Home Music Music Features

‘Nobody Had Ever Seen Anything Quite Like Them’: What Made Yothu Yindi So Special

Mark NAIDOC Week by reading Midnight Oil legend Peter Garrett’s 2020 reflection on the success of Yothu Yindi

Yothu Yindi

It’s NAIDOC Week 2024, so we’re taking the opportunity to reflect on some of the most significant Indigenous artists that have changed Australian music.

Back in 2020, Rolling Stone Australia unveiled the 50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time issue, which paid tribute to the most impactful artists in Australian music history.

The mighty Northern Territory band Yothu Yindi were an unsurprising inclusion, making it to #38 on the countdown.

For the special issue, Midnight Oil legend Peter Garrett penned some words on Yothu Yindi and what made them so special, which you can read in full below.

Back in the day whilst travelling in the Top End, I met a young Indigenous trainee teacher on the northeast coast of Arnhem Land. It’s a place of coastal mangroves and paperbark forests where the Yolngu people have lived for eons.

With an acoustic guitar at his side that person, now known as Dr M Yunupingu, told me he wanted to form a band that would take Yolngu culture far and wide. Not long after, Yothu Yindi (loose translation, “child and mother”) emerged.

Including the now-famous Gurumul Yunupingu on keyboards and guitar, Witiyana Marika dancing and playing traditional clapsticks, alongside white fellas Stu Kellaway and Cal Williams, Yothu Yindi were distinct and different, fusing modern pop/rock with traditional music and language, underpinned by a philosophy called ‘both ways’.

‘Both ways’ envisioned black and white working together, respecting each other’s cultures and forging a united, fairer nation. In time Yothu Yindi took this perspective across Australia and later the world – a singular achievement.

Their best-known song “Treaty”, released early in their career, is a good example.

Incensed by the broken promise of then Prime Minister Bob Hawke for a treaty between Australia and Aboriginal people, “Treaty” demanded a document of reckoning to expunge the stain on Australia’s conscience due to the theft of First Nations’ land by British colonists. Paul Kelly and l helped in the writing, Mark Moffat produced – a ‘both ways’ moment.

The first version went nowhere. But a dance remix by Filthy Lucre saw it became a radio hit as listeners across the country heard – many for the first time – the Aboriginal language Gumatj, in a song directly addressing one of the most crucial issues of our time. Regrettably one still not resolved.

During the Nineties, Midnight Oil toured with Yothu Yindi in the US where nobody had ever seen anything quite like them.  

We used to hang side stage watching the band in full flight, with dancers and backing singers painted in traditional markings exhorting the crowd to rise up and listen. The didge throbbing like the heartbeat of the continent, the music rolling off the stage like the tide, carrying the words to places unknown.

They made six albums, with Tribal Voice my favourite, and played all over including at the closing of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Since the tragic early death of Dr M Yunupingu in 2013, they have ploughed on as Yothu Yindi and The Treaty Project. Yirrmal Marika, Dr Y’s grandson, joined us at the Domain in Sydney for a version of “Treaty” to close off The Great Circle tour in 2018. Thirty years later still performing, still getting the message out – some band.