees, “It’s like a paradise place,” he says, “Everyone love to come and enjoy their time with us and learn a little bit of culture, education, and then coming down to big cities and sharing [that].”

Growing up in Yirrkala, life was relatively simple for the members of King Stingray. In addition to writing songs that merge the members’ respective cultural backgrounds and include lyrics sung in both English and Yolŋu Matha, they spent their time fishing, hunting, and enjoying outdoor cook-ups.

“It’s like a really simple life [in Yirrkala],” says Yunupiŋu. “Helping old ladies doing stuff like weaving and going out to the bush for yam and everything; making spears.”

King Stringray have quickly developed a reputation as one of the country’s most exciting new live acts. They kicked off their recent debut headline tour with a sold-out show at Melbourne’s 800-capacity Corner Hotel. Both “Get Me Out” and “Milkumana” were voted into triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2021. More recently, King Stingray were named Best New Artist at the Rolling Stone Australia Awards.

But despite the band’s growing national profile, the band members maintain deep affection for the cultural customs of their hometown. “As soon as I saw Dima today, he’s just telling me how fat the stingray are at the moment, and healthy,” says Kellaway. 

East Arnhem Land’s fresh local produce is a particular source of homesickness when the band go out on tour. “Guku season, the bush honey, everyone goes crazy for it,” says Kellaway. “Mungdjutj is another one, this berry. Just so much yummy food—you can’t get a mungdjutj in Melbourne, you can’t get fresh turtle.”

“I’m missing it,” adds Burarrwanga. Yunupiŋu too: “I’ve been missing all the meats, fresh meats, like stingray, turtle, dugong—everything.” Kellaway can’t help but laugh. “See it’s been one day and they’re already missing it,” he says.

Not far from Yirrkala is the Nhulunbuy Lookout. Nhulunbuy is the largest town in East Arnhem Land and Burarrwanga identifies the lookout as one of the area’s most significant meeting places. “It’s like a big beautiful view, watching over to Bremer [Island] where Yirrŋa grew up,” he says.

Along with being the birthplace of Yothu Yindi, Yirrkala is widely recognised for its Indigenous art. The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre is a community-controlled art centre in Yirrkala. The collection includes many yiḏaki and hollow Stringybark logs that are decorated with sacred designs using ochres and other earth pigments. 

“There is so much art that comes out of that community,” says Kellaway. “So, if you’re ever going there, you’ve got to go to the art centre.”

The Yirrkala Art Centre was established as a means of maintaining political and intellectual sovereignty for the Yolŋu people. So much of what makes King Stingray unique is down to the distinct cultural and environmental characteristics of East Arnhem Land.  

“It’s a very special place for us,” says Kellaway. “It’s home for Yolŋu people. So much of what we’re living [with] in today’s society is because of these people that have gone before us from this little community.”